How do individuals know what they know?

Are there limitations to the human ability to think, perceive, and understand?

mary wollstonecraft a vindication of the rights of woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

In A Vindication, Wollstonecraft asks questions that are part of the human experience. How does who I am affect how I am viewed in the world in which I live? What has shaped others’ understanding of who I am? What are the assumptions, biases, misconceptions that impact how the world sees me? Wollstonecraft’s text examines the repeating social patterns that have led to the belief that women do not possess reason and that their singular purpose and potential is to be attractive and beautiful.

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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass Penguin Classes Deluxe Edition

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Here are two reasons students might experience the text as transformative: Alice is a stranger-in-a-strange-land tale par excellence. It illustrates how one’s sense of self can be undermined in a new context. We may know ourselves in our own world, but who are we in a world that operates with rules we don’t understand? How do we respond to that which seems nonsensical? Readers are confronted with fundamental questions about the relationship between self and environment. Equally, Alice is a story about joy, innocence, imagination, and fun. Just as nonsense can challenge sanity and order, it can also be embraced and enjoyed.

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gloria anzaldúa borderlands

Borderlands / La Frontera

This can be an intimidating text, especially for the non-Spanish speaker. Ask students to observe how they respond to the shift between Spanish and English throughout the text. Anzaldúa’s flow between languages is more than code switching. It is an enactment of mestiza consciousness. The same is true for the flow between genres in the text. Some students will feel empowered by Anzaldúa’s flow between languages and genres. Other students will feel they are missing something by not being able to interpret the Spanish sections. Other students may have a response to Anzaldúa’s counter narrative to U.S. narratives of exceptionalism, heroism, freedom, opportunity, and individualism.

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Labyrinth Jorge Luis Borges

Borges Selected Stories

Borges is a writer intoxicated with infinity. He is a writer with secrets buried; you will need to bring a shovel (or the internet). Reading him is like being in an old antique curio shop where you have to go slowly, examining all the unique pieces individually, turning them over to reveal their histories and stories. In a single one of his works he may switch from arcane literary figures, to linguistic theories, to alternate geometries, and back again to heretical theologies. He writes in an almost academic style, and his encyclopedic mind peppers his writing with real sources and references interspersed with fictional ones—making no distinction whatsoever. Anyone interested in infinity, labyrinths, mirrors, esoteric writing, the fine line between fiction and reality, and the porous boundaries of the self will find much treasure in Borges.

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Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky stands among the great Russian novelists and world writers. In his characters, the reader encounters the complexity of human thought and desire, the quest for understanding ourselves, and the perennial questions that mark human interaction. Dostoevsky’s ideas at the time of the novel’s composition were very much informed by the radical political climate in St. Petersburg, ideas which Dostoevsky felt were morally and politically dangerous.

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Emily Dickinson selected poems

Dickinson Selected Poems

In her imagery and in her diction, Dickinson captures the questioning nature of the human experience in her poetry. She grapples with questions of love, death, and eternity in a brutally honest way. Her poems appear to be incredibly straightforward, but there are multiple layers of meaning, and possible interpretations. The struggle and desire of a person trying to make sense of her place in the universe is palpable on the pages of Dickinson’s poetry. The poems are transformative because she captures beautifully, perfectly, and deceptively simply, the range of human emotion and wonder in her poetry.

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Don Quixote

Don Quixote

Don Quixote is often called the first novel. Despite the humor that suffuses the tale, it is a serious and even a tragic work. The laughter the novel provokes, and the distance combined with affection we feel for its noble yet ridiculous protagonist as he attempts to live out his ideals in a decidedly unsympathetic world, provoke examination of themes that students will feel deeply. Many of them, in coming to college, have themselves set off on a grand adventure. Like Don Quixote, they may be inspired by high ideals to advocate for causes to which they are deeply committed, only to find themselves met not with opportunities for heroism but by cynicism, bureaucracy, ridicule, and the insistent humdrum demands of everyday life.

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Essays of Michel de Montaigne

Essays of Michel de Montaigne

Readers of Montaigne revel in the way he shook many of the foundations of Western thought. Students may be most interested in his writing against violent governmental actions and corruption, both in French domestic policy and in the actions of Europeans attempting to conquer the Americas. His delineation of cultural relativism is also very relevant to students’ increasing interest in human diversity. Montaigne resists the inclination to normalize aristocratic and bourgeois European culture; he defines barbarism as a subjective term people use to describe difference from the dominant culture. Another assumption he questioned was that of the superiority assigned to humans over animals. Students may also be inspired by his celebration of human imagination, which he sees as the cause of miracles, visions, and extraordinary events.

