Historical Immersion

Most Common Curriculum courses range widely across space and time. Each focuses on a particular way of understanding the world and teaches a particular set of skills: to weigh scientific evidence, to interpret imaginative literature and visual art, to understand social practices in different societies, to evaluate moral and political arguments, and so on. Historical Immersion courses, in contrast, focus on a particular historical moment. In place of breadth, they offer a deep dive into what was happening in a specific place and time, such as the age of the emperor Nero in ancient Rome, Ming imperial voyages, the emergence of Tokyo as a modern city, geometry and the use of perspective in Renaissance art, or the Indian Uprising of 1857. Each course provides an opportunity to bring together intellectual skills learned in previous Common Curriculum courses. The conjunction of these skills helps us to understand historical moments other than our own.

Although their topics vary, all Historical Immersion courses are designed to help students acquire a deep knowledge of a particular time and place. In contrast to the foundational parts of the Common Curriculum, which cover vast expanses of history, these courses slow down the chronological speed of the inquiry, allowing for much greater depth. Students consider each topic in its historical context, investigating how the contingencies of particular moments and decisions converged with broader social forces into a particular train of events. Why did certain changes occur? Why did others fail to occur? We necessarily answer these questions by looking through the lens provided by our own circumstances. In doing so, we not only try to make sense of past events, practices, and peoples but are forced to reflect on our own concerns and values.

Students in these courses use different sorts of evidence to construct their own understandings of the past: archives, oral interviews, diaries, monuments, everyday objects, pamphlets, weapons, and more. They come to see how historical facts, memories, and myths are constructed, how one event can produce many narratives. They learn to use different tools to evaluate competing interpretations, and may find themselves asking if the truth about the past is accessible at all.

Historical Immersion courses are taught in seminars, most often by a single faculty member but sometimes by a team bringing different perspectives to bear on the historical moment in question.

Examples of course content

The Age of Augustus

This course examines a watershed moment in Roman history: the fall of the republic and the emergence of a monarchy under the first emperor, Augustus. Students assess the self-destructive civil wars that led to Augustus’s rise as warlord, and his consolidation of power over the Roman city-state and empire. How did Augustus achieve the compromises that enabled him to retain monarchical power and establish a dynasty that lasted a century (33 BCE–68 CE)? Our investigation engages primary sources including archaeological and textual materials: public and private inscriptions, visual arts and architecture, and poetic and historiographical texts. These primary sources, supplemented with some secondary literature, help us understand how Romans redefined their sense of society and history during Augustus’ reign. How might Augustus’s Roman Revolution be relevant to a Singaporean sense of political and ideological history?

Nietzsche and his Times

In the 1880s, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God and called for a new life-affirming philosophy to combat the rise of nihilism. Nietzsche, one of the most provocative thinkers of his age, lived at a time of cultural tumult and intellectual transformation, of ideas and ideologies that continue to shape our understanding of the world. The course offers a window into this period through a close engagement with Nietzsche’s writings, including his philosophical works, personal correspondence, and highly idiosyncratic autobiography, Ecce Homo. Particular attention is paid to his relationship with the composer Richard Wagner, whose operas are also studied.

Geometry and the Emergence of Perspective

Artists of the Italian Renaissance were profoundly influenced by the geometers of ancient Greece. In his seminal treatise, On Painting, Leon Battista Alberti explains how he drew on their works to explain the art of painting according to the basic principles of nature. This course aims to understand Alberti’s idea by studying the emergence of perspective from the standpoint of Euclidean geometry. It also explores how formalising perspective drawing led to a new approach to geometry in 17th-century Europe. Students acquire some basic geometrical knowledge by reading selected chapters from Euclid’s Elements, adapting selected propositions and proofs into a modern vernacular. They move on to a careful study of Alberti’s treatise, supplemented with selections from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, Giotto di Bondone’s Madonna Enthroned, Filippo Brunelleschi’s panels of the Florence Baptistery of St John, and Piero Della Francesca’s On Perspective for Painting. The investigation culminates with a recreation of Girard Desargues’ synthesis of Euclid’s and Alberti’s works, which motivated the invention of projective (non-Euclidean) geometry. Each student writes a research paper on a further interaction between geometry and art during the Renaissance, such as the geometry used by a particular artist or architect, or a geometric interpretation of a single work. The goal is for students to create narratives that enrich their understanding and historical sensibility.