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Online Themes & Curriculum

Great Books Online will offer a truly unique array of literature spanning time and genres that is sure to pique your child's intellectual curiosity each and every week. To learn more about week themes that will spark your child’s interest,  contact us via email info@greatbookssummer.com, or call/text 203-612-9470.

Every week provides new and challenging curriculum and readings for our students. Regardless of which online session or abroad program students attend, the themes and literature selections are sure to foster thought-provoking questions and fruitful discussions!

2020 Online Themes & Curriculum:

Caves & Shadows

Trapped, helpless, and unable to move. This is the predicament described by Plato in Book VII of The Republic, the 2500+ year old “Allegory of the Cave.” Plato’s prisoners do not seem to know that they are underground: they are ignorant of the sun, grass, or ocean. Their entire reality--what these locked-down bodies know --consists of shadow-shows that Plato’s cave-dwellers have learned to perceive as “the world.” This theatre is the only show in town. Someone, apparently, would like these prisoners to remain both ignorant--and distracted. Through classical and later authors, we’ll focus on recognizing the underground passages we inhabit, either by choice--or by (someone else’s?) design. Escape plans to be decided after reading. Readings will include The Republic by Plato, The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois, The Meditations, and more. Led by Dr. 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.


Are We There Yet?

Humans learn to fly. Small towns grow into sprawling cities. Women win the right to vote. There are historical periods that undergo such radical change that society’s basic assumptions get exposed, questioned, and reinvented. In this week of seminars, students will explore readings across history that investigate the notion of progress. With classic authors & visionaries as their guides, students will discuss the timeless questions that still puzzle our society today: What does it mean for a society or an individual person to progress? What does progress look like? And does progress always come at a cost? Readings will include The Republic by Plato, The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau, and “The Gospel of Wealth” by Andrew Carnegi, and more. Led by Dr. Wes Alcenat, who is an Assistant Professor of History and Affiliated Faculty, American Studies program at Fordham University, Rose Hill Campus.


The Philosophy, Physics, Poetics, & Psychology of Time

Writing about 1600 years ago, St. Augustine offered what is still the best observation about time: “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know.” Of course we "know" about time, but what, really, is it? During this week, we'll explore how philosophers, poets, physicists and psychologists try to answer the question - and still manage to leave it strangely unanswered. We'll look at our relationship to time - to the past (through memory), to the present (through our changing perception how quickly or slowly time passes), and to the future (why is the idea of time travel so intriguing and so problematic?). Has time always existed? Will time end some day? Readings will include Confessions by Saint Augustine, “The Secret Miracle” by Jorge Luis Borges, “Hymn to Time” by Ursula K. LeGuin and more. Led by Dr. Steven Volk Professor of History Emeritus at Oberlin College, who was named US Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.


What is Poetry

This course asks how we can recognize “literary” or “poetic” language and distinguish it from ordinary, everyday speech. The question of how to define literary language remains important today, since it determines what is included in the category of “literature.” We will read works by poets like John Milton and William Wordsworth, who reflected extensively on the question what poetry is and what it should do. We will also read poems that seem to test the boundaries of what a poem can be, calling into question the division between poetry and other genres, and between literary and non-literary language. Readings will include Paradise Lost by John Milton, Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth, Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein, and more. Led by Eve Houghton, who is a Ph.D. student in English at Yale University with research centering on English literature and culture from 1500-1800, the history of reading, and literary procrastination.


Exploring Comedy

What is comedy? During this week of seminars and discussions, students will explore this simple yet elusive concept. Is it the opposite of tragedy? Does comedy travel well across time? Do all cultures laugh in the same way? Are there differences in gender, ethnicity, and economics in regards to comedy? When is comedy ironic and when is it sarcastic? Did Shakespeare conceive comedy in ways unlike stand-up comedians today? What might have Aristotle understood for comedy, given that his book on the subject has been irrevocably lost? Is Dante's Divine Comedy comedic? Readings will include The Divine Comedy by Dante, A Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare, Essays by George Meredith, 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."


Allegory

What is allegory? That may seem like a simple question about a simple term you learn in school, but scholars have had a surprisingly hard time pinning down a definition. We'll see if we can reach one of our own, and we'll also think about whether allegory is a useful way to understand the world. What does it mean for something to stand for something else? Does turning a character into a mere idea render the character flat and lifeless? Is allegory a really simplistic way of thinking? What happens when allegories are not so tidy? Readings will include Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Republic by Plato, “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and more. Led by Dr. Julia Fisher, who is an English teacher at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.



