The Art of Conversation
Conversation is at the heart of a St. Olaf education. We want students to develop the ability to listen carefully, argue forcefully, and be the kind of engaged thinker who makes a conversation more interesting.
St. Olaf’s signature Conversation programs are interdisciplinary, team-taught explorations that take students on five distinct intellectual journeys through influential texts and ideas that have shaped our past and will guide our future. Programs for first-year students explore the origins and development of Western civilization, the formation and ideals of America’s national culture, and the emergence of environmentalism. A Conversation program exploring Asian cultures begins with first-year language study and continues during the sophomore year. The animating ideas that inform these interdisciplinary Conversations are pursued across the frontiers of the liberal arts, drawing on art, history, literature, music, philosophy, religion, and the natural and social sciences. Students drawn to the Conversations have an insatiable curiosity, eagerly engage in discussion, and have a passion for learning that is not easily quenched.
American Conversations — AmCon — is an interdisciplinary learning community for students interested in an in-depth exploration of American history and culture. Thomas Jefferson thought education was critical to democracy. From its beginnings, the American Conversations program has encouraged students to seek to live Jefferson’s dream that “free and educated citizens should learn to understand what is going on in the world, and to keep their part of it going right.” This dream lies at the core of Am Con, which not only looks closely at America’s history, values, and role in the world, but continues to question what American values could and should be. What do we mean when we talk about freedom, rights, and justice for all? Where did the American Dream come from, and where is it going?
Students will approach the American story from historical, literary, artistic, cultural, and social science points of view. In the process, they will develop skills in writing, public speaking, and, most important, critical thinking.
Asian Conversations offers students a dynamic cultural exploration that begins with two semesters of language study (Chinese or Japanese) during a student’s first year, taken with a First-Year Writing course, a First- Year Religion course, and four elective courses (two each semester). Asian Con students continue their language study during their sophomore year, as they embark on a three-course Asian Conversations exploration of the history and culture of an increasingly important part of the world.
Asian Conversations follows “Journeys Through Asia,” a theme that captures both the content of the course and the opportunity for students to explore China and Japan during the Interim of their sophomore year. Readings include historic and contemporary narratives of Asian travelers, pilgrims, and migrants. Through these stories, students examine the range of communities and boundaries that have shaped Asia’s political, economic, cultural, linguistic, and environmental communities. Throughout, students will explore Asian interpretations of the human condition from a variety of religious, philosophical, and literary perspectives.
Environmental issues — scientific, social, and cultural — are a major focus of public policy and a profound influence on our daily lives. As a subject of study, environmental issues cross disciplinary boundaries and invite fresh thinking. They are a perfect topic for St. Olaf’s newest pilot Conversation program: Environmental Conversations.
Using the campus as a learning lab, EnCon students will have opportunities to examine St. Olaf’s many environmental initiatives through backstage looks at the college’s handling of food, waste, composting, or power generation. Students will look at issues of building design, construction, and sustainability, including the LEED Platinum Regents Hall of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. En Con students will travel off-campus to ecologically interesting sites such as Weaver Dunes, Nerstrand Big Woods, local organic farms, or the student-run STOGROW farm adjacent to campus. Students may also elect to participate in a service learning project to put what they have learned into practice.
The Great Conversation
The Great Conversation is designed for students interested in exploring the cultural legacy of Western civilization through the influential books and works of art that have informed and inspired people through the ages. Great Con is for students who believe that learning about the past is profoundly relevant to understanding the present, for students who want to examine the Western tradition in a unified way, and for students who believe that an education ought to cultivate discriminating minds, inquisitive spirits, and moral sensitivity.
The Great Conversation is a liberal arts education in full, incorporating literature, history, philosophy, religion, and the arts from many points of view. The reading is far-reaching, the pace intense, and the class discussions forceful. The discipline and skills developed through Great Con benefit all scholarly paths and for the past three decades have prepared students for professional experiences ranging from social work to teaching to law and medicine.