Ambition and the Meanings of Success: The syllabus
The first-year seminar I've been teaching at Chapman University
“The Pursuit of Happiness” aka “Chasing Fortune” by Rudolf Henneberg, 1868
As promised in my previous post, this is a version of the syllabus for the course I’ve been teaching along with economist Sean Crockett, (I’ve woven in assignments that students see elsewhere. I’ve also left out some required boilerplate.) We have 29 students, all first-years, and conduct the class primarily as a roundtable discussion rather than a lecture or a “guess what the teacher is thinking” seminar. Sean and I participate and ask questions, but the students drive much of the discussion.
This is the first time this course has been taught, and we’ve made some revisions on the fly. After grading the first papers, for instance, we decided to alternate the discussion question on each assignment with one in which students write a potential thesis paragraph. We’ve occasionally rearranged classes so that students don’t have to choose between working on papers and reading for class. And we’re thinking about in-class group work to add going forward. All of which to say that what follows is subject to change.
Also, check out Sean’s wildlife photography. The guy is seriously ambitious about it.
First-Year Foundation Course 100
Humanomics: Ambition and the Meanings of Success
Prerequisites: Willingness to inquire and be challenged.
Ambition is the drive to excel. For some individuals, the goal is to beat other people. For others, it’s to exceed a personal best. And for some, it’s to advance a great cause. Through much of human history, ambition focused primarily on demonstrating physical prowess and attaining power. It was a spur to conquest and court intrigues and considered a sin by the Christian Church. Today, many more fields of endeavor offer scope for ambitious people. Ambition inspires art and science, business ventures and athletic achievements. Ambition also has a dark side. It can tempt the ambitious to cheat, to abuse other people, to win at any cost, and to unfairly block the ambitions of others. And ambition can disappoint. To be ambitious is to constantly risk—and experience—failure.
In this course, we will explore the many manifestations of ambition; the contested and contradictory definitions of success; the contrast between personal merit and economic value; the economic and social barriers to ambition and upward mobility; and the moral questions raised by the conflicts between pursuing excellence and fostering human relationships. When is ambition good for individuals? For societies? When is it destructive?
Humanomics classes (like this one) adopt a distinctively interdisciplinary approach. Throughout the term, we will address these questions through the lenses of economics, philosophy, and art. We will not just ask what these disciplines have to say about our topic independently of one another; we will also ask how these disciplines interact, enrich each other, and have unique ways of capturing parts of reality. The overarching idea is that there are many ways of expressing important ideas and that focusing on any one form of expression (social scientific, philosophical, artistic) in isolation is bound to leave important aspects of those ideas unstated, or incompletely expressed. By working with media situated in a variety of historical contexts, we will ask why certain ideas have been expressed in different ways in different times and places, and how this form of expression affects what’s being said.
Humanomics classes emphasize critical thinking and active engagement with the assignments and fellow students. Thinking critically means, first of all, seeking to understand what an author means—on his or her own terms—and how the work conveys that meaning. To think critically about a subject or issue you must be objective. This means you need to be aware of your attitudes and ideas about the subject or issue and avoid simply imposing those attitudes and ideas. Your existing attitudes and ideas can help you formulate questions, but you should keep an open mind. Thinking critically requires research, discussion, analysis, and evaluation before you form a judgment, and your judgment should remain open to change when you encounter new information.
(Offered fall semester.) 3 credits.
FFC Program Learning Outcome:
Students will be able to critically analyze and communicate complex issues and ideas.
Upon completion of the course, students will be able to:
Understand how ambition has been defined, judged, and expressed in different cultural and historical contexts.
Articulate ethical, psychological, and economic critiques of ambition.
Ask cogent, thought-provoking questions based upon critical reading of texts and analysis of films.
Present, explain, and evaluate economic- and humanities-based arguments orally and in essay format.
Challenge and deconstruct the perceived tension between economics and the humanities.
Copies of the following books will be required.
Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark
William Shakespeare, Macbeth
James Watson, The Double Helix
We will also watch the following films. We will hold optional showings of the films in an evening beforehand in Wilkinson 221. Students can also watch them independently (or both). Links below are to IMDB listings.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Other required readings will be available at the links in the syllabus.
Students are expected to bring the assigned texts for each class to the discussion.
This course uses a combination of hands-on learning in Socratic roundtable discussions of readings, discussion questions and short paragraphs submitted before class, four papers, and a creative assignment.
