Liberal Arts

The goal of the liberal arts program at Curtis is to educate musicians as broadly and deeply as possible. Great musicians should be more than technically proficient; they should be greatly literate and widely informed as well.

Specific objectives of the liberal arts program are:

  • the practice of rigorous and independent thinking
  • the pursuit of clear expression, both oral and written
  • the encouragement of creativity
  • the mastering of learning itself

Students will study major works of literature, art, and philosophy and explore the historical contexts in which those works and ideas originated.

Students in the bachelor's degree program take two semesters of Foundation Courses.

ENG103 / ENG104 Meaning and Interpretation

In this course we will broaden and deepen our minds and support the further development of critical, creative thought about ourselves and culture. Diverse readings across genres (short stories, novels, poetry, plays, and essays) will introduce students to the question of voice and methodology. We all have stories to tell: Which genre will best engage and enthrall? How do authors challenge the status quo and reveal meanings otherwise hidden in human experience? Reading (and writing about) these works will offer the opportunity to develop skills through close readings and critical analysis, figurative responses and reactions to critical essays.

Course requirements include written responses, quizzes, exams, and active engagement and participation. 

ENG103 / ENG104 Presentation and Oral Practice

Students develop oral communication, listening, and presentation skills, including: delivering and responding to formal presentations; engaging in small group discussions; and participating in role plays, physical relaxation, and vocal warm-up exercises. The learning outcomes of Presentation and Oral Practice will provide students with a strong foundation to feel confident and capable of preparing for and giving presentations in a variety of academic formats and on stage.

Class objectives include being able to handle the preparation and execution of a presentation, following directions and understanding assignments, utilizing time-management skills with presentations, and managing problems.

Class outcomes: By actively engaging in all program sessions, you will be able to: research and prepare for specific presentations; give a presentation on two specific assignments; realize the necessary skills of presentation etiquette.

Students in the bachelor's degree program take one semester of each Core Course.

The Artist in the Western World (Fall)

HUM 213; 3 s.h./term

This course will involve students in considering two basic cultural questions: the complex role of the artist, and the complicated social place(s) where that role is generally held to be playable. At least since Shelley's mid-19th-century assertion that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," artists have become conscious of and exhibited a manifold truth in its aesthetic, ethical, and political dimensions; formal study of the powers of art—and of particular artists, both original and interpretative—should be part of the training of all young artists.

The course assumes a few governing claims to be pertinent: that musicians are artists; that music constitutes a principal form of art; that the various arts evolve in both form and content; that, despite the many different traditions, the arts are substantially related to one another and to the particular societies where they are active; that culture acts on more than a single level and functions within an ever-larger frame of reference and activity; and, finally, that an individual artist benefits from becoming familiar with terms and instances of form and content from kinds of art other than the artist's chosen one.

Possible topics: Modern dance and music, drama and theater, cinema, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture

The Artist in the Western World (Spring)

Claims for and against the work of makers did not end (or begin) with Plato's Republic. French poet Pierre Quillard believed that bringing forth a beautiful work constitutes "an act of revolt," while Welsh poet Dylan Thomas said, "A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone's knowledge of himself and the world around him.”

Is art an act of revolt, an agent of change, or a mode of knowledge? And are artists, therefore, revolutionaries, legislators, or educators? Do they hold up a mirror to life or light a fire in human consciousness? These questions, concerning the role of the artist in community, will guide the work of this semester. We will examine the personal and the public, the ethical and the aesthetic function of the artist in society. Course texts will include: excerpts from Plato's Republic, Shelley's A Defense of Poetry, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, William Shakespeare's The Tempest, James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, Irina Ratushinskaya's poems, Isak Dinesan's "Babette's Feast," Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds, Caryl Churchill's Far Away, as well as films and a field trip.

Evaluation will be based upon oral presentations, library research projects, essays, and exams.

Ethics, Existence, and Art

HUM 211; 3 s.h./term

In this course, we will be retracing 20th-century ethical and aesthetic systems that led to various reconfigurations of the relationship between artist and world, as well as thinkers and texts that were influential in generating these systems. Key issues and concepts include "plastic consciousness" (Cubism and other visual "modernisms"), science and vitalism, automation of modern life (Dada, Futurism, Ford & Taylorism), ideology and the split subject (Marx and Freud, Surrealism), WWII, the decentering of human culture and the existential crisis, and the rise of mass culture. Of central importance will be the way each of these "moments" gave rise to new problems, potentials, and responsibilities of human creative energy vis-a-vis what had come to be taken—but only provisionally—as the physical world. Readings will include short novels, poems and plays, as well as theoretical articles. There will also be required viewings of film and visual art.

