“We must travel because immediate self-observation is not enough,
by a long way, to enable us to know ourselves.”
Classical Cultures is a January intersession course that students may take to satisfy a Global Diversity requirement in the general education curriculum. I organized and developed this Philosophy course to introduce students to three seminal periods in Western Civilization: Classical Greece, the Roman Empire, and Renaissance Italy and to provide them with an opportunity to explore European life. These interterm excursions are designed to integrate the intellectual and experiential dimensions of learning, providing students with academic grounding in the history, philosophy, religion, art, and architecture of the Western tradition while allowing them to develop a sense of global awareness through their travels in Europe.
The course syllabus contains a variety of learning components. A common reading on the nature and influence of Greco-Roman culture examines the social and cultural features of the Western intellectual tradition. This text serves as a foundation for class discussion before our departure. Before arriving in Europe students also complete a group research project corresponding to a specific feature of our trip (e.g., a group might research the Parthenon and introduce their work the evening before our visit to the site). During our travels, students compose a daily journal detailing how their experiences have enhanced their understanding of each historical period. At the end of the trip, students synthesize their experiences in a reflective essay. The goal of this academic work is to provide students with a broad appreciation of Western culture and to help them develop skills to negotiate foreign cultures.
The Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu once advised his students to “cast aside country, break with tradition, and travel on.” This class listens to his advice. The itinerary allows students to walk through the Western tradition, identifying the major social and cultural features of each historical period and locating areas of influence and innovation. The class begins in Athens, where we spend four days touring the Acropolis, agora, and a variety of other archaeological sites (e.g., the Pnyx, theater of Dionysus, and the temple of Zeus) and museums.
We have a number of options for travel within Greece during our stay in Athens. Past trips have taken excursions to Delphi to examine the ruins of this famous religious complex, while others have toured important archaeological sites such as Corinth, where students walk in the footsteps of Paul; Epidaurus, the site of a shrine to Asclepius, the god of medicine, and the home of Greece’s best preserved theater; and the Bronze Age ruins of Mycenae mentioned in Homer’s epic poems. Leisure activities include walking through the Plaka, the oldest district in Athens, and taking a tour of the Saronic islands of Hydra, Poros, and Aegina.
Thereafter we travel to Rome (either by ferry or plane), where we stay for four days. Here we begin with a tour of the Colosseum, Forum, Capitoline Hill, and Pantheon to develop an appreciation for the culture of the Roman Republic and Empire. A day trip to Pompeii or Herculaneum offers further opportunities to explore ancient Roman city life. Upon our return to Rome, a tour of the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s basilica, and the Sistine Chapel begins our transition to analyzing Renaissance culture. During their leisure time students visit Rome’s iconic sites: Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps, and churches such as St. John’s Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore, or Santa Maria degli Angeli.
While staying in Rome, previous trips have taken an excursion to Herculaneum, the best presevred city from Roman antiquity and one of the victims of the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Other groups have spent a few days in the coastal town of Sorrento, which provides easy access to Pompeii, another city destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius.
The itinerary then leads north to Siena and then Florence, our home base for the next four days. A walking tour introduces students to the city’s history, art, and architecture from its Roman origins through the late Renaissance and concludes with a stop at the Accademia Museum to view Michelangelo’s David. Thereafter the class takes a tour of the Uffizi Museum to learn about the artistic features of Italian art through the works of such masters as Giotto, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sandro Botticelli. During their free time students have chosen to stroll through the town center, shop, and attend a Fiorentina soccer match.
The trip concludes with two days in Venice. Our time in this city begins with a tour of Piazza San Marco to visit the basilica, the Doge’s palace, and the surrounding museums to learn about the city’s unique social and architectural history and view the artistic achievements of High Renaissance painters such as Titian and Tintoretto. During their free time, students brave the cold temperatures to visit the Rialto Bridge, shop along the city’s narrow streets, and spend time in conversation in a café.