Western Heritage in a Global Context

General Education

Overview of the Course


 Imagine yourself on a journey traveling with a large group of companions.  Among your traveling friends are Plato, Mencius, Muhammad, Jesus, Galileo, the Buddha, and many others.  As you move along your journey, your companions engage in intense, sometimes boisterous conversations concerning timeless questions about nature, truth, justice, power, freedom, the human soul, the good life, and the sources of human knowledge and understanding.  Can you imagine the conversations you might have with these people? What would Rama say to Muhammad about the meaning of justice?  What might Jesus say to Plato about the meaning of truth?  What might a Westerner learn from Mencius, or from reading the Tao Te Ching, about another view of honor, truth, loyalty, friendship or suffering in this world?  In fact, we are about to set out on just such a journey with a host of companions, engaging in a series of conversations that we hope will inspire your imagination and give you a firm foundation for the rest of your academic and life-long education.

This is the first year of your education at Eckerd College, and the seventeenth year for Western Heritage in a Global Context.  In many ways, you will have the opportunity to shape and influence the evolution of this changing course, just as it evolved from its predecessor, Western Heritage.  In the past, Western Heritage focused first-year students on the great ideas, the art, culture, and origins that have come to define Western civilization.  Western Heritage traced our modern beliefs, values and triumphs, as well as the failures, dilemmas, and discontents of Western civilization, back through space and time to the ancient Greeks and beyond.  Now we have accepted a challenge that recognizes the global context out of which all human civilizations have derived and acknowledges that we live in a world of inter-relationships and mutual dependency on an international scale.  The modern world is one of diversity, and international and cross-cultural relationship and exchanges.  Our times require that everyone, Westerners and non-Westerners alike, begin to communicate with greater understanding and sensitivity toward cultures and peoples unlike our own.  Your participation this year will help to shape the communication and the kinds of conversations we can have as we place Western Heritage into a global context.

Western Heritage in a Global Context (known as WHGC) will engage some of the influential works and ideas of Western civilization in a conversation with important works of non-Western civilizations.  We will also listen to voices that have often gone unrecognized in traditional Western Civilization courses.  What we envision is a journey through time that creates cross-cultural communication and allows students to consider alternatives to the received wisdom of their own culture.  At the same time, we know that ideas have consequences, and it is important for modern students to realize how their own world views have been shaped by the ideas and experiences of the past—even the ancient past.  What we believe, accomplish, and value today has emerged out of the ideas and struggles of our history and philosophy.  For example, a complete understanding of the American Revolution requires knowledge of ancient Greek philosophy, the ideal of the state and republic of Rome, the shattering of the Western order of the Middle Ages by the ideas of the Renaissance and the Reformation, and the liberating ideas of Enlightenment thinkers in the 17th Century.  Ideas do have great consequences, and our task is to engage the ideas of the West with those of other great civilizations.  Ultimately, we can ask how these ideas have influenced the past, continue to shape the present, and may shed light on our futures as human beings who share the same single planet.

An important part of Western Heritage in a Global Context is an exposure to the Arts and Sciences in human civilization.  We will also give considerable attention to faith as a way of understanding our world.  During the year we will encounter the arts on a fairly significant level.  In fact, one major text that we will use in both Fall and Spring semesters is focused on the arts, both historically as well as technically.  In the same way we will encounter the discoveries and technical transformations that have led to our scientific modern age.  In a less tangible, but no less important way, faith in a higher power underlies many of the world events around us, and provides a key to understanding human behavior on a completely different level.  Human creativity, human invention, and faith are of central importance to an understanding of who we are as human beings, how we see ourselves, and where we believe we fit in the cosmos.  Art, science, and faith have also informed our view of the universe, our relationship to nature, and our ideas about power, freedom, justice, and truth.  Thus, we will read great works of literature and philosophy, but also consider artistic, scientific, and sacred approaches as integral to our civilization.

Our conversations in WHGC this fall semester are based on some timeless themes.  We begin the fall semester by exploring journeys—those not only of great heroes, but your own as well.  You are, after all, embarking on your own quest for meaning and understanding, through an education in the liberal arts and sciences.  In the weeks that follow, we will read works that help us ponder two of the timeless questions each generation asks: What is justice?  What is truth?  Along the way we will discuss ancient science, revisit the realm of artistic expression, and consider both sacred and secular responses to these questions. 

Each section of our fall journey is built upon the reading of classic and enduring texts linked to the themes and subjects mentioned above.  You actually began your Eckerd education this summer, by reading Strength in What Remains, the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder, in which he described the journey of Deogratias (Deo), who fled the violence of war-torn Burundi and Rwanda to the United States, where he attended college and graduated from Columbia Medical School.  The story is one of human charity, resiliency, and compassion.  Once you arrive at Eckerd, we will engage in a conversation about Deo's life and its similarities to your own - the very struggles we all must overcome to grow into caring and concerning adults.  Moreover, you will have the unique opportunity to meet Tracy Kidder in September when he visits with the Class of 2016.  In addition to Deo’s journey, we will also examine the journeys of other great individuals, beginning with the oldest text and timeless epic, Gilgamesh.  We will also take look at some sacred journeys, through the book of Exodus in the Old Testament, the travels of Muhammad, and The Ramayana, a classic Hindu text.  In the second part of the semester, we will examine justice as theme, from the Confucian philosopher Mencius, Plato's Republic, and Euripides Iphigenia.  Finally, in the last third of the semester, we will discuss the concepts of truth as presented in the lives of the Buddha and Galileo, The Gospel of Mark, the Tao Te Ching, and the movie Rashômon.   

Our journey and expectations are very challenging.  To have the kind of cross-cultural conversations we hope for, while shooting through history at light speed, will demand our best efforts. To make things more difficult, some of the texts we will read are not easy to understand and will seem strange and distant from our modern sensibilities.  Other texts you may have read in high school or in courses taken at other colleges or universities.  We encourage you to enjoy the opportunity to re-read those works you’ve encountered before.  You will find that on your second or even third reading of one of these important, influential texts, you will discover ideas, images, perspectives that you missed on earlier readings.  You will also find that a text can take on different meanings when read in conversation with other works and in conversation with your professor and classmates.  Your syllabus is constructed to help you with the readings and discussion by providing explanations for each section.  Ultimately, this course is a first-year survey.  WHGC should be seen as the foundation for future study and understanding.  Just as it is very challenging and filled with high expectations, we know it is only a beginning, and of course, barely scratches the surface of all there is to know and read.  Hence, all that we may do will be imperfect, but then again, that too is one of the greatest challenges of the human experience. 

What is WHGC?

Western Heritage in a Global Context (known as WHGC) will engage some of the influential works and ideas of Western civilization in a conversation with important works of non-Western civilizations. We will also listen to voices that have often gone unrecognized in traditional Western Civilization courses. What we envision is a journey through time that creates cross-cultural communication and allows students to consider alternatives to the received wisdom of their own culture.