Euripides, Medea

This is a short, riveting text that takes students directly to topics about human nature in extremity – questions of passion, the relationship between love and hatred, justice and the most severe vengeance extending even to children. It is almost impossible not to react strongly. It is helpful in the classroom that that the beautiful but challenging poetic language and the stylized, unfamiliar character of ancient Greek drama provide enough distance for students to be able to be able to examine the most violent emotions and actions, creating the opportunity for compelling discussion.

Parallel Lives (Selections)

Plutarch Parallel Lives

Caesar is a truly compelling character, whose career brought Rome almost to the pinnacle of its power, but also brought about the end of the republic and the beginning of empire. Through the prism of his story, students can consider a variety of questions about power, ambition, various forms of government, and the relationship of people and their leaders, that bear upon our current political situation. The narrative draws students in more effectively than most more abstract philosophical consideration of such issues, while the historical distance can also allow a more thoughtful consideration and exchange of views around these issues than may be possible when discussing the contemporary situation more directly.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Dover Thrift Edition

“Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl” addresses the particular issues of being a woman and a slave. Few slave narratives focus on these specific details. Jacobs is writing early Black feminism and bringing the question of Black female empowerment into the feminist conversation that won’t really accept it for quite some time.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Dover Thrift, ed.

“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is the story of humanity. One goal of the slave narrative was to assert the African’s humanity. Douglass’ narrative addresses the important question what it means to be human and who gets to decide that for anybody. This text is a way to get students talking not just about the history of slavery, but about the importance of education, and self-awareness.

Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Published by The Library of America, 2004. ISBN-13: 978-1931082549

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America allows students to grapple with complexities and paradoxes associated with democracy and democratic government. Furthermore, Democracy in America allows students to explore how democracy has changed in the United States over time. Tocqueville’s purpose for writing Democracy in America is to examine why democracy worked in the United States by the early-nineteenth century, while previous attempts in France failed. Tocqueville’s purpose will require students to examine how certain social, economic, and political conditions in individual nations can influence the success and failure of certain forms of government.


The Complete Greek Tragedies, 3rd edition. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Trans. Elizabeth Wyckoff

Antigone confronts the audience with the questions- is what is legal always what is just? Creon’s law denies Polyneices a basic burial rite. It is illegal to break this law, but Antigone makes the case that Creon has no right to make this law since is flies in the face of the will of the gods. She refuses to obey an unjust law. The play makes clear that Creon offends the gods with his unjust law and that he perverts the relationship between the living and dead; first by refusing to allow Polyneices to be buried and then again by burying Antigone alive. The play also offers an interesting reflection on leadership and the role of the state.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

F.H.T. Willetts translation, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1991 (ISBN 978-0374534684)

This book was transformational upon publication because of the way in which it exposed the harsh reality of the lives of even unexceptional political prisoners in the huge system of camps that made up the Soviet Gulag. Along with Solzhenitsyn’s other writings and the works of other artists coming out of the Soviet Union, it contributed to the eventual demise of that system. This can be a good place to start, but for most students the truly transformative aspect of the work will be the questions it raises rather than the abuses it uncovers.


Clark, Sandra, and Pamela Mason, eds. Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series. Bloomsbury, 2015

Does Macbeth kill Duncan because he is fated to do so, or because he was tempted to do so? Would he have killed Duncan of his own free will without the influence of others? Why do people commit acts that they know are wrong, even when they understand the consequences of these actions? Unlocking such questions for students allows them to engage with some of the central questions about human agency, desire for self-worth and achievement, and the dark, unknowable impulses of all people.

The Federalist Papers

Federalist Papers

The arguments of Publius are alive today. In 1821, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote of The Federalist Papers, “It is a complete commentary on our constitution; and is appealed to by all parties in the questions to which that instrument has given birth. Its intrinsic merit entitles it to this high rank, and the part two of its authors [i.e., Hamilton and Madison] performed in framing the constitution, put it very much in their power to explain the views with which it was framed.” This view has not waned. The Federalist Papers continue to be cited in US Supreme Court cases as the authoritative interpretation on the original intent of the US Constitution as well as in thousands of law review articles and cases of the lower courts.


Frankenstein- Or the Modern Prometheus Mary Shelley

Few students will not encounter Frankenstein without some preconceptions, as the character of the creature (if not the story itself) is ubiquitous. But popular culture versions of the story often exaggerate the monstrosity of the creature and minimize or even ignore Victor’s abandonment and renouncement of the creature and his responsibilities toward his own creation.