Class 1: August 30
Noreen Malone, “The Age of Anti-Ambition”
Virginia Postrel, “It’s a Healthy Sign When Americans Fail the ‘Happiness Test’”
Assignment: Discussion Question 1 (all discussion question assignments have the same instructions)
Please write a discussion question about the readings assigned for today's class. The question can address one or both of the essays. For this assignment, a good question:
Is one you care about and want an answer to because you want to add to your understanding of a statement or idea in the text.
Is open-ended. Cannot be answered with a mere “Yes” or “No.”
Is a specific The words affect, compare, and relate will tend to yield questions that are too general.
Is one single question rather than a series of questions submitted as one.
Addresses an idea rather than a person or the author. Opening a question with “Do you agree that. . . ?” [Notice this can be answered with “Yes” or “No” so already misses the mark] or “Why does the author. . . ?” evades the hard work of advancing your own understanding.
Avoids adverbs, such as “truly” or “really,” that doubt the veracity of a person or claim. These adverbs shift the burden of the question-posing away from advancing your own understanding.
Class 2: September 1
Cicero, De Officiis, 1.8 on ambition (1.25-27, three webpages)
Niccolò Machiavelli, “Tercets on Ambition”
Francis Bacon, “Of Parents and Children,” “Of Marriage and Single Life,” “Of Ambition”
Assignment: Discussion Question 2
Assignment: What Don’t You Understand?
The assignments for this class are old and contain many assumptions, terms, and references that aren't familiar to most 21st-century readers. We expect you to read them closely, but we do not expect you to understand everything in them.
Please write a factual question about something you don't understand in the reading. Unlike your discussion question, this is something you might be able to Google: what a term means, for instance, or who a person was. Or it could be something about what the audience or writer believed or what the institutions were like in their society.
Class 3: September 6
William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Assignment: Discussion Question 3
Class 4: September 8
Assignment: Discussion Question 4
Class 5: September 13
Assignment: Paper Prep
Start thinking about your paper and come prepared to discuss your thesis and argument with classmates in small groups. The more you've done, the more feedback you can get.
Taking the perspective of one of the writers from Week 1, write an essay 650-750 words long analyzing a character from Macbeth. Use quotations to support your argument.
Class 6: September 15
First paper due
Assignment: Discussion Question 5
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”
Rafael Euba, Why ambition won't make you happy
Leslie Garrett, “You can do it, baby!”
Class 7: September 20
Assignment: Discussion Question 6
Alexis de Tocqueville, “Why the Americans Are So Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity” and “Why So Many Ambitious Men and So Little Lofty Ambition Are to Be Found in the United States of America”
Class 8: September 22
Assignment: Discussion Question 7
Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark, part I (“Friends of Childhood”)
Class 9: September 27
Assignment: Paragraph 1
Please write a one-paragraph (~100 words, 3-4 sentences) analytical response to some aspect of TODAY'S assignment. It's fine to begin with a personal reaction or observation, but you should do something more than offer a mere "impression" or uncritical comment. Think of your paragraph as the potential thesis for a longer essay. It should be organized around a single argument, idea, or claim. You might, for example, comment on a theme (children in Macbeth), a formal literary feature (Cather's use of landscape description), the relation between this work and something we've previously read (how Ray Kennedy exemplifies Tocqueville's ideas of restless Americans), etc. The particular subject is up to you. What is important is that you articulate a clear point grounded in the work(s) assigned for today. The quality of your writing matters. Write in complete and grammatically correct sentences. Check your spelling and punctuation. Use precise, vivid language. Avoid meaningless throat clearing ("It is important to note that..."). Cut unnecessary words. Reading your paragraph aloud can help you catch mistakes and improve the rhythm and sound of your writing.
Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark, parts II and III (“The Song of the Lark” and “Stupid Faces”)
Class 10: September 29
Assignment: Discussion Question 7
Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark, parts IV, and V (“The Ancient People” and “Doctor Archie's Venture”)
Class 11: October 4
Assignment: Paragraph 2
Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark, parts VI and Epilogue (“Kronborg” and “Epilogue”)
Class 12: October 6
Assignment: Discussion Question 9
Class 13: October 11
In-class economic experiment. No reading assignment.
