Skip to content


Aliens, Tyrants, Greek Tragedy, Social Media, Racial Tensions and the Costs of Upward Mobility: Great Books Explores Them All


There is only one course at the University of Utah that will take students on a journey of studying one the greatest Greek tragedies to studying the relationship between the humanities and theories of evolution to studying aliens and how they communicate. The course will also take students on a powerful exploration of ambition, power, and the nature of evil, with one of literature’s greatest villains. Led by a team of top professors in the College of Humanities, HUM 1500: Great Books, engages students in a rich and rewarding experience that offers insight into the foundational questions and challenges that motivate and vex the human condition.

“The deep and profound experience that Great Books creates comes from reading books together, sharing characters, tragic awakenings, obstacles, funny turns of phrase, lost loves, great battles, and races against time,” said Hollis Robbins, dean of the College of Humanities. “Of course, it is excellent to be introduced and helped through a foundational text by an expert professor and to read late into the night by yourself. But the greatness of a Great Books course is the collective learning experience and the sharing of allusions and histories, and valuing that shared experience.”

Fulfilling the humanities gen ed requirement, Great Books not only allows first-year students to study influential and thought-provoking books, but it also offers them an opportunity to explore their academic interests across a variety of texts and to think and respond critically to enduring questions raised by those texts. According to Mike Middleton, associate dean of academic affairs for the College of Humanities, “it’s a gateway to all the Humanities has to offer.”

bookshelf with the covers of the books in the great book course

The book selections come from throughout history and from a range of authors. Each semester, humanities faculty meet and discuss what books they think will challenge and surprise students, as well as how the themes in those books relate to contemporary challenges even when they may have been written hundreds of years ago.

“Great books are those that engage students in the big and enduring questions that have and continue to shape the human experience,” said Middleton

The Fall 2024 semester great books will add “Life and Language Beyond Earth” by Raymond Hickey, “Antigone” by Sophocles, “The Chaos Machine” by Max Fisher, "Richard III" by William Shakespeare, “The Marrow of Tradition” by Charles Chesnutt, "Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility" by Jennifer M. Morton, to a growing list that may also include “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, and “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf.

“Of the millions of books ever written, the greatest books are those that have had a discernible impact on other books and fields of study. So, our faculty members choose books that have changed the way other authors write. For example, “Antigone" by Sophocles, has had an incalculable impact on world literature, as has Shakespeare’s "Richard III." Raymond Hickey’s "Life and Language Beyond Earth” is newly influential and ever more urgent as technology brings us closer to possible engagement with other worlds,” said Robbins.

Richard Preiss, associate professor of English, chose “Richard III” because of similar politics happening in today’s society. “Men of ambition claim to speak for ‘the people,’ use humor to mask their authoritarianism, and construct reality with propaganda. Literature shows us how to resist such figures: chiefly, by reminding us that they’re not new.” Preiss says students will get an accessible, absorbing introduction to Shakespeare, as well as to the basic methodology of English by concentrating on key passages in a text and noticing patterns that generate deeper levels of meaning.

Erin Beeghly, associate professor of philosophy who will teach “Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility” by Jennifer M. Morton, says she’s excited to dive into the text with the students and examine its connection with their lives. “It’s an award-winning philosophical exploration of the ethical costs of upward mobility, especially for first-generation college students. The book is beautifully researched and compelling to read, as well as incredibly personal.”

Students looking for an engaging and unique opportunity that develops critical reading, thinking and writing skills, that will support their academic success, and provide a better understanding of extraterrestrial life, can register for Great Books beginning April 1, 2024.


About the books:

Margaret Toscano, associate professor of world languages and cultures
“Antigone” by Sophocles (441 BC)

"Antigone" is a Greek tragedy that explores the conflict between familial duty and the laws of the state. The play centers around Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, who defies the orders of King Creon by burying her brother, Polynices, who was declared a traitor. Creon, the king of Thebes, has decreed that Polynices should not be buried, but Antigone believes that she must honor her brother's body according to the laws of the gods. As a result, Antigone is sentenced to death, leading to a tragic chain of events that culminate in the deaths of several characters, including Creon's son and wife. "Antigone" explores themes of morality, loyalty, loss and mourning, women’s place in society, and the nature of justice, and is considered one of the greatest works of ancient Greek literature.

Richard Preiss, associate professor of English
“Richard III” by William Shakespeare (1592)

From Priess: “’Richard III’ was Shakespeare’s first big hit – probably his most famous play during his lifetime – and it features one of literature’s greatest villains, based on one of England’s briefest, bloodiest tyrants. A study of evil and a study of power, it follows Richard’s rise to the throne through murder, deception, and manipulation. What makes him such a skilled politician also makes him a magnetic character: not despite but because of his physical disabilities (history says he was a hunchback), he is funny, charming, sexy, able to convince others – and us – that he is on their side when he is only ever on his own.”

Stuart Culver, associate professor of English and former dean of the College of Humanities
“The Marrow of Tradition” by Charles Chesnutt (1901)

A landmark in the history of African-American fiction, this gripping 1901 novel was among the first literary challenges to racial stereotypes. Its tragic history of two families unfolds against the backdrop of the post-Reconstruction South and climaxes with a race riot based on an actual 1898 incident. The author relied upon eyewitness accounts of the riot to create an authentic setting and mood, and his sensitive artistry transcends a simple re-telling of the facts with a dramatic rendering of the conflict between racism and social justice. Unabridged republication of the classic 1901 edition.

Erin Beeghly, associate professor of philosophy
“Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility” by Jennifer M. Morton (2019)

"Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility" explores the challenges faced by individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds as they strive for upward mobility. Morton argues that while upward mobility can bring material benefits, it often comes at a cost to one's ethical values and sense of identity. She examines the ethical dilemmas faced by individuals navigating the education system and the workplace and offers suggestions for how individuals and society can support upward mobility without sacrificing ethical integrity. Through personal narratives and philosophical analysis, Morton highlights the complex interplay between ambition, ethics, and social mobility in contemporary society.

Avery Holton, associate professor of communication and lead instructor
“The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World” by Max Fisher (2022)

Building on years of international reporting, Fisher tells the gripping and galling inside story of how Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social network preyed on psychological frailties to create the algorithms that drive everyday users to extreme opinions and, increasingly, extreme actions. As Fisher demonstrates, the companies’ founding tenets, combined with a blinkered focus on maximizing engagement, have led to a destabilized world for everyone.

Aniko Csirmaz, associate professor of linguistics
“Life and Language Beyond Earth” by Raymond Hickey (2023)

"Life and Language Beyond Earth" explores the possibility of life and communication with extraterrestrial beings. The book delves into the scientific theories and methods used to search for signs of life on other planets, as well as the challenges of interpreting and understanding potential extraterrestrial languages. Hickey discusses the cultural and linguistic implications of discovering alien life and considers how contact with extraterrestrial civilizations could impact human society. Overall, the book offers a comprehensive look at the intersection of science, language, and the search for life beyond Earth

Last Updated: 3/26/24