NEH-Supported Pilot Course Asks, ‘What is Love?’

What is love? Rousseau, Freud, and Plato are among those who have explored the age-old question, and now Ursinus College students will study it too, appropriately, during the spring semester, when thoughts tend to turn to love, to paraphrase Lord Alfred Tennyson. The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded a two-year Enduring Questions Pilot Course Grant to Associate Professor of Politics Jonathan Marks to explore the concept of love.

The Enduring Questions program supports development of a course that will encourage undergraduate students to “grapple with a fundamental question addressed by the humanities, and to join together in a deep and sustained program of reading in order to encounter influential thinkers over the centuries and into the present day.”

Why the question of love? “We have strong feelings about it and are perplexed by it,” explains Marks. “Students need no encouragement from their instructors to wonder how they can know whether they’re in love, for example, or what sex has to do with love.” He added that students will also “try to learn whether falling in love is a trick that evolution plays on us, or a spiritual experience that defies biological explanations, or something else.” (Pictured: Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

Senior John Moriarity of Glen Mills, Pa., hopes the course will help him acquire the wisdom to navigate questions like: “Does love supply the capacity to build or destroy? Does love complete human beings or tear them apart?” Love, he notes, “remains integral for fulfilling personal relationships and successful communities,” and understanding it may lead to a more  fulfilling life.

The small-group class, to be offered in 2011 and 2012, will introduce contemporary and classic readings to students from a wide variety of disciplines, because, Marks explains, the subject oversteps the bounds of any one discipline. As in the Common Intellectual Experience, Ursinus’s first-year core course, students will benefit from the insights of their peers from across the College. Students will read the works of Plato, Augustine, Rousseau, Jane Austen, Freud, and C.S. Lewis, among others. They will also hear from speakers, including Beth Bailey, author of From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America (1989). Marks was inspired to apply for the grant after attending the 2009 Jack Miller Summer Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Pictured: Professor Marks)

Marks, who did his undergraduate work and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, is the author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (Cambridge University Press, 2005). He has also written articles on Rousseau’s thought for several publications, including the American Political Science Review and the American Journal of Political Science, and reviewed books for Commentary and the Weekly Standard.

Students are eager to learn about love. “Love is overwhelming proof that humans are not rational actors,” offers senior Thomas Nucatola of Wading River, N.Y. “An understanding of this perplexing concept will without a doubt, improve my ability to understand human political, economic and social actions. “

Robert Vogt, a senior from Basking Ridge, N.J., views love “as a fundamental aspect of the human condition, and therefore deserving of philosophic contemplation.” But he is most excited about the opportunity to engage in dialogue that offers different viewpoints. — W.G.