Scribner Seminar Program
What's the Big Idea?
Instructor(s): Robert Boyers, English
Students in this seminar will examine the role—and the meaning –of ideas in the culture of the last one hundred and fifty years. They will study a variety of essays, two novels, two stories and three films focused on particular ideas and think about the ways ideas are shaped, promoted, argued against, trivialized or distorted, observing how an idea can seem compelling, or vicious, or dubious, or ridiculous, or inspiring when presented in a polemical or analytic essay or in a work of fiction or film. Students will pay close attention to questions of intention, audience, form, balance, fairness, complexity and tone, and will think as well about what happens to ideas when they become popular or influential in the life of a culture.
In examining a wide range of approaches to ideas, students will be asked throughout to bear in mind the cautionary words of the poet T.S. Eliot, who said of the novelist Henry James that “he had a mind so fine it could never be violated by ideas.” What does it mean, we shall ask, to be violated by ideas? Why is it that many people who whole-heartedly endorse the idea of “identity” then go on to simple-mindedly think that their own identities are primarily defined by narrow endowments like race or gender or sexual preference or nationality? Why should many, many minds be violated when they become obsessed with what look like attractive ideas? The works studied in this course will enable students to think clearly about such matters, and will provoke heated discussion.
No formal “methodology” will be involved in the conduct of this seminar, which will be marked by discussion, the steady, comfortable, sometimes heated exchanging of views among people who will have a shared foundation in the texts studied but will bring to those texts widely divergent backgrounds and assumptions. As in any meaningful discussion focused on serious ideas, all participants will strive to identify, as they proceed, the particular assumptions that figure in their own responses and to adjust those assumptions, wherever possible or plausible, in light of their reading and their interactions with other students in the seminar.