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Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals

Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals

Kant is notoriously difficult to read and, although it was intended for a more general audience than some of his other works, the Grounding is no exception. Still, the overall goal – to find one, single principle that can be a key to deciding questions of morality – is one that students find relatable. Who hasn’t struggled to find clarity, or wished for a principle about which we could all agree, when considering issues of right and wrong?

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Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan

Hayy Ibn Yaqzan

Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, literally “Alive, Son of Awake”, raises many fundamental questions: What is life and how does animal life differ from that of plants and inanimate objects and why? Where did everything come from, and how did that happen? Why am I asking these questions and how/do the conclusions I draw here affect my life and the decisions I make? Asking these questions along with Hayy, students may begin to wrestle with some of the deepest and most persistent questions human beings have asked. Following Tufayl’s narrative provides an opportunity for students to become awake and alive to these questions.

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Jataka Tales

Jatak Tales

Jataka tales are about life’s challenges, temptations, and uncertainties. They are held in esteemed position in all Buddhist traditions and have been immortalized in art, music, and drama. The Jatakas are the most comprehensible among all Buddhist literature and are perfect text to introduce first year college students to Buddhism and Buddhist literature. Students can easily relate to the moral and philosophical questions addressed in the text, including who is deceitful? Who is a good politician? What should be the ethics of running a business?

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Mama Day Gloria Naylor

Mama Day

Mama Day explores the concept of home in multiple ways, and in ways that the reader may not be expecting. This novel unlocks the way we think about home, and then forces us to transcend those beliefs. It is also a novel about faith and the life-altering effects faith of any kind can have on our lives. This novel makes readers question the very definition of faith and what true faith can accomplish.

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Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

Meditations on First Philosophy

The Meditations, by Rene Descartes, is a pivotal text, marking the break between distinctive ancient and modern conceptions of self and world. In the preface to the work, addressed to the Sorbonne, Descartes explicitly states that his goal is to prove the existence of God and the soul. However, the world Descartes recovers after all his doubt is not the one we left behind. Colors are no longer in the object, but are relegated to mere secondary qualities in us. The bodies that inhabit this world are no longer understood through Aristotelian natures, but rather, their essence is captured by their mathematical (geometrical and arithmetical) properties and relations alone. In this way, Descartes sets the metaphysical foundation for the emerging physical sciences of the early modern period.

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Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go

Since it is written as a first person coming-of-age novel, Never Let Me Go is accessible to all students. Students of traditional college age will relate to the late adolescent/early young adult experiences of Kathy H. and her peers, like negotiating friendships with romantic and sexual relationships and adjusting to life outside of adult guidance and protection. Non-traditionally aged students will remember these experiences as well. So, while the genre and narrative will be unlikely to challenge students, the experience of connecting emotionally to the characters, while coming to understand they have been bred to be used by non-cloned humans, will test students’ assumptions about technology and human exploitation of that technology. Rather than approaching the question heavy handedly, Ishiguro leads readers gently to interrogate not only the attitudes of humans to the clones, but the matter-of-fact resignation of the clones to their own fates.

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Phenomenology of Spirit

Phenomenology of Spirit

The Phenomenology of Spirit is arguably one of the most difficult philosophical texts to engage with. Partly this stems from Hegel having to, like Plato and Kant before him, invent terms and phrases to describe ideas and concepts for which ordinary language is inadequate. Because of this, there is not always agreement on just what Hegel is doing. Wherever one comes down interpretively, his impact on the history of thought is undeniable. He is the culmination of German idealism, a philosophical movement that starts with Kant and runs through Fichte and Schelling. His treatment of sense certainty has been taken up by many 20th century critiques of empiricism within the analytic tradition, while the master-slave dialectic has proven to be equally influential within 20th century continental philosophy. Of course, the influence Hegel had on Marx’s dialectical materialism, and hence the historical development of Western radical politics, cannot be overstated. Whatever one may ultimately think of Hegel, reading through the Phenomenology is a philosophical experience like none other, full of “moments” of deep insight as one explores with hallucinatory fluidity his processional-thought terrain.

