Touchstones in the Liberal Arts

Proposal for a First-Year Optional Core Curriculum at Dartmouth College


James Bernard Murphy

Department of Government

Dartmouth College



Sequences in the Liberal Arts: Preface.


Building on the success of the two-course Humanities Sequence, I propose to extend this success by offering a new set of Humanities Sequences, Social Science Sequences, and Natural Science Sequences.  Students who choose the First-Year Sequences in the Liberal Arts will take two courses in each of the major divisions of the College. Sequences in the Liberal Arts will thus comprise six courses in the First Year, leaving students at least three courses in which to meet other general education requirements.  A similar program at Yale, Directed Studies, also comprises six courses in the First Year: Yale’s Directed Studies program attracts the very best Yale students.  I think there are several reasons why Sequences in the Liberal Arts will be very attractive both to students lucky enough to enroll and to faculty lucky enough to teach them. First, students will satisfy most of their general education requirements in a coherent and systematic way.  Second, students will learn the fundaments of several different disciplines, enabling them to choose a major wisely.  Third, amidst the profusion of disciplines at Dartmouth, students will discover the deeper unity of knowledge by experiencing the poetry, drama, and romance of classic literature, from imaginative fiction to scientific treatise. Fourth, students will belong to a very special intellectual community with the other students in the Sequences.  Just like students in Yale’s Directed Studies Program, students in the Liberal Arts Sequences will form very strong and formative bonds with their classmates as they share all the challenges and joys of a common educational curriculum. Finally, all of these sequences are interdisciplinary, offering Dartmouth faculty a unique opportunity to learn more about the origins and significance of their own disciplines within the larger context of human culture.


Sequences in the Liberal Arts aims for a comprehensive core curriculum, ranging from humanities to natural sciences. Only the curriculum of St. John’s College (Annapolis and Santa Fe) attempts to be as comprehensive as our Sequences; but their curriculum provides no room for electives or for majors and minors.  Sequences in the Liberal Arts provides students with a solid and comprehensive general education while leaving students free to choose many electives as well as deepen their knowledge within chosen majors and minors.


The existing Humanities Sequence introduces students to many classic books of imaginative literature. These books are not necessarily better than the books taught in the upper-level literature courses, but they are pedagogically prior, in the sense that they are presupposed and referred to by all major writers.  Of course, there are equally valuable alternative ways to design a Humanities Sequence: the classic books of philosophical argument could form a Sequence, as could the classic writings of the world religions.  In designing a Sequence, we look for books that provide the fundamental ideas presupposed in all advanced work in the related disciplines


Similarly, there are several superb ways to design a Sequence in the Social Sciences. One Sequence could focus on the classic works of history, from Herodotus to Toynbee; a second Sequence could focus on classic works of political economy Adam Smith to Keynes and Hayek; a third sequence on classic works of political and legal thought from Plato to Nozick.


In the natural sciences, students would also benefit from several possible Sequences.  A Physics and Mathematics Sequence could begin with Democritus (atomic theory of matter) and end with Cantor and Heisenberg.  One invaluable insight to be gained from this sequence is to see how math and physics have evolved together.  A Biology and Chemistry Sequence could begin with Hippocrates and end with C.H. Waddington.  A Psychology Sequence could begin with Plato and end with James, Freud, and Skinner.


It is common to introduce students to the humanities by means of classic books but much less common to introduce students to the social and natural sciences by means of such classics.  Usually students approach these sciences by way of contemporary and up-to-date textbooks, introducing students to the basic theories, concepts, and facts still deemed relevant to the discipline.  What is the point of having students learn defunct and dated scientific ideas?  Actually, in a liberal arts context, there are many good reasons for teaching the social and natural sciences by means of classics books.  First, as part of their first-year general education, we are less concerned that students master the technical aspects of science and more concerned that they are captivated by the romance, drama, imaginative power, and timeless beauty of these classics of scientific theory and discovery.  A few students may be inspired by science textbooks and laboratory projects, but most will not. By contrast, these classics of scientific genius have inspired countless readers over time: there is undeniable romance to the quest for truth as manifested in these books.  These classic works are less technical and thus more accessible to our First-Year students.  We forget that many classics of science are written in the form of dramatic dialogues and imaginative thought-experiments.  These literary-scientific gems are more likely to capture a student’s imagination than the periodic table of the elements.  Second, although our incoming students have very different backgrounds in textbook social and natural sciences, when it comes to these classic books, they are all equally innocent.  Third, by seeing that many great scientific works have their origin in the seminal works of ancient philosophers, poets, and historians, students will come to appreciate that all knowledge is related. Indeed, the first physicists in history wrote in poetic verse.  The classic works of the natural and social sciences are much more closely related in style and rhetoric to the classic works of imaginative literature than they are to contemporary scientific textbooks. The same imaginative genius that led Plato to speculate about the origin of the universe and about the value of human life, also led him to discover the basic concepts of geometry known as the Platonic solids.  Aristotle uses his biological concepts to analyze works of literature.  In the context of these classic works, science becomes humanized.  Students learn about the genesis of scientific theories: what leads scientists to their startlingly new ideas and new discoveries?  What motivates these thinkers?  Whence their creativity?  Science turns out to be as romantic, frightening, dramatic, tragic and beautiful as any other human pursuit.


