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Great Books at Hopkins

An introduction to the humanities at Johns Hopkins and an exploration of some of the Western world’s most important literary works of art.

Great Books at Hopkins is a course designed for first-year undergraduates that examines some of the greatest works of the literary and philosophical tradition in Europe and the Americas.  With lectures, panel discussions, multimedia presentations, and small seminars, professors from a variety of academic disciplines lead students in exploring authors from Homer to the present.  Close reading and intensive writing instruction are hallmarks of the course, as is a varied reading list which has included Dante’s Inferno, Cervante’s Don Quixote, and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

The course features

* An emphasis on close readings, literary analysis and criticism, and student writing.
* A multimedia approach (including live opera performances).
* Close interaction with accomplished Johns Hopkins faculty of diverse backgrounds in the humanities.

What Does It Mean To Be Human?

Definitions of the humanities have arisen at many times and places, but the most relevant period is fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy, when writers such as Petrarch began reacting to the structure of the medieval university and the emphases of medieval society. The medieval university fitted men for one of three professions: medicine, law, or theology. Theology was called the "queen of the sciences," its subject considered most important. In the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament, the answer to the question "What does it mean to be human?" was to be created "in the image of God" (Genesis 1:26-27).

Some writers felt the Biblical focus was too narrow because it presumed that Christianity was both morally and intellectually superior to the European cultures it had replaced, including the "pagan" cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. So, these dissident writers decided to go back to the basics of education. Before taking an advanced university degree, the medieval student had to spend time with the studies of humanity--in the university department called the faculty of arts. The arts subjects--language, literature, history, and moral philosophy--prepared students for the specialized study of theology, law, or medicine. Instruction was in Latin, and the arts subjects offered glimpses into societies very different from Europe in the Middle Ages]

Until the late nineteenth century, to study the humanities at the university mostly meant studying the classics:  ancient Greek and Roman literature. In 1877, a British royal commission recommended that the study of English literature be offered to "women and the second- and third-rate men who become schoolmasters." During the nineteenth century, universities such as Johns Hopkins made the study of literature in English and other modern languages a fundamental component of the modern university curriculum.

Today, most businesses—including medicine—consider the humanities a vital part of the university education. Humanistic study teaches skills, particularly in the area of critical thinking, that are vital to successful action in the practical sphere, pleasurable to the life of the mind, and valuable to the humane functioning of a society.

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