Kitsch: The Aesthetic, Moral, and Political Dimensions of “Bad Taste”

In this course we will explore the concept of kitsch from its first emergence in art circles of Munich in the second half of the nineteenth century to its internationalization in the early twentieth century to its omnipresence in today’s globalized society and economy. What is kitsch? Why do dictators like it? Is there something inherently evil in kitsch as Hermann Broch famously claimed? Or is kitsch simply “bad art”? What makes a description or depiction of an object “kitschy”? Why do such objects often have an intense emotional appeal as we all, particularly children, sometimes find comfort in them? As we try to tackle these and other questions, we will engage with theoretical and fictional texts, paintings, sculptures and music which will provide a springboard for discussions about the nature of art, commercialization of society and political and moral dimensions of the creative process. Professor Catriona MacLeod from University of Pennsylvania, our guest speaker, will enrich our discussions with her insights.

Readings: Karl Philipp Moritz, Heinrich Heine, Hermann Broch, Walter Benjamin, Öden von Horvath, Clement Greenberg, Gregor von Rezzori, Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, Susan Sontag, Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera, Matei Calinescu, Thomas Kulka and others.

After completing Foundation and Core Courses, students may fulfill the requirements for the bachelor's degree with six semesters of Pathway Electives (at least one course in each pathway).


Europe and the Globe

HST 329; 3 s.h./term

Usually we’ve learned to recount the history of the world over the past 500 years with Europe as the main actor: European colonialism, the spread of European languages and culture, and Westernization are painted as the Big Story of the last centuries. Are there other ways that historians look at the last half of a millennium? What went on in the non-European world for those years? How did the global South help create Europe and the world we live in? How did Europe and its outposts come to be in the global position they are in now? And does our contemporary world look different if we imagine the history of this half millennium differently? 

Russia and the Globe

From 862 to early Mongol invaders, Tsars, serfs, Bolsheviks, and Federation builders, Russia is a land acquainted with revolution. Russian history is a story that parallels the vastness of its geography (6,592,848 sq. miles) and is as complex and varied as its topography. How do historians trace the past of a land both East and West, or of a people comprised of 160 nationalities? In this course we will study the founding of Russia through the Kievan and Appanage periods as well as the Imperial Age, the Soviet era and the post-Soviet society.

Introduction to Western Philosophy

An introductory course on the discipline of philosophy and a close look at the foundational texts of Western metaphysics, beginning with Classical Antiquity (Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Pyrrho), Medieval era and Scholasticism (St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas), Rationalism and its detractors (Descartes, Spinoza, Pascal), the transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism (Kant, Hegel), foundations of Continental Philosophy (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson), and contemporary oppositions between structuralist and post-structuralist thought (de Saussure, Barthes, Derrida, Althusser, Lacan, and Deleuze). A central aim will be to understand how each of these developments involves a reconfiguration of the basic notions of "being" and "becoming" first formulated in Classical Antiquity, and how this is relevant to contemporary concerns about notions of change, subjectivity, and political life.


Art History: Paris as Magnet, Paris as Spark 1850–1925

ART 323; 3 s.h./term

This course will focus on Paris, both as a magnet for drawing artists to the city itself and as a source of making new images of city life. We will begin around 1851 when Louis Napoleon established himself as Emperor and employed Baron Haussman to begin an urban renewal project that transformed the physical appearance of much of Paris. In a parallel manner from the 1860s on, artists such as Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Caillebotte, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec, using the most advanced techniques and styles, painted diverse aspects of the new Paris—from activities of leisure time to the world of work.

We will take our exploration of Paris as magnet/spark into the early 20th century with artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Robert Delaunay, Marc Chagall, and Fernand Leger. In that context we will visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition, “Fernand Leger and The City,” an exhibition which will present Leger’s monumental painting, The City, in an interdisciplinary context. We will examine the Paris-Russia connection, especially the role of two Russian art collectors, Ivan Morosov and Sergei Shchukin, who purchased and took back to Moscow stylistically radical paintings of artists such as Matisse and Picasso literally days or months after the works were finished, and then made their collections available to artists in Moscow. We will also explore the presence of the Ballets Russes in Paris, and the ways in which painters such as Picasso and Leger collaborated with Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, and others in creating stage designs and costumes for several avant garde ballets.

