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.
Alexander the Great: Order and ChaosJohn Ma
Tuesday, 6:00pm - 7:30pm
In this course, we follow in the footsteps of the king of
Macedonia, Alexandros, son of Philippos, AKA Alexander III, AKA Alexander the
Great, during his astonishing, protracted conquest of the Persian empire. The
venture was characterized by both disruption and continuity— and our sources
insist on both aspects, which are inescapable parts of conquest. We will
explore these aspects through a number of test cases and source readings drawn
from Alexander’s whole reign.
The sessions will be held on six Tuesdays. We currently plan to run the course in a hybrid format, both in person and online. Moreover, we plan to hold the first session at the Salmagundi Club. Those Friends attending in person will also have the option of joining Gareth Williams and John Ma for drinks and dinner after the class. The other sessions will be held as usual in the Heyman Center on the Columbia campus.
Two by Tolstoy: Anna Karenina and Hadji MuratLiza Knapp
Wednesday, 6:00pm - 7:30pm
We’ll read two masterpieces by Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (publ. 1875-8) and Hadji Murat (composed 1896-1904; published posthumously in 1912). Anna Karenina is universally recognized as one of the great novels of all times. It shows Tolstoy using fiction to reveal the mysteries of love and death, while also wrestling with social and political questions, as he follows multiple plotlines to ask about the interconnectedness of human lives. After reading this long novel, we will turn to Hadji Murat and find Tolstoy up to much of the same in this much shorter work, which is often regarded as Tolstoy’s swan song. As Tolstoy gives a searing look at the human condition and at empire, he also draws the reader’s attention to the song of the nightingale.
This class will meet on five Wednesdays online.
A Philosophical and Literary Treatment of Aeschylus' OresteiaChristia 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.
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.
Operating Instructions: The How and Why of Reading Greco-Roman LiteratureGareth 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.