Transformative Ideas

Transformative Ideas offers students the opportunity to participate in courses that promote open and civil cross-disciplinary dialogue about “Transformative Ideas” – those enduring questions and big ideas that change lives, link cultures, and shape societies around the world.

Fall 2022 Courses

What does it look like for a human life to go well? What leads to human flourishing or “happiness” or “success?” How do our beliefs (or lack thereof) about God or the gods shape our answers to life’s big questions? We examine how the following philosophical or religious traditions around the globe have answered these questions, beginning with their founders: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Stoicism. Taught by instructors from Classical Studies, Philosophy, Religious Studies, the Sanford School of Public Policy, and Duke Divinity.

This course examines the nature, ends, and practice of medicine as it relates to the human condition. How can medicine foster human flourishing and well-being — individual and social — against the experience of injury, pain, and suffering? Students will explore answers to this question within a variety of historical and contemporary contexts. Taught by instructors from African & African American Studies, Biology, Classical Studies, Family Medicine, Global Health, and the Trent Center.

Boccaccio’s Decameron occupies a crucial place in the multi-millennial discourse about love for a simple reason: it transforms love into a verb. Boccaccio’s often-censored stories show love in action, as a transformative experience that can delight, degrade, deceive, derange, destroy, and even divinize. Exploring love in its many forms—carnal lust, familial affection, platonic friendship—Boccaccio challenges and subverts ideas found in Dante, Virgil, Ovid, Catherine of Siena, and Petrarch. During the semester we will analyze censored editions and translations to understand the political consequences of Boccaccio’s revolutionary stories whose attention to the body, desire, language, gender, cultural difference, and freedom both shaped social thought from Machiavelli to Pasolini—and continues to provoke new ideas about the problem of love today. Taught by Martin Eisner of Romance Studies

What is science? How is it conducted, and who takes part? What are the legal, ethical, and political considerations that accompany scientific inquiry? We will examine such questions in this course, which will investigate the relationship between science and the people that participate in it, whether they be experts or members of the public. Taught by Jennifer Jhun of Philosophy.

What is power? Must violence create and maintain it, or can culture alone do some of that work? We will explore how cultural formations have understood and even shaped the relationship between power and politics on public stages of all sorts, from theater to the battlefield. Reading include Aristotle, Machiavelli, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Wole Soyinka, Alfred Jarry, and Caryl Churchill, among others. Taught by Douglas Jones of Theater Studies and English.

All of us routinely make use of a whole range of moral categories in our everyday lives. But do we really have a clear conception of, say, friendship, justice, or sin? If pressed, can we tell the difference between remorse and regret or self-awareness and self-recognition? Could we explain even to those most dear to us the link between evil and suffering or love and forgiveness? Drawing on a wide range of short philosophical, religious, and literary writings from Plato to the present (as well as some film selections), our aim will be to understand moral concepts of which we routinely make use, through too often with little or no clarity. Taught by Thomas Pfau of English

Underlying many current debates about social and economic policy are three fundamental worldviews, imperfectly captured by the labels conservatism, liberalism, and progressivism/socialism. While the course will focus on the development of liberalism in its various instantiations through time, by examining the arguments of its critics and their various interactions, we will gain a better understanding of all three traditions. Taught by Bruce Caldwell of Economics and Alfredo Watkins of the Kenan Institute for Ethics

Who helped transform the musician from servant to seer? Is it possible to love the art and abhor the artist? Who put the “modern” in musical modernism? Is the teaching of music still largely governed by a man who was born more than 330 years ago?

The arts embody feelings and ideas and in the history of the arts, certain creative individuals have exerted an enormous influence on the trajectory of their art form. In Western music, specific composers during different style periods have been profoundly influential on music and culture, transforming the ways music is made and culturally perceived. This course examines the influence of Bach, Beethoven, Wagner and Stravinsky on their own time periods and subsequent generations of musicians and artists. Taught by Harry Davidson of Mus