First-Year Seminar is a two-semester course taken by all first-years. Its goal is to create a basis for shared conversation among the first-year class and build foundational skills for success in college—attentive close reading of challenging texts; respectful and inclusive dialogue with others; the ability to ask profound and interesting questions about what you read; and developing your academic voice through writing. During First-Year Seminar, students develop a clearer sense of their own intellectual goals and priorities, which will inform their work during the rest of their time at Bard. A shared reading list addresses a specific theme for the year; recent themes include “What Is Freedom? Dialogues Ancient and Modern” and “What Is Enlightenment? The Science, Culture, and Politics of Reason.”
Dear First-Year Students, Members of the Class of 2026,
Welcome to Bard and to the First-Year Seminar (FYSEM).
In 1793, shortly after the American and French Revolutions, an iconoclastic 40-year-old, the philosopher Solomon Maimon, published his autobiography. You can find a reference to this remarkable life story in George Eliot’s intriguing and final novel, Daniel Deronda. Maimon remembers being a very young, impoverished man living in Eastern Europe. He was determined to make something of himself.
In the 1760s he set out to “develop my humble capacities and my character.” He chose the path of learning. But “lacking enlightened teachers and suitable readings, I had to learn to reflect for myself. The rarity of helpful texts taught me to value all the more those that I could get a hold of. I felt compelled to give them my full attention, correct their mistakes, fill in their gaps and try to bring light and order to their dark, confused chaos.” Maimon pursued the “free cultivation of the capacity for knowledge and perfection.” He became an advocate of the “religion of reason.” 1
This year’s fall semester of the First-Year Seminar (FYSEM) is designed to invite and inspire every entering first-year student to emulate Maimon’s journey. The course offers a process of close reading, discussion, debate, and critical writing shared with a small group of fellow students and an instructor. The texts have been chosen to be “helpful” in that they invite scrutiny and criticism.
Bard, like most colleges and universities in the twenty-first century is a proponent of the “religion of reason.” The concept of reason is itself the subject of intense debate. Yet despite compelling reasons for skepticism and a resistance to any philosophical absolute—even the idea of reason—scholars and teachers at Bard share a belief in the possibility that the world can be made better through the pursuit of the life of the mind. We have therefore to be able to use language to learn, to think, read, write and speak, so that we might be able to persuade and be able to be persuaded, to understand, with empathy, the familiar and the unfamiliar, and to agree, to disagree and even to compromise.
An essential precondition for this to happen is freedom, understood as a political right and reality for all individuals. Only in a condition of freedom can any of us pursue knowledge unfettered. We must protect our public spaces that permit free expression and the determination of that which is true, probably true, unlikely, and just plain false. But we must maintain a climate of tolerance and protect dissenters from fear and ostracism.
The skills of critical inquiry we wish to cultivate in FYSEM offer tools that can combat ignorance and prejudice, clarify our beliefs, and inspire us to maintain a community of civility. If there is indeed a struggle underway here and abroad that pits autocracy and tyranny against democracy and the ideal of a free and open society, we all need to better understand how to build better and more just democracies so that we might live with others in peace and freedom.
Those of us who teach FYSEM consider it an honor and perhaps the most important teaching we do, and more challenging than teaching in our fields of expertise. The reasons are that both the students and teachers of FYSEM are all engaged citizens, each exercising a disciplined curiosity and willingness to debate sensitive and difficult questions that affect us all.
Last but not least, FYSEM provides a common link between each and every one of you. It can be therefore an inspiring basis for a shared conversation (well beyond pleasantries, the weather and the daily news) between individuals who have never met before but whose shared purpose is to learn. FYSEM permits you to strike up a conversation with fellow students as strangers and equals. This opportunity should be cherished. It’s an act of kindness. I hope this habit will stay with you well beyond your college years.
Cordially, Leon Botstein President
1 The quotes come from Yitzkhak Y. Melamed and Abraham P. Socher, editors, The Autobiography of Solomon Maimon. The Complete Translation, translated by Paul Reitter (Princeton N.J : Princeton University Press 2018) 127. The translator’s mother is a Bard alumna.
2023–24 Theme: The Commons
After years of pandemic-induced social isolation and as pressing global and national challenges, from climate change to racial justice, demand collective action, we are confronted anew by the perennial problem of how to live together—how to build a life in common. This year’s First-Year Seminar takes up these questions through a year-long exploration of the theme of “The Commons.” We will read important works from across history—drawn from literature, philosophy, political theory, science, and the arts—that have shaped how people think about the commons across time and space. Debating and questioning the ideas in these texts, we will think through what this shared repository of knowledge and thought can offer to our own lives and our own time. In the process, students will develop the core skills needed to succeed at Bard, from how to engage in active, critical reading and seminar-based conversations, to how to write strong and thought-provoking essays. In the fall semester, we will focus on the commons as a way of organizing society and political life, with readings that include the Therigatha (the first poetry of early Buddhist nuns), Euripides’ Bacchae, Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, and Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. In the spring, we will turn our attention to the commons as it helps to inform our relations to the natural world, science, and the built environment.