Initiated in 1981-1982 with the support of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Great Conversation is a regular but optional part of the St. Olaf curriculum consisting of five sequential courses. A student takes one of the five courses during each semester and the interim of the first year and one course each semester of the sophomore year.

In addition to a Great Conversation course, a student chooses three other courses during each of the semesters in which she or he participates. These four courses comprise a normal course load. The regular college grading system is used for all courses in the program.

By successfully completing all five courses of The Great Conversation, a student fulfills the following General Education requirements:

  • Biblical and Theological Study, BTS-B (one course)
  • First-year Seminar, FYW (one course)
  • Historical Studies in Western Culture, HWC (two courses)
  • Artistic Studies, ALS-A (one course)
  • Literary Studies, ALS-L (one course)
  • Courses with Writing, WRI (three courses)
  • Oral Communication, ORC (one course)

NOTE: For more information on the General Education Requirements for Graduation at St. Olaf, please see the “Graduation Requirements” section of the St. Olaf Catalog.

Class Descriptions

GC 113: The Tradition Beginning: The Greeks and the Hebrews
First Year, Semester I
Students contrast the world views of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews: Greek polytheism and the hero with the Hebrew notion of one God and the believer; Greek notions of civic community and earthly life with the Hebrew ideal of a religious covenant and historical destiny; Greek thoughts about beauty, war, peace, justice, politics, metaphysics, art, architecture, and drama with the prophetic stance toward the past and the future. Students read and discuss works by Homer, Sappho, Thucydides, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, the writers of the Hebrew scripture, and the artistry of the Parthenon. Offered annually in the Fall Semester.

GC 115: The Tradition Continuing: The Romans and the Christians
First Year, Interim
Students explore the Greek and Hebrew legacies in Roman society and in the New Testament, discussing various attempts to find personal fulfillment in political life, in stoicism and Epicureanism, and in the teachings of Christ and St. Paul. Students read works by Cicero, Horace, Virgil, Epictetus, the writers of Christian scripture and study the artistry of Roman sculpture. Prerequisite: Great Conversation 113. Offered during Interim.

GC 116: The Tradition Redefined: The Medieval Synthesis
First Year, Semester II
This course pursues the expansion of Christianity throughout the Roman world and the synthesis of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman thought in the early Middle Ages. Students consider the development of a unified world view as expressed in religious devotions, philosophy, literature, and art and in monasticism and feudalism in Church and Empire. Students discuss works by Augustine, Benedict, Hildegard of Bingen, Aquinas, Dante, Chaucer, and Christine de Pisan, medieval drama, and the artistry of Chartres Cathedral. Prerequisites: Great Conversation 113 and 115. Offered annually in the Spring Semester.

GC 217: The Tradition Renewed: New Forces of Secularization
Sophomore Year, Semester I
Students examine the Renaissance’s return to classical values and the Reformation’s return to early Christian attitudes that challenge the authority of the medieval synthesis. Students trace the development of new sources of authority including the new science with its influence on art, literature, politics, and philosophy. Discussions consider writers and artists such as Luther, Calvin, Michelangelo, Teresa of Avila, Caravaggio, Shakespeare, Descartes, Milton, Rembrandt, Aphra Behn, Locke, Bach, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Goethe. Prerequisites: Great Conversation 113, 115, and 116. Offered annually in the Fall Semester.

GC 218: The Tradition in Crisis: Dissenters and Defenders
Sophomore Year, Semester II
Revolutionary changes occurred in economics, politics, philosophy, aesthetics and women’s roles at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. Students consider the development of modern social and natural sciences and examine various attempts to restate the Western tradition in the face of continuing intellectual and social transformations. Students discuss writers and artists such as Burke, Paine, David, Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Mill, Beethoven, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Darwin, Marx, Ibsen, Freud, Nietzsche, Woolf, Proust, Niebuhr, King, and Picasso. Prerequisites: Great Conversation 113, 115, 116, and 217. Offered annually in the Spring Semester.

GC 250: Theology and the Visual Arts: The Great Conversation in Italy (abroad)
Study of Christian theology and visual art in central and northern Italy (Rome, Florence, Milan and environs), ranging from ancient to modern times. Theological exploration of the significance of visual art and consideration of selected art works, in museums and on site, as expressions of theological meaning. Readings from traditional and contemporary Christian theology and art-historical interpretation. Subject treated in the broader sweep of intellectual history covered in The Great Conversation program. Prerequisite: Completion of Great Conversation 217 or permission of instructor. Last offered in Interim 2001.

GC 271: The Great Conversation on “The Grand Tour” in Greece and Italy (abroad)
From about 1600 to 1830, the Grand Tour to the natural and cultural wonders of continental Europe was widely considered to constitute the culmination of the best education. In this course, students will visit major archaeological sites and museums in Greece and Italy and study the actual works of art and architecture that were included as units of study in the Great Conversation. The idea of the Grand Tour will be employed to frame discussion, study and reflection on the roles of the Great Conversation and travel in a St. Olaf education. Prerequisite: completion of Great Conversation 217 or permission of the instructors. Last offered in Interim 2004.

GC 310: Ethical issues and Normative Perspectives: The Great Conversation Continued
This course examines ethical issues from perspectives that are contemporary expressions of or reactions to classic normative traditions covered in the two-year sequence of the Great Conversation program. Included among these are one or more contemporary representatives of the Christian theological tradition. Among the possible ethical issues considered are political morality, sexuality, gender, matters of life and death (war, euthanasia, abortion), economic justice, and environmental responsibility. Prerequisites: completion of Great Conversation 218 or permission of instructor required; completion of BTS-T.