In Search of Utopia
RELEASED: Jan. 19, 2006
Using the 1826 version of Edward Hicks' famous painting, The Peaceable Kingdom, as a starting point, the 15 freshmen in the Centre College CentreTerm course "In Search of Utopia" are exploring a wide array of experiments in utopian communities.
In addition to lectures, class discussions and presentations, the class journeyed to the Abbey of Gethsemani and Shakertown to explore two well-known local utopian communities. The class also just returned from an overnight field trip to New Harmony, Ind., where, among lectures and tours, students presented plans for their own visions of a workable utopian community.
In summarizing what he and his class have covered midway through the three-week term, Cowan Professor of English Milton Reigelman says, "We've gone from a serious attempt at an individual utopia (Thoreau at Walden) to religious utopias (Gethsemani Abbey, Shakertown, George Rapp's Harmonists) to secular utopias (Robert Owen's New World Order), stopping to glance at some truly oddball efforts (Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands and Charles Fourier). At this mid-point, the class is shifting from studying other attempts to imagining and designing their own utopias."
"The class discussions have been very productive and I enjoy hearing what others have to say," says Ginny Reynolds of Greenwood, Va. "Professor Reigelman encourages everyone to speak in class and most importantly, to ask questions."
Adds Laura Behrendt of New Philadelphia, Ohio, "The discussions are always intense, but at the same time very comfortable. We discussed utopias in front of a log fire while drinking hot chocolate in New Harmony."
Both Reynolds and Behrendt feel the class has given them a new understanding of utopias and wider issues. "Utopian societies are often misunderstood by outsiders, and this class has helped me develop a deeper understanding and respect for these communities," says Reynolds. "Perhaps what's surprised me the most is my drastically altered view of the Shakers after visiting the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. In context, the Shakers don't seem as I once viewed them but as people who, like many others, have challenged society’s traditional ideas, pushing the envelope to create an ideal community."
"In the class I not only learned about various utopias across America, but I also learned how to relate them to a bigger picture—from seeing America itself as a utopia, to the phenomenon of the megachurch," says Behrendt. "I learned how to think 'outside the box' and Dr. Reigelman is helping me to make connections that I never would have thought of, and he helped open up a new world of existential thought."
In the culmination of "In Search of Utopia," five teams of three students each will imagine and describe their own separate versions of utopia. The idealized communities must be workable and self-sustaining and present a convincing picture of "the good life." The class will then vote to pick the top three visions of utopia and the ultimate "most- perfect community" will be selected in a poll on Centre's Web site. Both campus community members and the general public will be eligible to vote. The "most-perfect" utopia will be announced in February.For more information on CentreTerm, see the course listings here and keep watching the Web site for special features on classes, internships and off-campus study.
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