The Great Conversation

All St. Olaf students can discover the key elements of the Western tradition, at least indirectly, in many of their studies. But students who participate in The Great Conversation encounter this cultural legacy directly.

Students in Great Con 218 posing for one last Tableau Vivant (Picaso’s Guernica)
Students in Great Con 218 posing for one last Tableau Vivant (Picaso’s Guernica)

The Great Conversation is a sequence of five courses that introduces the major epochs of Western civilization to students via great works of human achievement. Beginning with the study of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, the program traces the evolution of literacy and artistic expression, philosophic thought, religious belief, and the sciences of human behavior into the modern world. Students who completethe program bring a broad grounding in most of the liberal arts to their majors, to other courses, and to their study of other cultures

Students in the program are not passive recipients of information about their intellectual heritage. Rather, they respond to great works in an interdisciplinary way, challenging the ideas expressed in the works and challenging their own ideas as well, thus joining in the great conversation of men and women through the ages about perennial issues of human life.

“Conners” are diverse in their aspirations. Students who have completed the program have majored in biology, classics, political science, chemistry, literature and language, music — the whole range of liberal arts. The knowledge and skills acquired through the Great Conversation apply to all disciplines, and are useful throughout adult life.

Testing beliefs

The Great Conversation challenges students to share ideas orally and in writing, to focus thoughts into constructive, organized patterns, to explore difficult ideas and themes through discussion with classmates, led by experienced instructors.

Class discussion will very likely test beliefs, pique curiosity, and shatter preconceptions. When Great Conversation students encounter great works of art, they read epics, plays, paintings, and novels, and philosophical, political, and religious documents. They become acquainted with works from Genesis to The Origin of Species created by artists from Homer to Picasso.

The Great Conversation is a program for those who like to read, discuss, and write about ideas. It is for those who believe that learning about the past is profoundly relevant to understanding the present, for those who want to examine the Western tradition in a unified way, and for those who believe that an education ought to cultivate discriminating minds, inquisitive spirits, and moral sensitivity.