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Paideia 450: Crowds, Culture, and Cuisine: The Ancient and Modern City

A January Term study abroad course

Curricular materials created for the 2013 SAIL seminar:

Mediterranean Trivium: Earth, Sea, & Culture in Italy

This was a January Term study abroad course (Paideia 450) offered in 2014 by Luther College professors Matthew Simpson (philosophy) and Ruth Caldwell (modern languages), including travel to Italy (Rome and Florence) and France (Lyon and Paris). A Paideia 450 is a team-taught course for juniors and seniors devoted to interdisciplinary study of an ethical issue that confronts us in our lives as learners and citizens.

The overarching goal of this course was for students to begin to develop a sense of the ways in which scholars and creative writers have responded to the experience of urbanism in several European cities in periods of great historical significance.

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Course Summary

The rebuilding of Paris in the 1860’s created perhaps the first modern city: a rationalized environment for organizing vast populations. This project has since become the norm for modern societies — in apartment complexes, subdivisions, amusement parks, shopping malls, sports stadiums, and entire planned cities. Yet urban life is not a purely modern experience. Rome is thought to have reached a population of one million in the first century BCE, a size not achieved again on the European continent until the 19th century.

This course will visit four European cities that reached the height of their influence in successive periods of European history from ancient to modern times: Rome, Florence, Lyon, and Paris. By reading some of the classic literature from these cities produced during these periods (such as Boccaccio in Florence and Baudelaire in Paris), and by experiencing the cities themselves, we will ask: How does the built environment of the city affect our relationships to each other, to ourselves, and to the natural world?

This course will ask students to reflect on questions of value: what is created and what is lost with density of population, comprehensive built environments, mixing of ethnicities, control of nature, the separation yet mixing of classes, the availability of spectacle, the growth of the arts, the overarching regimentation of life (movement, work, and leisure, etc.)? What ways of thinking, and what ways of life, are enabled or precluded by urban experience? And how can we understand the paradoxical phenomena of the self in the city: isolation and the crowd; freedom and regimentation; stimulation and boredom; social mobility and class structure?

Course Context

All Luther graduates are required to take at least one course with the designation Paideia 450. This is (as stated in the college catalog), “a team-taught course for juniors and seniors devoted to interdisciplinary study of an ethical issue that confronts us in our lives as learners and citizens. Paideia 450 courses pay special attention to the nature of moral decision making and to the continued development of students’ writing skills.”


Learning Goals

Our overarching goal was that students begin to develop a sense of the ways in which scholars and creative writers have responded to the experience of urbanism in several European cities in periods of great historical significance. We intended that this would be a step towards helping students heighten their understanding of urban experience in general and of the ways that cities work (and fail to work), and also of the ways in which thinkers and writers have been influenced by, and responded to, urban experience.

This course investigated urban experience in various stages of European history by studying key written and visual works in the metropolitan contexts in which they were produced. We looked at literature, visual art, and the cities themselves as expressions of (and responses to) the cultures and ways of life of their creators and builders. By the end of the course students should have gained:

  • Greater understanding of the ways in which human subjectivity and the built environment mutually shape one another
  • Skill in interpreting written and visual texts as expressions of the world-view and personality of authors and their wider cultures
  • Practice in examining built environments to investigate both the values, beliefs, and aspirations of their makers, and also their affects on the people who live, work, and move through them
  • A greater knowledge of European culture and history


Course Description

Paideia 450 courses focus on ethical reflection and on writing skills. Our course mixed traditional reading, writing, and classroom work with site visits. Most working days of the term had a classroom session for which students read primary and secondary sources relating to urbanism and prepared written responses to given prompts; we then visited locations (often with guides) connected to the day’s reading.

The capstone activity was a term paper, written when students returned to Luther, that asked them to incorporate their experience of urbanism and the background and secondary readings into an interpretive essay on one of the major literary works or sites that we encountered.

As for interdisciplinarity, I am a historian of early modern philosophy, and Professor Caldwell is literary scholar who focuses on French and Italian literature. The disciplines are similar in that they focus on the interpretation of texts, yet their objects of analysis and approaches tend to be quite different. We had shared readings (both primary and secondary sources), which we each approached in our own way. Furthermore, with the help of scientific and social scientific literature, we stretched our usual work by treating these cities themselves as texts to be interpreted, in an effort to enrich our understanding of the written texts, thus incorporating new disciplinary perspectives into our course.

Teaching Notes

We began the course by providing students with the following statement giving the background and goals of our work together. This provided a good reference point for them and us as we moved through the busy month. I think having such a statement, more detailed than the course description, helped maintain the intellectual focus during a multi-city study abroad course such as ours.

Initial Statement to Students

In everyday life, much of our time and attention is focused on the objects around us, things we encounter and interact with as part of our ordinary experience: furniture, computers, automobiles, sidewalks, clothing, buildings, etc. We can, however, also turn our attention away from the outer world of objects to the inner world of our own experience. We can observe our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, values, desires, emotions, and other aspects of our selves. In short, each of us can ask, “What is it like to be me?”

The term for the experience of being a person in the world is “subjectivity.” It is, as the philosopher Robert Solomon put it, the “perspective, experiences, feelings, beliefs, and desires” that make a person who he or she is. Once you understand the idea of subjectivity, you will begin to discover a vast universe inside of yourself. Questions emerge such as: Who am I? How did I get to be this way? What exactly do I believe and feel and do? Why do I believe and feel and do these things?