At a time when we are inundated with new knowledge and new disciplines, it is more important than ever to help students to see the deeper unity of knowledge in the context of the human quest for meaning.  A liberal arts education aims at relating our information and knowledge to the purposes of life.  We do not aim merely to transmit knowledge: we aim to cultivate a disposition to connect our knowledge to our other pursuits as citizens, as parents, and as professionals.  What good is scientific knowledge if we never make use of it in the course of our lives and careers?  There is no better way to inspire our students to ponder the place of knowledge in a flourishing human life than to read these classic works of discovery.


Sequences in the Liberal Arts could offer either one- or two-term courses based broadly on the lists below.  Depending upon faculty staffing, the particular Sequences offered each year will vary:  In one year, for example, students could take world literature, politics and law, and math and physics; in another year students might take world religions, classics of history, and psychology.  Every year, then, every student will get a solid, though partial, introduction to each division of the College.  In a few cases, these sequence courses will teach material also taught in other introductory courses in the College.   For example, the Politics and Law Sequence is quite similar to Government 6 (Political Ideas).  But since this Sequences Program will likely be small (Directed Studies at Yale admits only 100 students) and since no particular Sequence course will be taught every year, there is no danger of these Sequences usurping the enrollments now going to other introductory classes.  Indeed, one of the attractions of teaching in Sequences will be the opportunity it provides instructors for attracting some of our most passionate and best-prepared students to their own courses.



Sequences in the Liberal Arts: The Lists.


      Some authors and some books are at the core of human knowledge while others are at the periphery or frontiers.   The works at the core of knowledge are not necessarily better than the works at the periphery, they are just pedagogically prior.  Knowledge of the core enables us to appreciate work at the periphery.  I argue in the next section of this proposal that the core of human knowledge can largely be determined by objective measures of reference and influence.  The core writers are those most often cited or referenced by a tradition of learning.  Here I merely offer some illustrative and certainly not exhaustive lists of the most important authors and books.


I have culled these lists of books largely from core curricula at Yale, Columbia, University of Chicago, Stanford, Notre Dame, St. John’s College, Boston College, and Villanova.  There is substantial consensus about the most important authors prior to the twentieth century.  I have listed these classic books in roughly chronological order because it almost always makes sense to teach them in historical order since the later books reference and presuppose the earlier ones.  I have generally avoided authors from the past half-century because no consensus has emerged about them.


The problem is not identifying the most important authors; the problem is that there are too many great authors who have written too many great books to be included in any college curriculum.  There is more agreement about the major authors than about the major books: we agree about Tolstoy but not about the relative merits of War and Peace versus Anna Karenina. Because of this embarrassment of riches, we must select reading lists from the many equally valuable classic books. Some classic works in mathematics and physics, for example, require specialized knowledge; I have listed only books accessible to our best First-Year students.  Many classic works from non-Western cultures also demand specialized knowledge of their linguistic, historical, and religious context.  I attempt to include, therefore, only those non-Western classics most accessible to our students.


For partial listings of the scores or hundreds of Colleges and Universities offering programs for teaching classic books see:



Illustrative Examples of Possible Reading Lists for Sequences in the Liberal Arts.


Humanities Sequences: Fiction.


Homer: Iliad or Odyssey.

Aeschylus: Oresteia

Sophocles: Oedipus Cycle

Aristophanes: Clouds.

Virgil: Aeneid

Dante: Divine Comedy

Chaucer: Canterbury Tales

Petrarch: Sonnets

Shakespeare: Selected Sonnets and Dramas

Thomas More: Utopia.

Miguel de Cervantes: The History of Don Quixote

John Milton: Paradise Lost

Goethe: Faust

Moliere: Tartuffe

Racine: Phaedra

Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones

Wordsworth and Coleridge: Lyrical Ballades

Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice

Charles Dickens: David Copperfield

George Eliot: Middlemarch

Melville: Moby Dick

Hugo: Poems; Novels.

Flaubert: Madame Bovary.

Dostoevsky: Brothers Karmazov

Ibsen: Doll’s House

Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

Twain: Huckleberry Finn

Henry James: Beast in the Jungle

G.B. Shaw: Pygmalion

Conrad: Lord Jim

Joyce: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Proust: Swann’s Way

Willa Cather: Death of the Archbishop

T.S. Eliot: Waste Land

Soseki: Kokoro

Endo: Silence


Humanities Sequences: Philosophy.