Masks & Faces

Explore the deep origins and current prevalence of masks. Found in nearly every human culture, masks have served purposes from ritual to performance to crime to care- what unifies these various purposes? Using a wide range of literature, images, and even a Supreme Court case, we will analyze the ways in which masks protect ourselves and project a kind of selfhood out into the world. In ancient Greek, the word prosopon could mean either "face" or "mask"; we'll think together about why those words meant so much the same to the Greeks, and mean so much different to us today. Readings will include Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare,“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe, “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, and more. Led Alex Johnson, who is an educator and theater artist based in Boston, MA where his work focuses on launching and sustaining theater programs in Boston public schools.


Freedom

Explore the many dimensions of freedom that have influenced our ideas of science, culture, and history. What is freedom and how has it evolved in diverse cultures? So much of our global literary heritage, including works by Plato, Anne Frank, Lorraine Hansberry, and Arthur C. Clarke, reveals how we desire freedom and seek ways to question and escape the confines imposed on us in order to become better, more complete, or more assured. How is it important to us? How does it change our perspectives and our senses of self, community and society? Reading will include The Republic by Plato, Dairy of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, “Learning to Read & Write” by Frederick Douglass, and more. Led by Dr. Ken Sammond, a senior lecturer at Fairleigh Dickinson University and scholar of “imagined communities.”



Can Literature Change the World?

When seeking social change, what holds the most weight? An idea, a sword, or a poem? Can a solitary writer scribbling in an attic change the course of history with prose? What is the relationship between the written word, the world itself, and society around us. Led by Dr. Ilan Stavans. What is the relationship between the written word, the world itself, and society around us? From Sun Tzu’s Art of War to the American Constitution. From Samuel Johnson to Pablo Neruda. From Silent Spring to How the Other Half Lives. In this probing journey across time, genre, and culture; we will examine the power of literature to shape communities, movements, and even nations. 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."


Fairies, Merfolk, and Talking Wolves: Envoys from the Secret Commonwealth

The fairy tale tradition has supplied us with some of the most enduring stories, symbols, and characters of the artistic world, drawing from stories that predate even the earliest written literature. However, these tales are continually reworked and reborn even today. Fairy tales are imbued with a sense of wonder, implying that the world we know is bordered by something much weirder, a place both beautiful and sinister, which the seventeenth-century folklorist Robert Kirk called the "Secret Commonwealth." Why has the idea of a magical realm existing just beyond our understanding intrigued us for so long? Who are its strange inhabitants, and what can they tell us? Reading will include A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare Peter Pan by James M. Barrie. The session will be led by Dr. Marcus Conley a Dean and Tutor at Harrison Middleton University who received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nottingham.


Resilience

“By cosmic rule, as day yields night, so winter summer, war peace, plenty famine.” Heraclitus, nearly 2500 years ago, urges us to accept that change is the only constant. And with the acceptance of change, pace Heraclitus, comes the possibility of insight; even joy: resilience, in fact! Resilience comes from the Latin verb “resilio,” which means “to spring back, rebound” or “to recover.” As seekers of resilience, we will read ancient, classical, and contemporary writers as more than just literature: they will be our pathfinders and guides.Beginning with Boccaccio’s Decameron, in the thick of the Bubonic Plague, we will travel from Ancient Greco-Persia with Heraclitus, to the Roman Imperial era of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, if you listen carefully, have lessons on how art makes its own case for persistence and survival. Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table and Octavia Butler’s Parableseries, both located somewhere between science, fiction, and the surreal, in very different ways, give us more contemporary voices on struggle amidst chaos. This session is led by Dr. 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.


Words That Transformed Worlds

How might words and works of fiction not only reflect the world we live in but also change it? This week, we’ll read texts whose words jump off the page, demanding that we think differently about the self, society, rights, and the environment we live in. What kinds of worlds do these texts imagine, or make manifest? Are there particular forms that lend themselves to 'great ideas' or 'great changes,' or can a poem foster a movement the same way a speech can? We'll read excerpts of great fiction that reflected societies in upheaval and transition. Readings will include John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. We'll conclude with short fiction from authors who attempt to capture the contemporary climate crisis in their fiction-- not simply to reflect the world, but to witness and to ultimately save it. Led by Dr. Amanda Lagji who is an Assistant Professor of English and World Literature at Pitzer College.


Adventures in Mind, Body, and Spirit

What really is an adventure? Adventure can take a variety of forms, ranging from the intellectual to the physical to the spiritual. This week we will uncover the manifold meanings of this seductive concept through works of philosophy, literature, art, and film. As we unpack this rich theme, we will ask ourselves what constitutes a true adventure and why the spirit of adventurousness has captured the literary imagination for centuries. Any conception of adventure entails risk, and as we read accounts of fictional and non-fiction adventurousness, we will uncover how the transgression of boundaries and conventions is the basis of meaningful adventure. Readings will include Fiction by Plato, The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell, Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell, and more. Led by Andrew Sanchez who is a DPhil candidate and Ertegun Scholar at the University of Oxford.


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 Dr. 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.



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