By Karen Herland

Capturing the 20th century in six credits

Name the most influential Western thinkers of the 20th century. Now fit them all into a six-credit course that allows students to appreciate the fundamentals of the humanities for the entire century, including literature, arts, philosophy and film.

It’s a tall order, but third-year students in the Liberal Arts College are introduced to Woolf, Joyce, Proust, Benjamin, Freud, Beckett, Heidegger, Foucault and Salman Rushdie in a whirlwind course that offers content and context for the 1900s, from start to finish.

Mark Russell and Ariela Freedman introduce students to the great Western thinkers of the last century. Magnifying glass

Mark Russell and Ariela Freedman introduce students to the great Western thinkers of the last century.

“It’s the culminating course in the Great Books program of the Liberal Arts College,” said Ariela Freedman, who has taught the course off and on since 1998. “It’s a challenging class to teach.”

The reading list is determined by the college’s faculty of about 10 regular professors and a handful other LTAs. The syllabus is more fluid than that of some of the other courses at the college.

“The selection of texts post-1945 requires careful consideration. None of those texts have stood the test of time,” said Mark Russell. On the other hand, Freedman said, “students are excited to address material approaching their own time.”

Freedman herself graduated from the Liberal Arts College and earned a PhD in English from New York University studying English Modernism. She is now principal of the college. “We both end up teaching outside of our own discipline. I only spend two weeks teaching authors I really write about.”

“You learn a lot teaching this course,” said Russell, who studied modern German history and art at Cambridge. “I wish I had more time for history lectures.”

The second semester alone leads students through high modernism, existentialism, structuralism, post-structuralism, post-modernism and deconstructionism.

In addition to course time, students have another session where they learn more about the times they are reading about. “Writers don’t work in a vacuum. They are encountering ideas and events and responding to them in their work,” said Freedman.

Students have just completed a few weeks dealing with World War II. A visit to the Holocaust Museum and a talk by a Holocaust survivor were offered in addition to course work.

The course has developed an increased attention to film. “We recognized that we needed to speak to such an important modernist art form,” said Freedman.

She said that showing Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will becomes a way to talk about aesthetics, but also about Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s concern with the rise of fascism. “Similarly, we show Ingmar Bergman when we discuss existential thought, and Chaplin when we talk about Beckett.”


Concordia University