Colloquia for the Friends of the SOF/Heyman Taught by Columbia Faculty

    Named in honor of Carl Hovde, Dean of Columbia College, beloved Professor, and tireless supporter of the Core curriculum, these colloquia offer discussions led by Columbia's most renowned teachers and scholars. These colloquia are intended for alumni and friends of the University who wish to continue organized education without the need for academic credit and no papers or examinations are required. While there is no charge to enroll in the colloquia, we ask that participants give generously and join the Friends of the SOF/Heyman. This support allows us to continue improving our programs and maintaining our building—one of the most congenial on campus.

    Past colloquia will be archived online soon. Please check back later.

    Fall 2021

    A Philosophical and Literary Treatment of Aeschylus' Oresteia

    Christia Mercer

    Thursday, 6:00pm - 7:30pm

    Aeschylus' Oresteia was a hit when first performed in Athens in the 5th century BCE, and remains one of the most riveting and obscure ancient tragedies. The trilogy treats the violence and impact of war, the instability of justice, the far reach of revenge, and the fragility of goodness. The plays are moving, bizarre, frustrating, and beautiful. This colloquium will contextualize the trilogy, and then explore the fascinating complications of the drama, which will be framed within philosophical questions about the nature of love, justice, power, and communal responsibilities. We will track metaphors analyze language, and do close readings to excavate some of the profound richness of the plays.

    Spring 2021

    Understanding Meritocracy: Noble Ideal or Serious Mistake?

    Roger Lehecka

    Tuesday, 6:00pm - 8:00pm

    While it appears to be an ancient word, like democracy or aristocracy or oligarchy, meritocracy was invented as an English word about sixty years ago by a British sociologist named Michael Young. As unlikely as it sounds, his book The Rise of the Meritocracy was a novel, not a work of social science. Since the time of the word’s invention it has become the name for what most people say a society should be: fair, recognizing talent and effort, removing inherited privilege and advantage. This is ironic because, in describing a fictional future society that was fully meritocratic, Michael Young wrote a dystopian novel, not a utopian one. Furthermore, despite the obeisance paid to merit and meritocracy in public discourse today, meritocracy is under attack by writers on the political right, left and center.

    The colloquium will explore what merit and meritocracy mean in the United States today, and why those words produce so much contentious debate. Because sorting people through education is central to current meritocratic ideals, higher education is inevitably a vital instrument in realizing a meritocratic society. Therefore, discussions of American colleges generally, and Columbia in particular, will occur throughout our six class meetings. Other subjects we will cover are how notions of merit have evolved since the founding of the United States; how the word meritocracy has come to have connotations opposite to what its creator intended; how meritocratic American society, or a part of it like admission to selective colleges, is today; what it would take for the United States to become truly meritocratic; the wisdom of equating school success with promise of professional success; and whether Young was correct to see meritocracy as a flawed or even incoherent ideal.

    Fall 2020

    Operating Instructions: The How and Why of Reading Greco-Roman Literature

    Gareth Williams

    The overriding objectives of the colloquium will be to explore (i) what lies beyond the modern reputation of, and beyond modern critical orthodoxies about, many of the famous Greco-Roman texts from Homer down to the first-century CE Roman philosopher-politician Seneca; (ii) what forms of commentary and illumination those texts potentially offer on/about modern lives, attitudes, and socio-political issues; and (iii) how several of these Classical authors have been drawn on and exploited to support and help articulate certain modern ideologies and belief-systems. A further aim throughout our discussions will be to experiment with close readings of the assigned texts, to show how their meaning is so often encased in and complicated by the finer nuances of what might at first seem like a fairly innocuous path of narration.