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Themes & Curriculum

Great Books offers a truly unique array of literary topics and genres that are sure to pique your child's intellectual curiosity each and every week.

Great Books' curriculum takes up the debate of timeless questions as students read both classical and contemporary works of literature. Each weekly session of our summer program provides new and challenging materials for our students.

Regardless of which campus and session students attend, the themes and literature elections are sure to foster thought-provoking questions and fruitful discussions!

2020 Themes & Curriculum:

The Extraordinary Ordinary
Leaving Chaos to Find Creativity

In a world where we are bombarded with constant stimuli—texts, videos, and social posts—it is increasingly challenging to slow down, observe, and appreciate our seemingly mundane surroundings. Yet, for centuries, the great writers and poets have found extraordinary inspiration within the ordinary. Whether it is Whitman’s celebration of everyday miracles, or Bashō’s meditations on an old pond, the splendor of the commonplace reveals itself to be anything but boring. Students will learn what it takes to perceive the hidden treasures in our world and what rewards spring from a patient observance of life. Readings include selections from Virginia Woolf, Pablo Neruda, Ernest Hemingway, and more. This session will be led by Mitchell Pinkowski, winner of multiple teaching awards and research grants and current English literature teacher at Episcopal High School in Washington, D.C.

Other Minds
Experience Life as Humans, Animals, and AI

Human. Animal. Machine. For the last half century, protecting human rights has been a common ideal around the world. Yet, to be human is fundamentally to live with other beings and now AI. The apparent gap between human and other lives has provoked enduring questions among writers, scientists, and philosophers: To what extent are human and animal minds similar or different? Do animals and increasingly robots deserve rights? Or are humans an exceptional lifeform? Students will explore these questions by critically engaging with an array of texts from the ancient world to the present. Readings include selections from Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Julio Cortázar, Marianne Moore, and more. The session will be led by Dr. Dominic Vendell who holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University and is completing a postdoctoral appointment at the University of Exeter in the UK.

Literature on Fire
Incendiary Works, Revolution, & Renaissance

Explore famous works of ‘incendiary’ literature with the power of revelation and igniting rebellion, or inspiring a renaissance from the ashes. Students will be asked to consider: How has literature been served as a tool for change? What roles have authors, and readers, played in revolutions? What stories can banned or burned books still tell us? Readings include selections from A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Alexander Brown, and more. The session will be led by Dr. Kathryn A. Miller, who is an Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Jordan.

The Fantastic, the Uncanny, the Macabre!
Imaginary Worlds & Everyday Life

Throughout literary history, writers have crafted imaginary worlds in which the logic of everyday life is overturned—islands fly, flowers talk, and owls bring the mail. But when we go “through the looking glass,” where do we end up? Some argue that literatures of the fantastic are fundamentally escapist, the product of a nostalgic longing for an irretrievable past. Others find in fantasy the potential for social engagement, political subversion, or meaningful experimentation. Readings include selections from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight by Gawain Poet, and more. The session will be led by Dr. Amos Rothschild, who is an Assistant Professor of English at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

Monsters Among Us
Who is the Real Monster?

The scariest monsters are often standing right next to you and you don’t even know. Some monsters screech and wail but others are charismatic, clever, even cunning. Is recognizing monsters among us a talent or skill? What lessons can monsters teach us? Many literary beasts stand the test of time, but is our definition of monsters timeless? Selections from Guy de Maupassant, Mary Shelley, Jorge Luis Borges, Bram Stoker, and more. Led by Dr. Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Cultures at Amherst College and host of NPR’s "In Contrast."

Freedom and Imagination
What is Reality Anyway?

To be a human is to exist in a singular location at a single point in time. Or does the power of imagination change this? Do your thoughts and daydreams have the power to transform the world around you? Are we free to imagine our own reality? What is reality anyway? Students will explore the paradox of reality and imagination that has fascinated writers, artists, and philosophers since the dawn of time. Led by Noah Rosenblum, J.D., a Yale Law School graduate who is pursuing his Ph.D. in intellectual history at Columbia University, and Annie Seaton, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Humanities at Bard College where she is also the Founder and Director of the Difference and Media Lab.

Stay tuned for more 2020 Themes!

Contact us with questions.  We are always glad to help! 

See our 2019 Themes & Curriculum

Games Week
Playing Through History

What would you do if you were forced to battle a Grecian cyclops or to protect the one you love while being hunted by a mad man? Games have been central themes in literature since the classical era. Students will delve into this theme and probe whether literature itself is a game, in the illusory way that it creates worlds, characters, plots, and the passage of time. Readings include Homer, Richard Connell, Orson Scott Card, and more. Dr. Ken Sammond, a senior lecturer at Fairleigh Dickinson University and scholar of “imagined communities,” will lead this exciting literary exploration.

Technology & Humanity Week
Artificial Intelligence

What is the real impact of implementing AI (artificial intelligence)? Will ‘the machines’ really take over? Students will engage in an energetic debate over the application of technology and its potential effect on humanity through the writings of literary greats. Readings include Ray Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Kurt Vonnegut, and more. This electrifying session will be led by Dr. Marcus Conley, a Dean and Tutor at Harrison Middleton University, who has taught at the secondary and post-secondary levels in both the UK and USA.

Science Fiction & Fantasy Week
Ourselves & Others

If alien life arrived on Earth today would they be hospitable, hostile, or hungry? That is the excitement behind the many great works of science fiction that thrust us into a startling new world and force us to re-examine life as we know it. Readings include H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Ursula Le Guin, and Jorge Luis Borges. Join Dr. Ilan Stavans, co-founder of Great Books Summer Program and winner of the Guggenheim Fellowship, in this exciting literary exploration into the new worlds around us and their impact on humanity.

Empire Week
The Rise and Fall of Power

Looking through the lens of Genghis Khan, the most feared historical figure of all times, students will explore how political power works, how leaders wield it, and how imperial subjects object to such domination. Witness the rise and fall of an empire by reading history, short stories, journalism, and poetry that focuses on the Mongol Empire. Readings include George Orwell, Roff Smith, and Jack Weatherford. This riveting session will be led by Spring Greeney, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduate of Harvard College.

Moral Dilemmas
Who would you save?

What if you found out you were a human clone created specifically for organ donation? Is that really your sole purpose or do you deserve to have your own life, free of donation? Jump into this provocative and engaging session, led by nationally celebrated Oberlin professor emeritus, Dr. Steven Volk, who was named US Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Reading include Shakespeare, Plato, and Dostoevsky.

The Magic of Mega Books
All about blockbusters!

Don Quixote, Gone With The Wind, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter. What is it about these blockbuster books that grabbed generations? How do novels captivate cultures around the world and become iconic? Dr. Ilan Stavans, an NPR Host, Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Cultures at Amherst College and the author of two award-winning graphic novels, will investigate the magic that makes a text endure for lifetimes.

Contact us with any curriculum questions.


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