Why I Teach Underclassmen

Professors Caroline Hoxby and Blair Hoxby teaching in ESF 1/1A: The Active, Inquiring, Beautiful Life. Credit: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

I instruct underclassmen because I value being a part of the crucial discoveries and choices that students make in their first years of college.  Together with my wife Caroline Hoxby (Professor of Economics), I teach Education as Self-Fashioning: The Active, Inquiring, and Beautiful Life, a seminar that introduces freshmen to the ideals of a liberal arts education while inviting them to consider how they can make the best use of their time at Stanford to craft a life that is at once personally fulfilling and socially useful.  We focus on the lives of intellectuals who have put their education to use in the public sphere.  From the Roman emperors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius we progress to the likes of Thomas Jefferson, J. S. Mill, and W. E. B. Dubois.  Along the way, we ask questions that are crucial to freshmen.  Should they pursue a vocational or a liberal arts education?  What role should love and the cultivation of beauty play in a well-crafted life?  How can you balance the claims of action and contemplation?

In my freshmen seminar Theatrical Wonders from Shakespeare to Mozart, I introduce students to the joy and mystery of live performance, whether it be in the theater or the opera house.  I ask students to analyze theatrical scenes, to review performances, and even to perform themselves.  Attending the theater, the opera, and the ballet, is one of the great and abiding pleasures of life, and I want to make sure that any Stanford student, regardless of major, can be a knowledgeable and enthusiastic theater-goer.

An acquaintance with the major works of literature and philosophy in some cultural tradition is also an aid to living a rich life.  That's why I look forward to co-teaching the second quarter of the "European" track of the new Humanities Core with Marisa Galvez (Assistant Professor of French).  We will lead students through some of the major documents of western civilization, from Dante's Inferno to Milton's Paradise Lost, from Martin Luther's Theses to Descartes' Meditations.  How did a re-encounter with antiquity produce the flowering of civilization known as the Renaissance?  How did the first encounters between the Old World and the New World change history?  Did our modern sense of what it is to be human emerge during this era?  What are the origins of social contract theory and international law? To answer any of these questions, we must return to the transition from the "Middle Ages" to "Early Modernity."

I well remember the most important courses I took as an underclassman.  In the Medieval Imagination, my professor Dante Della Terza introduced me to some of the major texts of western civilization from St. Augustine to Dante, along the way reciting in his beautiful Old French, Provençal, and Italian.  That class is the reason I became a professor of literature.  Stephen Jay Gould's class on geology and evolutionary biology is the reason I almost became a geologist. In both cases, I remember both the thrill of learning new things and the repeated experience of thinking I had crossed the Alps, only to see many peaks in the distance.  It puts me in mind of Alexander Pope's description of what it is like to read and re-read the classics:

     In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,
     While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
     Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
     But more advanc'd, behold with strange Surprize
     New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!
     So pleas'd at first, the towring Alps we try,
     Mount o'er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;
     Th' Eternal Snows appear already past,
     And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:
     But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
     The growing Labours of the lengthen'd Way,
     Th' increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,
     Hills peep o'er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
 
It is always a pleasure to share that journey with freshmen.
Blair Hoxby

Associate Professor of English