Summer Humanities Institute

Find 2020 Program information on our new website.

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  It is a project that draws on many disciplines and many forms of human expression: from historical documents to religious and philosophical writings to literature to works of art and performances.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 in the Renaissance.  With my colleague Pierre Hecker in English and Julie Shibata in Studio Art and Art History, we will explore together the ways in which people in Renaissance Europe (especially England and Italy) sought to understand, represent, criticize and transform different forms of power and value. In particular, we will investigate the ways in which contemporaries in Renaissance Europe cultivated the historical, social, and visual imagination to shape and reshape their own societies. Through close examination of a wide range of primary sources (in translation), including select plays of William Shakespeare (and their modern adaptations and stagings), Florentine political advisor Niccolò Machiavelli and contemporaries, and a rich array of Renaissance images, we will seek to  understand the complex forms and functions of power and how human beings have used drama, history, philosophy, and the visual and scientific arts to control it. Complementing these classes will be sessions devoted to developing your skills as observers of visual materials. Field trips to a Shakespeare performance and to the Minneapolis Institute of Art round out our program.

Over the three weeks of the Institute, you will develop and present interdisciplinary, guided research projects in History (including art historical and philosophical topics) or literature and theater. 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 inviting 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