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Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice

There are many timeless questions addressed in this text. Part of the human experience is learning how to read the world around you, and to make decisions about relationships. Who is truthful, who is deceitful? Who is good, who is dangerous? Who is supportive, who is threatening? These decisions, in modern society, are also key when making decisions about love and marriage. In our lives, we all must confront our pride and our prejudice at some point and learn to see people for who they are.

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Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, Vintage International, New York

Song of Solomon

Complex characters sit at the center of every Toni Morrison novel. She creates all her characters, these flawed and human people, the admirable and disreputable characters, with great empathy and love, and we as readers love them as well. She constructs the novel from a mixture of history, myth, spirituals and the supernatural that makes the writing deeply resonant. What is past is never past, as the ancestors are always present. In a Toni Morrison novel, understanding one’s ties to these ancestors and healing the traumas of the past brought into the present are integral to self-acceptance and moving forward.

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Plato, Symposium

Symposium

The Symposium consists of a series of speeches about love given by Socrates and his friends during a drinking party at the house of Agathon. Having overindulged the night before in celebration of Agathon’s award winning play, the group agrees to pace themselves tonight by means of their speeches to the god of love. Phaedrus starts things off, followed by Pausanias and Euryximachus. Next, Aristophanes delivers his unforgettable origin myth, explaining our unconquerable urge to unite with our one true love as a literal seeking out of our other half. After Agathon delivers a beautiful but sophistical speech praising love, the dialogue culminates with Socrates telling the group about what he learned from Diotima, the woman who trained him in the erotic arts. According to this teaching, love is a desire for the good eternally, and it achieves this through giving birth, both physically and spiritually.

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Edgar Allan Poe, The Dupin Trilogy

The Dupin Trilogy

With the Dupin trilogy, Edgar Allan Poe single-handedly invented the detective story as a genre of fiction. Anyone interested in this type of fiction and its history will have reason to experience these stories. As well as being detective stories that are about Dupin’s ability to analyze, resolve, and disentangle, they are just as much about engaging the reader’s ability to do the same with the text itself. Each of these stories is itself a mystery, inviting the reader to do their own investigation and analysis. In addition, Poe’s brilliant writing and mastery of the English language are enough to please and exercise even the most experienced reader.

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Euclid's elements : book one : with questions for discussion

The Elements

Euclid’s text is a model for how to think clearly and logically. Through the study and demonstration of his geometrical proofs, students learn the structure of logical arguments and what it means to prove something. After one understands an entire proof of Euclid’s, you know what it feels like to really know that something is true. His proofs provide a window onto the beauty of truth and inspire us to want to open it further. Studying this text provides a benchmark by which students can judge how well they know other things. “Is this as clear to me as a Euclid proof?” If not, there is more to understand and work to be done!

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THE FIRE NEXT TIME James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next Time is a book about hate. The arc of these essays is about race, but more importantly, these essays are about hate and its destructive power. As first and second year students embark on their studies in these uncertain times, a lesson about the incendiary nature of hate will help anchor their emotions and attitudes about ideas they will encounter in their academic careers and their lives. There is always something to divide us, but here is a text that will help students understand why it is so important to aim for understanding.

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The Poetry of John Donne

The Poetry of John Donne

Community college students find Donne’s poetry both arcane and modern, both puzzling and satisfying. Complex human scenarios are described with language that is at turns colloquial or learned. Ideas are often constructed in extended metaphors called “conceits.” When these extended metaphors use obscurely technical imagery or make surprising, unexpected comparisons, they are called “metaphysical conceits.” Donne’s poetry invites students to inhabit the speaker’s mind, to follow his thoughts through the complexities of language and emotion in his investigations of love, society, and religion. The sample poems included are among Donne’s most accessible and exciting. As a result, they easily lend themselves to class discussion and written response.

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Zadie Smith, White Teeth, Vintage International, New York

White Teeth

Smith tackles major issues around race, culture, history and the influence of science and religion with humor and humanity. There are many questions and few answers in the novel. Through her characters and their complicated histories, Smith explores the tensions between 1) the roots of history and the idealistic dream of a multicultural melting pot; 2) cosmopolitanism and patriotism; 3) science and religion; 4) idealized beauty and self-identity; 5) eugenics and genetic engineering. The story is told through multiple perspectives in both the first and second generations of the novel. It is at once funny, satirical and earnest. Smith has an ear for language and sharp observations of human desire, fear and motivation.

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