Plato: Apology; Phaedo; Meno; Symposium.

Aristotle: Categories; Interpretation ;Ethics.

Plotinus: Six Enneads

Cicero: Tusculan Disputations.

Epictetus: Discourses.

Boethius: Consolation of Philosophy

Augustine: Confessions

Anselm: Proslogion..

Aquinas: On Being and Essence; Treatise on Virtue.

Maimonides: Guide for the Perplexed.

Bacon: Novum Organon

Hobbes: Leviathan

Descartes: Meditations.

            Spinoza: Ethics.

Leibniz: Monadology; New Essay on Human Understanding

Locke: Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Hume: Treatise of Human Nature

Adam Smith: Theory of Moral Sentiments

Rousseau: Discourse on Inequality.

Kant: Groundwork; Critique of Pure Reason.

Hegel: Encyclopedia

J.S. Mill: Utilitarianism; Subjection of Women

Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil; Birth of Tragedy

William James: Essays on Pragmatism.

C.S. Peirce: Essays on Pragmaticism

Dewey: Quest for Certainty.

Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations.

Heidegger: Being and Time.


Humanities Sequences: Religion.

Bhagavad Gita


Hebrew Bible



Te-Tao Ching


New Testament


Book of Mormon


Social Science Sequences: History.

Herodotus: Inquiries.

Thucydides: Peloponnesian War

Polybius: Histories

Plutarch: Parallel Lives

Livy: From the Founding of the City

Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars

Tacitus: Annals

Flavius Josephus: Jewish War

Augustine: City of God

Fa-Hien: A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms

Shakespeare: History Dramas

Machiavelli: History of Florence

Vico: The New Science

Hume: History of England

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Boswell: Life of Johnson

Carlyle: The French Revolution

Macaulay: History of England

Francois Guizot: History of Civilization in Europe

Lord Acton: History of Liberty

Fustel de Coulanges: Ancient City

George Grote: History of Greece

Tocqueville: Ancien Regime

Leopold von Ranke: The Roman Republic and its World Empire.

Theodor Mommsen: History of Rome.

Mahan: Influence of Seapower Upon History

Henry Adams: Administrations of Jefferson and Madison

Trevelyan: English Social History

Toynbee: A Study of History

Braudel: Mediterranean


Social Science Sequences: Political Economy.

Aristotle: Ethics;Politics.

Aquinas: Justice in Exchange

            Locke: Some Considerations on Money and Interest.

            Dudley North: Some Discourses on Trade

David Hume: Essays Moral, Political, Literary.

            Bernard Mandeville: Fable of the Bees

            Ferdinando Galliani: On Money

            Francois Quesnay: Tableau Economique

Turgot: Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth.

James Steuart: Principles of Political Oeconomy.

            Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations

J.-B. Say: A Treatise of Political Economy

            Thomas Malthus: Principles of Political Economy

            David Ricardo: Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.

            John Stuart Mill: Principles of Political Economy.

            Marx: Capital (vol. 1)

            Stanley Jevons: Theory of Political Economy

            Frederick List: The National System of Political Economy.

            Alfred Marshall: Principles of Economics.

            Emile Durkheim: Division of Labor in Society.

            Thorsten Veblen: The Theory of Business Enterprise.

            Max Weber: Economy and Society.

            Keynes: General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.

            Hayek: Road to Serfdom.


            Social Sciences Sequences: Political Science and Law.

            Plato: Apology; Crito; Republic; Statesman; Laws.

            Aristotle: Politics.

Cicero: Republic; Pro Caecina; Laws.

            Augustine: City of God; On Just War.

Aquinas: Treatise on Law; On Kingship; Commentary on Politics of Aristotle.

            Machiavelli: Prince; Discourses.

            Hobbes: Leviathan.

            Locke: Second Treatise of Government.

            Hume: Treatise of Human Nature.

            Rousseau: Social Contract.

            Bentham: Principles of Morals and Legislation.

            Kant: Metaphysics of Morals; Perpetual Peace.

            Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France; Letter on a Regicide Peace.

            Savigny: On the Vocation of our Age for Legislation and Jurisprudence.

            Hamilton, Madison, Jay: Federalist Papers.

            Mill: On Liberty; Subjection of Women.

            Marx: Alienated Labor; On the Jewish Question; Communist Manifesto.

            Hegel: Philosophy of Right.

            Toqueville: Democracy in America.

            Nietzsche: Genealogy of Morals; Zarathustra.

            John Austin: Province of Jurisprudence Determined.

            Henry Sumner Maine: Ancient Law.

            Weber:  Politics as a Vocation; Rule of Law.

            Hans Kelsen: Pure Theory of Law.

Lord Devlin: Law, Democracy, and Morality.