There will be at least one trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Evaluation will be based on exams and papers.

Art History: Italian Renaissance Art

Beginning in the fifteenth century and extending into the sixteenth, Italy experienced an unprecedented activity of artistic creation. Florence, Rome, and Venice are the three major centers that we will consider. We will examine the emergence and development of a new visual mode of representation-one point perspective-and we will look at transformations in sculpture and architecture. Throughout, we will consider the role of the patron in relation to the artist and the work of art. We will also explore the renewed interest in Antiquity, particularly with regard to the representation of the human body and revived interest in mythology.

There will be at least one trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Evaluation will be based on exams and papers.


French 101/102

FRE 101; 3 s.h./term

French 101/102 is a First Year introductory college course for students who have had little or no previous instruction in French. The course will develop skills in hearing, speaking, reading and writing French, using French in Action, a video program developed at Yale University by Pierre Capretz. French in Action emphasizes modern, colloquial French and how it is used in everyday life in France. Students are encouraged to use their own creativity and originality in French.

Spanish 101/102

SPN 101; 3 s.h./term

This one-semester course will meet four days a week and cover the material traditionally completed in an academic year. Emphasis will be placed on communication and gaining cultural and historical insight on the language and the people who speak it. Students will work on communication through reading and writing and learning the grammatical structure of Spanish as well. There will be a mid-term, final, and paper.

Additional opportunities for conversation at a Spanish lunch table in the Lenfest Hall dining room may be available.

Course Text: ¡Trato Hecho! Spanish for Real Life, by McMinn and Garcia (Pearson, 3rd edition), with DVD.


The 19th-Century Novel in France and Russia

LIT 359; 3 s.h./term

This class follows the development of the novelistic form as well as important links between Russian and French literary traditions during the 19th century. Our aim is to understand the emergence and implications of literary romanticism, romantic realism, and realism, as well as the philosophical attitudes towards life, society, aesthetics, morality and technology that these movements represent. Of key importance will be the various ways in which the 19th-century novel engages a tension between individual and collective points of view, one that repeatedly emerges in a tendency to configure and reconfigure the “real world” through narrative fiction. Readings for the class include novels by Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chateaubriand, Balzac, George Sand, Flaubert and Zola. 

Russian Drama: Which Comes First, Art or Life?

LIT 355; 3 s.h/term

This seminar will be concerned with making some sense of the large-scale theoretical and practical shift in early 20th-century Russia drama, a shift in and by means of the working theater. This shift both mimics and generates the complex social dynamic entailed in the overthrow of monarchy (an essentially hyper-conservative institution) and the adoption of Marxism-Leninism (a radically revolutionary power) in its place.

Of course, theater is simply the realization, the staging, of the drama, but drama is not simply a literary expression, whether of a single playwright or a certain kind of writer, one who makes a little world out of words, and then sees to its realizing (its materialization) in the, so to speak, big world. Questions of the relationship of art to society, of artist to non-artist, and of ideal to real will form part of our doings.

First, we will be reading a bit of Gogol (The Inspector General), then a bit of Chekhov (Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard); and finally, once some groundwork is done, we will take up a Soviet play (or two) to treat as a rehearsal script, with character and scene study, blocking, and the rest of the business of beginning to stage a play. Stanislavski (creator of 'Method' acting, long-time Head of the Moscow Art Theatre) and Meyerhold (a most ingenious set designer and director) will, of necessity, be not unwilling to help us.

Russian Poetry in Translation: Akhmatova & the 20th Century

LIT 357; 3 s.h./term

The influence of Anna Akhmatova and her fellow Russian writers on 20th-century poetry remains incalculable. And yet, we will take its measure and explore the extraordinary gifts, even in translation, of these poets. In this course we will have three goals: to gain an understanding of the history of Russian poetry, to wrestle with translation theory, and to trace the work and influence of Akhmatova and her circle on 20th-century poetry. We will begin with a taste of Pushkin and then read the poetry of Blok, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Brodsky, and Ratushinskaya, among others. We will respond to the work with poems of our own as well as essays that offer analysis of the poems and the act of translation.