One reason subjectivity is fascinating is that much of the self lies below the level of consciousness. To use the example I brought up during one of our orientation sessions: when you sit down in a classroom you have all kinds of thoughts and feelings that you probably don’t even notice you are having. You know that you should sit in a chair (rather than standing up or sitting on the floor); you have a sense of how close you can sit to others; you know you shouldn’t sit in the chair behind the teacher’s desk; you have feelings about who you want to sit near or sit far away from; you decide whether or not to take off your coat; you decide whether to sit up straight or slouch. Every day we have thousands of thoughts and feelings like this. They make us who we are, but we hardly notice them; the thing that is closest to us, our own subjectivity, is hard to see. Once you get used to paying attention to it, however, you will probably find that it (namely you) is quite fascinating.

As soon as you understand that you are a subject, that there is something it is like to be you, you will see that everyone else can say the same thing. There is something that it is like to be them. And their experience of being a person might be very different from yours. As you travel, and read about other places, and study history, you will find that human subjectivity is diverse. All aspects of selfhood (beliefs, values, desires, emotions, aspirations, attractions, aversions, ambitions, physical sensations, etc.) change from person to person and place to place. (They can even change within the same person from moment to moment.) One way to begin understanding the subjectivity of people from other times and places is through works of human creativity. A function of the arts is to express, describe, and examine the experience of being human in a certain time, place, and social situation.

Many forces shape a person’s subjectivity; the most obvious of them come from the environment in which a person grows up and lives. This includes family relationships, religious assumptions and practices, political ideologies, accepted and unaccepted forms of behavior, economic arrangements, forms of normalization and marginalization, and of course the physical environment in which one lives. Right now is the first time in history that more than half of the people in the world live in cities. Urban experience is becoming the rule rather than the exception in the formation of human subjectivity. This Paideia course is designed to explore human subjectivity in the urban environment through the analysis of artistic creations that were made in four major European cities at the times of their greatest historical influence. We will study ancient Rome (c. 100-300), late medieval and Renaissance Florence (c. 1300-1500), early modern Lyon (c. 1500-1700), and 19th century Paris.

What makes this course different from an on-campus class is that we will examine these artistic creations in the cities in which they were produced or which form their subject-matter. This is a special opportunity because cities are both a cause and an effect of human subjectivity. People make cities; but in turn cities shape the people who live there. The reciprocal relationship between the self and the built environment is a unique aspect of urban experience. We will study primarily works of literature and visual art, and we will move through the urban spaces that are their context and subject. By studying creative works in the urban settings in which they were produced we can hope to gain a better understanding not only of how the city shapes the self but of why (and how) people create and respond to urban environments.


The basis of assessment was as follows:

  • Participation: 40%
  • Daily Critical Reflections: 40%
  • Final Paper: 20%

For each critical reflection, we provided students with a prompt as a starting point for that day’s writing. For the final paper we asked them to enlarge one of their reflections into a substantial thesis-driven essay with detailed reference to primary and secondary sources. The paper was evaluated according to a standard rubric for interpretive essays in the humanities: thesis, organization, argument, mechanics, etc.

The prompts given to students included:

  • Over the last two days we spent a great deal of time in an iconic modern space (Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport) and also in an iconic ancient space (Rome’s Coliseum). Compare and contrast these two built environments: what ideologies and values seem to be expressed in these buildings, what vision of human life?
  • On our walking tour of Rome today, we saw several important buildings and sites. Choose one, and reflect on the following questions: How was it placed with respect to the surrounding neighborhood? What message did it seem to convey? What uses would it be good for, and what uses would be inappropriate? How were people interacting with it? Feel free to add any other reflections that you wish.
  • Based on you self-guided walking tour of Paris, compare the experience of movement in this city to your experience in Rome: What forms of transportation did you use? How did these shape your experience of the cities?
  • The assumption of French “naturalist” literature is that human subjectivity is a product of environment, just as much as the traits of plants and animals. How does your reading of these works, and your experience in the cities we have visited, confirm or refute this principle?
  • Impressionist painting has been interpreted as a bourgeois art form that naively celebrated vanity and consumerism, and which contributed to the invisibility of poverty and oppression in belle époque Paris. Conversely, it has been interpreted as a courageous attempt to introduce realism (including the depiction of prostitution and drug abuse) into classical painting. Based on your time in the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, what do you see in impressionist art?
  • We have visited many busy museums this semester. Reflect on the techniques (architectural and otherwise) used to manage such large numbers of people.

Resources & Materials

Resources for Students

Provided by the instructors to students in the course.

  • Grant Heiken, et al., The Seven Hills of Rome: A Geological Tour of the Eternal City (Princeton, 2005), Chapter 1
  • Catharine Edwards, Writing Rome: Textual Approaches to the City (Cambridge, 1996), Introduction
  • Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (Norton, 1994), Chapter 3
  • David Harvey, Paris: Capital of Modernity (Routledge, 2006), Chapter 1
  • T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Knopf, 1984), Chapter 1
  • Dante Aleghieri, Divine Comedy (selections)
  • Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron (selections)
  • Clément Marot, Selected Poems
  • François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel (selections)
  • Honoré Balzac, Père Goriot (selections)
  • Charles Baudelaire, Selected Poems
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