10 Recommended Courses for a Liberal Arts Education


In years past, the Tory’s benefactor and my friend Daniel Mark would send to many undergraduates his recommended classes for the semester and a brief comment on each. His maxim: “a good professor can make any course good, and a bad professor can make any course bad.” My list may tend to emphasize the subjects more than his ever did, but this is more from my inexperience with the Princeton faculty than any miscalculation on his part. He always admitted the limitations of his list, and being less than my predecessor I must confess the gross oversights I will make. Still I suspect most students will find it difficult to take all ten of these courses in one semester. Even if the workload were manageable, the holy Padre Pio never trilocated. In no particular order…

1. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture (HUM 216-217)–This great books course is one of the best classes at Princeton. This fall’s lineup of professors is especially good and likely one of the best they’ve ever had. Professor Morison specializes in ancient philosophy, and he’s an especially astute interpreter of Aristotle. Professor Heller-Roazen’s lectures are works of art that take seemingly obscure aspects of Western tradition (e.g. troubadour poetry) and relate them back to that tradition. Professor Feeney’s cordiality is only surpassed by his erudition, and he is a first-rate classicist. Professor Lane’s specialty is ancient Greek politics, but her passion for political theory extends throughout the entire period this course covers, and she is one of the university’s best professors.
2. Democratic Theory (POL 306/PHI 360/CHV 306)–Professor Pettit is a renowned political philosopher, who unfortunately spends half his time in Australia and teaches few undergraduate courses. Hence this is a rare opportunity to study that central question of politics–what is the best form of government–with such a bright guide.
3. Introduction to Ancient Philosophy (PHI 205/CLA 205/HLS 208)–Professor Lorenz is a careful reader and thorough lecturer. The pace of his lectures is slower than Princeton students are often used to, but the slower pace brings greater precision. His interpretations of Plato and Aristotle are as novel as they are well-sourced.
4. The Civilization of the Early Middle Ages (HIS 343/CLA 343/HLS 343)–Professor Reimitz is a joy in the classroom. His interpretation of the “Dark Ages” will force you to rethink your whole historical narrative of European history. He challenges the common misconception that the fall of the Roman Empire in the West was a cataclysmic event and that it caused the descent of Europe into barbarism. The role of Christianity in forming the post-Roman successor states plays an important role in his history, and he emphasizes the ways in which rulers adapted to new situations and promoted new norms, while also showing the broad continuity between the late Roman Empire and the early medieval kingdoms. Reimitz is a generous professor also, and he is a delight to have for precept.
5. Introduction to Post-Classical Greek from the Late Antique to the Byzantine Era (CLG 240/HLS 240)–Professor Bourbouhakis is my favorite Princeton professor. Much like the historian Polybius, he is a Hellene living in Rome, and similar to Polybius his joy is history. Anyone with a smattering of Greek should take this class with Bourbouhakis and enjoy his leisurely course through antique and late antique Greek. Listening to his polytonic reading of the language (eschewing Erasmus’ reconstructions) is enough to justify this class.
6. Constitutional Interpretation (POL 315)–Professor George is the most prominent conservative professor on campus, but students of all political persuasions should consider this class because his lectures are even-handed and comprehensive, and he does a great job picking excellent preceptors. It is a difficult class, and the grading is notoriously hard, but if you have an interest in the American constitutional regime, it is probably the best undergraduate class about it in the country.
7. Philosophy of Religion (PHI 325)–While I haven’t taken any classes with Professor Hogan, I have heard good things about him. The subject itself is so utterly essential to philosophy and life in general that it’s a shame this class isn’t offered every year. Promisingly, Hogan promises to tackle both historical and contemporary philosophical questions of theology. One can encounter the brilliance of Aquinas and Kant without ignoring the state of the debate today. The most compelling philosophical questions end up being about God and religion, so it’s a great service of our philosophy department to offer such a class.
8. Roman Literature: Ovid’s Metamorphoses (LAT 335)–Professor Feldherr is a stellar teacher, whose lectures for the HUM sequence were some of the best. Ovid is the best poet of Rome’s Golden Age, and Metamorphoses is a beautiful book. The poem is a touchstone for Western literature because it encapsulates so many old myths in such novel ways. This class requires the completion of the introductory Latin courses. If you have not yet taken those, then you really must take Latin 101 in the fall or the higher-paced Latin 103 in the spring. Without an ability to read Latin one is separated from some of the brightest minds and thousands of years of Western history.
9. Music of the Classical Period (MUS 236)–Professor Burnham is a great lecturer, and he likes to play the music he’s discussing while speaking. His knowledge of the pieces is insurmountable. Music is an integral aspect of a liberal arts education (classically it was one of the 7 liberal arts), and one of my regrets at Princeton is not taking any music classes. The class does not require previous knowledge of music theory, just a keen set of ears.
10. Chaucer (ENG 312)–Professor Vance Smith is a polyglot medievalist, who is teaching about the greatest poet in Middle English. Chaucer is a great introduction to the culture and society of late medieval England, which is a formative period of crisis. Vance Smith has taught “Reading the Bible as Literature” in the past, which is a wonderful class, and he reads with charity and verve. He appreciates originality and ambition in papers.

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One thought on “10 Recommended Courses for a Liberal Arts Education

  • April 27, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    And people say conservatives are stuck in the past!


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