Fiction Workshop

The fiction writing workshop is designed to offer students the opportunity to write numerous stories and to read great works of short fiction. We will attend to the traditional elements of storytelling (plot, setting, characterization, and dialogue) while analyzing the work of Joyce, Porter, Hemingway, Munro, Chekhov, and Proulx, among others. In the process, we will discover the importance of technique and voice, and we will work to master the craft of writing a fine story while discovering and shaping our individual voices. E.B. White said that he occasionally had “the exquisite thrill of putting a finger on a little capsule of truth” (The Bedford Reader, 461) when he wrote. Participants in the fiction workshop may find themselves doing the same. Each student will be required to write short stories, read and evaluate short fiction, and produce a final portfolio of work.

Introduction to Film Studies

This course surveys the history of cinema from the first films of the 1890s to current developments in the medium. We will develop methods for analyzing film while examining the growth of film as an art, an industry, a technology, and a political instrument. In the first half of the course, we will examine the emergence of film technology and early film audiences, the rise of Hollywood and the European avant-garde (French Impressionism, German Expressionism, and Soviet montage), and the introduction of synchronized sound technologies. In the second half of the course, we will follow the evolution of postwar cinema from Italian neo-realism through the French New Wave, the U.S. film industry from "movie brats" of the 1970s to the independent film movement, and the emergence of a global cinema culture. There will be precise attention paid to formal and stylistic techniques in editing, mise-en-scene, and sound, as well as to the narrative, non-narrative, and generic organizations of film, as well as an overview of film theory and analysis.



An introduction to the physics of sound: auditory perception, acoustical properties of musical instruments, architectural design, tuning and temperaments, and sound production. The emphasis is on students understanding the acoustics of their own instruments.

Nature in America

In this survey of American environmental history, we’ll discuss topics as diverse as historical ecology, the evolution of ideas of nature, and the history of environmental movements. We’ll graze over archaeology and the Paleolithic, city dwellers and farmers, wilderness parks and empty city lots. We’ll sample some of the wide array of writing in this field (which is over 40 years old now), to help us think about how our understandings of history and the natural world shape our understanding of the environmental problems of today, and how our ideas of the past shape our ideas of what the future might hold.

Introduction to Psychology

HUM 109; 3 s.h/term

Introduction to Psychology offers a broad overview of the basic concepts and noted figures in the field, and such topics as the brain and emotions, child development, human behavior, learning, creativity and play, perception and attitudes. The varying aspects of music, from infant research to the psychological aspects of performing are woven throughout the course. During the term we will be studying well-known Russian composers. The early family, and cultural backgrounds of these famous artists will be discussed. Psychological speculations will be drawn as to how these influences may have affected their life choices and the music they created. Evaluation will be based upon essays, a research paper, and other projects.

ESL: Transitions

ENG 103; 0 s.h./term

This non-credit English as a Second Language course is designed to improve students' English language and literacy skills. It will also introduce them to the customs and culture of the United States as well as the greater Philadelphia region. The course will help students develop the academic skills necessary for a smooth transition to the American classroom. Students will work on increasing vocabulary as they engage in conversation, reading, writing, and cultural field trips.

ESL: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced

ENG 001-011; 0 s.h./term

This non-credit English as a Second Language course is designed to improve reading, writing, and conversational skills, as well as to increase vocabulary through reviewing how the English language is put together. The grammatical structures will be taught using not only explanations and exercises, but also through reading texts by various authors showing the use of those structures. Focused writing will be an integral part of the course as well.

The course is designed to meet the needs of three different levels. In the first semester we have beginning and intermediate classes, and students will advance in the following semester (beginners become intermediate, and intermediate students go to the advanced class).

Texts: L.G. Alexander, New Concept English Books 2 & 3; additional selected readings as needed.

Introduction to Literature

LIT 011; s.h./term

This course offers intensive instruction in advanced reading, writing, and conversational skills for non-native English speakers who have completed ESL. Two semesters of this course will be counted as one three-credit course in the liberal arts for students who transfer into the Bachelor’s program.

Readings will include essays, short stories, plays and novels.

Key to the Course List

  • Odd-numbered courses meet in the fall and even-numbered courses meet in the spring.
  • The designations "s.h." (semester hours) and "g.c." (graduate credits) indicate credit-hours given per term for undergraduate and graduate courses, respectively.
  • Year-long, two-semester courses are designated by hyphenated course numbers. Students must successfully complete both semesters of required year-long courses to satisfy the graduation requirement.
  • An asterisk (*) indicates a course that is not offered every year.