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From the director: Letter to the class of 2018

18 June 2014

Dear Students of the Class of 2018:

“The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen,” writes one of the authors you’ll be reading during the Language and Thinking Program, “and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.” Looking toward this summer’s program, you might ask yourself: what is different from one time, from one generation, to another? What is distinctive about the experience of your generation, and your particular cohort—students entering Bard College in August of 2014?

One way to think about what distinguishes the present is to consider closely a particular point in the past. One hundred years ago, Franz Kafka was writing novels and stories that would profoundly shape the direction of 20th and 21st century literature and the arts more broadly. During the same period, Albert Einstein was developing his theory of relativity, which would revolutionize the scientific understanding of the physical universe. And 2014 marks one century since the start of the “Great War,” a cataclysmic event that transformed the political, economic, social, and cultural landscape of much of the world.

This summer, the year 1914 will be one point of focus for our inquiries during Language and Thinking. To begin this endeavor, one of the two reading assignments we’re asking you to complete before you arrive on campus is Kafka’s novella “The Metamorphosis” (see details below), which was written in 1912 and published in 1915. In Kafka’s diary from the period, there is a striking one-line entry dated 2 August 1914: “Germany has declared war on Russia—afternoon, swimming lessons.” The remark has intrigued people who study Kafka’s life and writing, and they have proposed various and conflicting interpretations. As you read “The Metamorphosis,” perhaps you’ll speculate for yourself on what he might have meant (perhaps you’ll even want to read Kafka’s diaries… or start writing your own!). At the very least, the remark and the diverse responses it has elicited remind us that it’s a complex matter to understand the relationship between an author and his or her time, and likewise, to understand a historical period through what has been written during and about it. In August, you’ll have a taste of this complexity as we read together works by Kafka, Einstein, Gertrude Stein, W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Fussell and others, and as we try to think our way back to the time that many regard as the beginning of the modern age.

The second reading assignment is a selection from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (see details below). Like Kafka, Darwin has had a profound influence not only on developments within his field, but within the culture more broadly. Both authors are provocative, and also playful, interlocutors on the question of what is “different from one time to another.” Darwin emphasizes the sheer immensity of time over which “natural selection” has operated, while Kafka effects the metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa from human to insect in a fictive instant. Both authors are invaluable guides and partners as we, collectively, try to comprehend the world of nature and culture as it is, the world in which your generation is coming of age. At the same time, these writers manifest bold new thinking that is informed by careful observation and reflection. As you read these texts, attend not only to their content—the theory of natural selection, the story of Gregor Samsa—but also to how each author responded to the particular challenges of his time.

When you arrive in Annandale, you’ll receive an anthology of texts unified by a question—what does it mean to be human?—and focused by two words: freedom and constraint. You may wish to bear this in mind as you read Darwin and Kafka. What does each work suggest to you about what it means to be human? What are the attributes of the set or category “human being” and how is it distinguished from that which is not human? Who makes such determinations and why? If a theory like Darwin’s is constrained by conformity to observable facts, how should we understand the freedom of scientific imagination? What, if anything, are the constraints on literary imagination? How much license do we have when we interpret a work of fiction, and what if anything are the limits of interpretation?

The anthology comprises texts by many authors who, like Darwin and Kafka, are both students of the past and innovators. These include philosophers and contemporary social and natural scientists who examine the relationship between homo sapiens and non-human animals, and writers from various fields who think about the place of the human species, in all its diversity, within ever-shifting political configurations, living in a unique and fragile biosphere. You’ll also encounter in the anthology fiction by the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee and poetry by Caribbean-Canadian author M. NourbeSe Philip. Both are deep readers of literary tradition who experiment with new forms to respond to the present moment. And the Language and Thinking curriculum includes much besides texts. You might visit Amy Sillman’s exhibition at the Hessel Museum, or listen to a performance of Franz Schubert’s music in connection with the Bard Music Festival. There are films, lectures, and panel discussions. You’ll have the opportunity to explore the built and natural environments of the campus. And throughout all of this, you’ll be writing and writing and writing.

Preparation for Language and Thinking is simple. Get the books by Darwin and Kafka, read them, and start writing. You might even start writing in the margins. I recommend you also use a traditional paper notebook. There’s no specific writing assignment. Just start recording your thoughts, questions, objections, perplexities, insights, etc. And why not write about other things while you’re at it? Use the notebook to mark down your own observations of the natural and social world and to develop your own theories and stories. Think freely, and work out your thoughts on the page. Be Darwin for a while—or Kafka or W. E. B. Du Bois or Einstein or NourbeSe Philip—and in so doing, try to figure out what it means to be who you are in the summer of 2014. Bring the notebook with you to Bard. I’ll be tweeting about the texts and other aspects of the program throughout the summer @tbartscherer —perhaps we’ll start the conversation even before you arrive. And you can follow developments on our website (http://languageandthinking.bard.edu) and find us on Facebook.
As you prepare, know that your future classmates, presently dispersed throughout the world, are reading the same books and reflecting on similar questions. To exploit the opportunities and meet the challenges of your generation will require both judicious reflection on the world you inherit and courageous new thinking about what you, what we, will make of this world in the near and more distant future. Liberal education aims to foster such thoughtful, imaginative engagement, and for you, the labor and the pleasure of liberal education at Bard begins with the Language and Thinking program. The faculty of the program and our colleagues across the College are ready to assist you in this work, and with the transition to life on campus. Most importantly, you’ll have one another, your generation, the Class of 2018. I look forward to greeting you in Annandale-on-Hudson.

Sincerely,
Thomas Bartscherer
Director
Language and Thinking

A Note on the Texts

The required texts are: Charles Darwin’s On Natural Selection (Penguin Books (2005), ISBN: 0-14-303630-0), and Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis,” in The Complete Stories (Schocken Books (1995), ISBN: 0805210555). The edition matters: rely on the ISBN to be sure you are getting the correct edition. The Darwin should be read in its entirety. For Kafka, the required text is “The Metamorphosis” only.

Language and Thinking Student Volunteers

“Could Language and Thinking host a dedicated hour each afternoon for students who wish to meet with students from other sections, or whoever shows up, to discuss what was studied in class sessions that day?” And, “When are we going to have a reunion party with all of the Language and Thinking faculty?” These were some of the questions and suggestions raised, among many others, at a meeting of Language and Thinking student volunteers last night. Program Director Thomas Bartscherer led a lively discussion with these first year students about the Program, including what they loved and what they would have liked to see done differently.