            Lon Fuller: Morality of Law.

            H.L.A. Hart: Concept of Law.

            Joseph Raz: Morality of Freedom.

John Finnis: Natural Law and Natural Rights.

            Ronald Dworkin: Law’s Empire.

            Hayek: Law, Legislation, and Liberty; Constitution of Liberty.

            Rawls: Theory of Justice; Political Liberalism.

            Nozick: Anarchy, State, and Utopia.


Natural Sciences Sequences: Math and Physics.

Empedocles: Purifications; On Nature.

Democritus: Fragments on Atomic Theory of Matter.

Plato: Timeaus; Meno.

Aristotle: Physics; Prior and Posterior Analytics; On the Heavens.

Euclid: Elements of Geometry.

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things.

Apollonius: Conics.

Nicomachus: Arithmetic.

Ptolemy: Almagest.

Boethius: On the Foundation of Arithmetic.

Omar Khayyam: Discussions of the Difficulties in Euclid.

Nicole Oresme: Commentary on Euclid.

Nicolaus Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies.

Galileo: Dialogue Concerning Two Chief World Systems; Two New Sciences.

Descartes: Geometry; Discourse on Method.

Pascal: Generation of Conic Sections.

Kepler: Epitome IV.

Viete: Introduction to the Analytical Art.

Newton: Mathematical Principles of Nature; Optics.

Leibniz: New Hypotheses in Physics; Correspondence with Clark.

Huygens: Treatise on Light; On the Movement Of Bodies by Impact.

Michael Faraday: Diaries.

Dedekind: Essay on the Theory of Numbers.

Lobachevsky: Theory of Parallels.

Fourier: The Analytical Theory of Heat.

Boltzmann: On the Relation of a General Mechanical Theorem to the Second Law

Cantor: Contributions to the Founding of the Theory of Transfinite Numbers.

Ernst Mach: Popular Scientific Lectures; Science of Mechanics.

Einstein: Relativity: the Special and General Theory.

Bohr: On the Constitution of Atoms and Molecules.

Richard Feynman: The Character of Physical Law.

Andre Weil: Number Theory: An Approach through History.

Eddington: The Nature of the Physical World.


Natural Sciences Sequences: Chemistry and Biology.

Hippocrates: Aphorisms..

Aristotle: Generation and Corruption; Generation of Animals.

Theophrastus: History of Plants.

Epicurus: Principal Doctrines.

Galen: Faculties of Man; Commentary on Hippocrates.

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things.

Avicenna: The Canon of Medicine.

Vesalius: The Making of the Human Body.

Harvey: Motion of the Heart and Blood.

Lavoisier: Elements of Chemistry.

Joseph Priestley: Considerations on the Doctrine of Phlogiston.

Dalton: A New System of Chemical Philosophy.

Lyell: Principles of Geology.

Lamarck: Philosophy of Zoology.

Linneaus: System of Nature.

Goethe: Nature’s Open Secrets.

Darwin: Origin of Species; Descent of Man.

Herbert Spencer: Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative.

Mendel: Experiments in Plant Hybridization.

Weismann: Essays upon Heredity.

R.A. Fisher: The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection.

D’Arcy Thompson: On Growth and Form.

Mayer and Mendeleev: Relation between Properties and Atomic Weights.

Waddington: The Strategy of the Genes.

J.B.S. Haldane: The Causes of Evolution.

Medawar: Art of the Soluble.

Schrodinger: What is Life?

George Simpson: This View of Life.

Hofstadter: Social Darwinism in American Thought.

Monod: Of Microbes and Life.

Francois Jacob: The Logic of Life.

Sherrington: Man on his Nature.


Natural Sciences Sequences: Psychology.

Plato: Phaedrus; Phaedo.

Aristotle: On the Soul.

Aquinas: On the Passions of the Soul.

Descartes: On the Passions; Meditations.

Malebranche: Dialogues on Metaphysics.

Locke: Essays on Human Understanding.

Berkeley: Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous.

Spinoza: On the Improvement of the Understanding.

Leibniz: New Essays on Human Understanding.

Christian Wolff: Empirical and Rational Psychology.

Kant: Anthropology.

Hegel: Philosophy of Mind (Encylopedia).

Hamilton: Lectures on Metaphysics and Logic.

Ernst Mach: On the Psychology of Enquiry.

Freud: On the Interpretation of Dreams.

Wundt: Language of Gestures; Lectures on Human and Animal Psychology.

William James: Principles of Psychology; Varieties of Religious Experience.

John Dewey: How We Think; Human Nature and Conduct.

Wolfgang Kohler: The Task of Gestalt Psychology.

John Watson: The Ways of Behaviorism.

B.F. Skinner: Verbal Behavior; Walden Two.

Noam Chomsky: Review of “Verbal Behavior”; Language and Mind.