Friday, March 22, 2013

Bard College -- Summer Reading

At Bard College in New York, students are expected to read Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis and Chapter Four of Darwin's Origin of Species during the summer prior to matriculation. This is a great idea.

The rationale is thus:

"On some level, students will find something familiar about these summer readings as well as something counterintuitive and obscure. A simplified version of what takes place in Kafka's short story has some presence in popular culture, and at a minimum most students will have heard someone use the word "Kafkaesque." A direct encounter with the writing of this remarkable German-speaking Jew from Prague who was reluctant to have his writings published can be inspiring precisely because of the tension between image, reception, and textual reality that characterizes both The Metamorphosis and Kafka's life.

090206-charles-darwin-02.jpgThe disjunction between image and reality could not be more pronounced than in the case of Charles Darwin. The claims of no other thinker or scientist, with the possible exception of Einstein, have been so mangled and distorted in the popular imagination. Somehow every citizen thinks he or she knows what Darwin thought without actually having read his writings. Direct engagement with Darwin's work not only makes the character and significance of modern biology more apparent, exciting, and vital, but the brilliance and subtlety of Darwin's thought quickly dispel the distortions that dominate scientific journalism in the popular media.

Colleges must counter the experience of conventional high school education in the United States, where learning is little more than a standardized test-driven chore with utilitarian benefits. In college, students should discover that most of the important writings and discoveries they will study were not generated for their benefit, but rather came into being in order to illuminate and improve life. It is precisely the connection between learning and living that justifies the life of the mind and makes study and inquiry a treasured form of human activity and among the most rewarding.

This belief cannot be preached; it can only be experienced. What better mechanism to set this experience in motion than assigning common readings in the summer? Students who encounter vaguely familiar texts like The Metamorphosis or "Natural Selection" will discover on entering college, through the intervention of teaching and the exchange of ideas with peers, that there is so much more to learn than they had expected about texts and subjects with which they believed they were familiar. With this realization, they embark on a journey of discovery that will strengthen their confidence in themselves and the enterprise of serious learning."

In addition, all freshmen at Bard participate in the Freshman seminar. Here is the reading list:

Fall 2012
  • Genesis (Norton; trans. Alter)
  • The Republic, Plato (Norton; trans. Scott and Sterling)
  • The Aeneid, Virgil (Penguin; trans. Fagles)
  • Confessions, Saint Augustine (Penguin; trans. Pine-Coffin)
  • Inferno, Dante (Anchor; trans. Hollander)
  • Othello, William Shakespeare (Norton)
  • Discoveries and Opinions, Galileo-Galilei (Anchor; trans. Drake)

Spring 2013
  • Montaigne, Michel; The Essays (Penguin; trans. Cohen)
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Rousseau's Political Writings (Norton; trans. Bondanella)
  • Kant, Immanuel; Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge; trans. Gregor)
  • Shelley, Mary; Frankenstein (Norton)
  • Marx, Karl; Communist Manifesto (Norton; trans. Bender)
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich; Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Cambridge; trans. Del Caro)
  • DuBois, W.E.B.; The Souls of Black Folk (Norton)
  • Woolf, Virginia; To the Lighthouse (Harvest Books)
  • Levi, Primo; The Periodic Table (Schocken; trans. Rosenthal)

[Note: I would not take this list as the ultimate guide to the "best" translations of these works. You should sample various translations and choose the one the works best for you.]

More about the first-year seminar is here.

How many of these books have you read? If you are a clinical psychologist (or an aspiring clinical psychologist), should you not be at least as well read as the typical Bard College sophomore? What did you read this year? What is keeping you from reading all of these books by this time next year?

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