Like the ‘Odyssey,” New College of Florida is embracing an exciting journey

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- by President Richard Corcoran - Guest Column to Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Florida Standard


The introduction to Homer’s “Odyssey” tells us that the hero was “a man of many twists and turns.” The trials and adventures of this wily figure will be a centerpiece of the new core curriculum at New College of Florida. Starting next year, all first-year students will take a required course on the epic that will focus on close reading, analysis and discussion.

New College’s new core curriculum unites the Greek concepts of logos (reasoned speech) and techne (applied knowledge). The logos curriculum provides students with the opportunity to read directly and extensively from the great works of the past. In the “Odyssey” class, new students will take their first step on this enriching and exciting journey.

Why the “Odyssey”? Most people are familiar with some of the flashier elements of Odysseus’s story, such as his confrontations with the Cyclops and the Sirens. But when students approach the text carefully and inquisitively, they learn that it is in fact a rich, complex literary work that raises enduring human questions:

What is a hero? What is the nature of identity and self-discovery? What are the consequences of hubris and the pursuit of power? What is the role of fate and free will in human life? What is the nature of temptation, and the consequences of indulgence? What do the bonds of loyalty, love and family demand?

Our course on the “Odyssey” will demonstrate to new students that they don’t have to be experts to ask serious questions and get serious answers from ancient works, and to have fun while doing it. While the course is being designed and directed by the knowledgeable and experienced classicists at the college, the focus will be on small group discussions where students learn how to talk about literature thoughtfully and productively with their friends.

To further emphasize the accessibility of the great works of the past, faculty section leaders will include many professors from disciplines unrelated to the classics: this semester, for example, they include an economist and a specialist in eastern religions. In this environment of free exploration, we expect students to develop the skills and the confidence to confront other great works in the future.

Most class meetings feature guest lecturers who discuss how some aspect of the “Odyssey” illuminates questions and problems in their own disciplines. For example, a professor of art history will describe how the image of Penelope weaving has inspired modern artists, while a professor of political economy will use the image of Odysseus bound to the mast as the ship passes the Sirens to introduce the paradox of choosing constraints in designing constitutions. These presentations will introduce new students to professors and fields they might be unfamiliar with, and emphasize the interconnected nature of all learning.

The pilot version of the course is being offered now. On a recent Monday evening before class, students and section leaders chatted and ate tacos and barbecue from a couple of food trucks outside the classroom. In the classrooms, students debated whether the young Telemachus’s rebuke of his mother Penelope is meant to underscore his immaturity or signal his coming of age. Students read passages aloud in support of their arguments.