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Northwestern University

Kaplan Humanities Scholars Probe the Nature of "The Good Society"


The Kaplans

Thanks to the vision and generosity of Morris Kaplan and Dolores Kohl Kaplan, 48 first-year students are taking a rigorous intellectual journey this fall and winter. The Kaplan Humanities Scholars seek to discover the contours of “the good society,” as envisioned by thinkers across continents and centuries. The intensive program is offered to students of varying interests—future scientists and social scientists as well as humanists—by Weinberg College and the School of Communication. In studying materials as diverse as Thomas More’s Utopia and Second Life, a contemporary 3-D virtual world, it is hoped that the students will develop an enduring passion for the humanities and its methods of inquiry.

Such a passion has been transformative for Kaplan himself, a lifetime member of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees. He concentrated on business classes while at the University, but found it was the humanities which enriched his life. Kaplan has been a generous supporter of the College, endowing the Alice Berline Kaplan Center for the Humanities more than a decade ago.

The Scholars program, new last year, is unique. Organized as a series of interdisciplinary courses revolving around a common theme, it is team-taught by tenure line faculty.

One of its central goals, according to the program’s first director, Ken Alder, is to show freshmen “that the humanities—in its way of posing questions and its interpretative methods—can address problems beyond the confines of the classroom or the demands of specialized study.” Alder, the Milton H. Wilson Professor in the Humanities, is himself known for interdisciplinary work, with groundbreaking books on the history of science, such as the recent Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession.

Some of Northwestern’s most dedicated teachers have been drawn to the program. Students take two double-credit courses, one in fall and one in winter. These courses combine a lecture format, co-taught by three faculty members, with a coordinated freshman seminar, with each of the three teachers leading a group of 16. This fall, students studied “Brave New Worlds,” with Professors Henry Binford (History), Kasey Evans (English) and Carl Smith (English and American Studies). They investigated visions of what has constituted a good society during the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Technological Revolution. In winter quarter, students will ponder “Black Freedom/African Justice,” guided by Professors Sherwin Bryant (African American Studies), Yari Pérez Marin (Spanish and Portuguese) and David Schoenbrun (History). They will examine literary texts, medical and legal documents, art, film, and travelers’ journals, many drawn from Northwestern’s renowned Africana collection.

The juxtaposition of the courses is deliberate, according to Alder. “We wanted students to confront the really tough questions about how you can imagine a good society during, say, the Enlightenment and then place that against the moment of slave trade and then the rise of abolition.”

The program demands much of its students—intensive reading, analysis, and writing. Membership in a sustained intellectual community is what they receive in return. Both professors and students emphasize the strength of friendships forged over the course of passionate discussions.

“The conversation gets deeper when you spend more time with people,” says Alder. “Breaking down the boundaries between course work and dinner table talk is what the university is supposed to be about and what this program does especially well.”

“The Kaplan program allowed me to grow immensely as a writer and a critical reader,” says Sana Rahim, who participated in last year’s Kaplan program. The class gave Ravi Chopra “different tools and perspectives not only to analyze societies of the past, but to imagine good societies of the future.”

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