First-year seminar teaches staple of liberal arts education

November 07, 2011

Students in the First Year Seminar, “Alexander on the Road,” are learning one great tradition of a liberal arts education: Don’t ever trust just one source.

After all, the famous Alexander the Great was known for having a heavy hand in the shaping of his own history.

“He fined people in Athens when they wrote something about him that he didn’t like,” said freshman Zach Royal of West Deptford, N.J. “Alexander loved creating the mythology of his own life and making himself more epic.”

Much of what is written about the great king is interpretation based on, yes, other historian accounts that may or may not be entirely factual.

This is what makes for an engaging and lively First Year Seminar. Not only do the students analyze the content of academic articles and books written about Alexander, but they also examine the methodology of the writer and attempt to trace the so-called facts back to primary sources that may have influenced the research.

“The purpose of this class is introduce students to serious academic work at the college level, “ said Donna Evergates, professor of History. In that vein, they have studied a number of issues related to Alexander in current scholarship, including his youth in Macedonia and relations with his parents, his friendships and sex life, his military leadership, the cities he founded and his growth to mythical status.

Alexander, despite being born in 356 B.C., has received a lot of new attention in the past decade. One of the first topics discussed in Evergates’ class was the correlation to current U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

“Alexander is fascinating to a lot of people, but they don’t know the source material. They just know legends and propaganda,” Evergates said, adding that it may have aided current foreign policy makers to know that many of the difficulties Alexander tried to overcome in Afghanistan (ancient Bactria) were the same ones that British and Soviet invaders faced in the 19th and 20th centuries, and that these campaigns that began with confidence “ended in catastrophe.”

The diverse approaches to learning about Alexander allow students to study legend, history, romance, tombs, forensic and archeological evidence, and even art, including coins that bear Alexander’s portraits.

“I feel the topic of Alexander the Great is more than important to study – it is essential,” said Royal. “And I feel that my research abilities and study skills have grown exponentially thanks to Dr. Evergates.”

The class plans to travel down to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore to assess the differences of near-eastern art before Alexander came into the picture, and after he introduced Greek culture.

According to Evergates, this is one of the best First Year Seminar classes she has ever taught. “They are so engaged and smart,” she said, “They love to correct me.”