Second paper due
2nd paper prompt:
In one of our readings from Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville makes the broad assertion that, "No Americans are devoid of a yearning desire to rise, but hardly any appear to entertain hopes of great magnitude or to pursue very lofty aims." Pick a character from The Song of the Lark or Minari who is, in some respects, a strong match for this assertion, but in other respects violates it. Carefully describe the ways in which the character is consistent or inconsistent with Tocqueville's statement, but most important, ANALYZE WHY these consistencies and inconsistencies emerge in the character. Use Tocqueville's work along with references to the novel/movie to support your analysis. Note that it is not enough to create even a well-documented checklist of similarities and differences; we want you to use Tocqueville to help us better understand the character through comparisons and contrasts and the character to understand and evaluate Tocqueville's claim. Your paper should be 650-750 words long.
Class 14: October 13
Assignment: Discussion Question 10
Claire Cain Miller, Josh Katz, Francesca Paris and Aatish Bhatia, "Vast New Study Shows a Key to Reducing Poverty: More Friendships Between Rich and Poor," The New York Times, August 1, 2022
Raj Chetty et al., "Social capital I: measurement and associations with economic mobility" and "Social capital II: determinants of economic connectedness," Nature, August 1, 2022 (omit "Methods" sections following the references)
In-class Zoom visit from Prof. Crockett’s former student Florian Mudekereza, one of the paper’s co-authors. He’ll talk about the research and share some of his own thoughts on ambition.
Class 15: October 18
Library instruction session, meet in Leatherby Libraries classroom, LL305
To get credit for class participation for this day, you must attend the instruction session and complete the Information Literacy Module.
Class 16: October 20
Assignment: Discussion Question 11
Class 17: October 25
Class 18: October 27
Assignment: Paragraph 4
Class 19: November 1
Assignment: Discussion Question 12
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
F. A. Hayek, “Equality, Value, and Merit” (sections 6-8)
Class 20: November 3
Assignment: Paragraph 5
Class 21: November 8
Creative assignment due
Choose one of the following prompts and write a short story or script 750-1000 words long.
1) Lee Isaac Chung was inspired to write Minari by Willa Cather’s observation that, “Life began for me, when I ceased to admire and began to remember.” Instead of making art by imitating the books and movies they admired, Cather and Chung found their voices by transforming their own memories into fiction. Building on your own memories and observations, write a short story or script about the pursuit of ambition. Use the third person and create a fictional protagonist.
2) Drawing on one of our nonfictions readings, take a concept you haven’t yet written about, and write a scene embodying that concept using the characters from one of the fictional works we’ve read or watched. Consider how the actions of the characters and the story you tell through them shine light on the concept.
3) In 2010, Forbes published a famous conversation/interview between Jay-Z and Warren Buffett, moderated by Steve Forbes (here’s a video clip) of Jay-Z talking about his 6th grade teacher’s influence on his ambition, here they are talking about luck).
No reading assignment. In-class debate, planning in previous week’s classes.
Class 22: November 10
Assignment: Discussion Question 13
James Watson, The Double Helix, chapters 1–10, including Preface and introductions
Class 23: November 15
Assignment: Paragraph 6
James Watson, The Double Helix, chapters 11-20
Class 24: November 17
Assignment: Discussion Question 14
James Watson, The Double Helix, chapters 21–Epilogue
Class 25: November 29
Assignment: Paragraph 7
Allegra Goodman, Intuition, parts I and II
Class 26: December 1
Assignment: Discussion Question 15
Allegra Goodman, Intuition, parts III and IV
Class 27: December 6
Assignment: Paragraph 8
Allegra Goodman, Intuition, parts V and VI
Class 28: December 8
Third paper due
Steve Jobs, Stanford University Commencement Address, 2005
Ben Austen, “The Story of Steve Jobs: An Inspiration or a Cautionary Tale”
Steven Levy, “Steve Jobs, 1955–2011” and “Remembering Steve Jobs 10 Years After His Death”
Friday, December 16, 8:00-10:30 am
The final examination will be conducted orally, with each student responding to questions from the professors in a ten-minute block of time.
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This is probably peripheral to your course objectives but I'm now reading Joyce Benenson's Warriors and Worriers, which suggests that men and women are ambitious in different ways. Men are more openly competitive, more likely to take chances, more likely to want to be recognized as number one. Women think of themselves as more egalitarian and co-operative but they compete for different things in less obvious ways. At least I think she's saying that.