Summer Humanities Institute

Sunday, July 22 - Friday, August 10, 2018

Dear SHI Students and Families,

When describing the goals that shaped his work, the seventeenth-century philosopher Benedict Spinoza remarked: “I have labored carefully, not to mock, lament, or execrate, but to understand human actions.” This project—to understand human actions in the fullness of their origins, progress, and consequences and to comprehend the dynamic world of ideas and sensibilities that inspires and is inspired by them—lies at the heart of the Humanities.  It is a project that draws on many disciplines and many forms of human expression: from historical documents to religious and philosophical writings to literature to works of art and performances.  Its sources and its questions lead humanistic inquiry to place particular emphasis on skills of observation, analysis, interpretation, imagination, and criticism. It teaches us how to examine and interpret small details to gain larger insights, to see the variety that exists within categories and generalities, and how to trace ideas and actions back to their origins.  It cultivates our awareness of the many factors and forces that shape the actions and beliefs of an individual or group through time.  Most of all, it strengthens our capacity to enter into the lives and thoughts of others so as to understand more fully, subtly, and sympathetically “what makes them tick”, a capacity that ultimately helps us be and do better in every aspect of our lives.

In the Carleton Summer Humanities Institute we will develop these skills—along with a variety of techniques to share the results of our research with wider audiences—through an exploration of the Arts of Power from the Classical World to the Renaissance.  With my colleagues Clara Hardy in Classics, and Victoria Morse in History and the History of Cartography (mapmaking), we will explore together the ways in which people in classical Athens and Renaissance Europe (especially Italy) sought to understand, represent, criticize and transform different forms of power. In particular, we will investigate the ways in which contemporaries in classical Athens and Renaissance Europe cultivated the visual, historical, and spatial imagination to shape and reshape their own societies. Through close examination of a wide range of primary sources (in translation), including select works of Greek playwrights Sophocles and Aristophanes, Florentine political advisor Niccolò Machiavelli, and a rich set of Renaissance maps, we will seek to  understand the complex forms and functions of power and how human beings have used drama, philosophy, and the visual and scientific arts to control it.

Over the three weeks of the Institute, you will develop and present interdisciplinary, guided research projects in History (including art historical topics), or literature and theater, or the History of mapmaking and exploration. You will acquire and learn to use effectively tools and techniques of research, interpretation, and presentation essential to achieve the goal of humanistic research: to understand with depth and complexity the nature of human thought, action, and expression and to convey this understanding to others.  Carleton’s rich Library and Special Collections and other campus spaces will offer terrific contexts in which to study, perform, debate, and discover. At the end of the seminar, participants will present their work in a public symposium that will include oral and visual presentations and dramatic performances.

We look forward to working with you!


Bill North

Professor of History and Director of the Summer Humanities Institute