Intellectual Foundations is a core course, taken during the fall or spring semester of a student’s freshman year. The goal of Intellectual Foundations is to introduce students to a true liberal arts education. In classes of 21 students or fewer, freshmen read, discuss, and write about key texts from antiquity to the modern world.

The course is taught collaboratively by faculty from academic departments and programs across disciplines.

Encompassing, interconnected themes

Intellectual Foundations aims to provide students with a sense of what a liberal arts education is and why it matters. The course is organized with three guiding themes:

Gods and Myths — What is above or beyond human existence

Nature and Technology — The non-human world around us and how we interact with it

Justice and Society — How humans interact with each other and how they should do so

As students come to see that these broad themes are interconnected, they can begin to see the ways knowledge across many different fields and disciplines is interconnected.

For example, when reading about gods and myths, students will see accounts of how the world came into existence. These accounts differ from one another not only in their explanation of how the material world came to be created, but also in their explanations of human beings, what the character of human life is, and what can and should be expected of humans. To accept or reject a given account of creation is to accept or reject the vision of human life that goes with it.

Of course, a student might not accept any account of creation with a divine component. But what, then, is the material world? Is it meaningless matter that humans may do with as they see fit as they develop their capacities and make new things for themselves? Or does Nature deserve something from humans? And can Nature be a kind of guide for a happy life?

The answers to these questions are inextricably bound up with questions of how humans should live with each other. If humans focus their energies on innovation and enhancing their material lives, it seems that they must do so within the bounds of justice. But what do humans owe each other as their technology and wealth advance? In other words, what is justice? And can humans find happiness if they focus only on advancing technology and gaining wealth? If not, and if there is more to life than our material existence, what is it? And can our reason be as reliable in the discovery of justice and happiness as it is in making discoveries about the material world? Or do we need to look above and beyond ourselves?

In this course, students begin to see a variety of answers to such questions that have been offered around the world and across time. It might be that no answer is fully satisfying, that every answer leads to further thinking. Yet students will see that the questions posed in this course must be addressed, and that to live full lives, we need to continue to pursue answers to them.

Foundational materials

The materials studied in Intellectual Foundations are intriguing and rich, and they have been influential and remain illuminating. Some works are literary, some are scriptural, some are philosophic, and some are difficult to categorize.

The required works are:

Gods and Myths

  • “Enuma Elish” (Babylonian Genesis)
  • “Genesis”

Nature and Technology

  • “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • “Hayy ibn Yaqzan,” Ibn Tufayl (starting in fall 2024)

Justice and Society

  • “Communist Manifesto,” Marx and Engels
  • “Song of Solomon,” Toni Morrison

Solid foundations

The Intellectual Foundations program at Carthage provides students with a level of competency that will aid them in all of their classes at Carthage, in their future careers, indeed, in their lives in general. Students develop critical reading, writing, cultural literacy, and oral communication skills.

This course aims to build foundations in the intellects of students, showing them how to engage in close and careful reading and how to communicate clearly and reasonably in writing and in speech. In class, students and their instructor often read together, short passages and even individual sentences, to unpack what is written and to find how carefully a writer can attempt to convey meaning. Students think through what is conveyed and work on expressing themselves to capture exactly what they mean and to make it clear to others. And they engage in multiple kinds of speaking and writing — in open-ended class discussions as well as in formal presentations, in free-writing during class, and in formal papers.

Students will see their progress throughout the semester and will feel their confidence grow as well. And they will find that just as thinking and inquiring are necessary and on-going in the class and in life, so they will see that while they sharpen their abilities in Intellectual Foundations, they will continue that work throughout their lives.