Humane Letters

In the Humane Letters seminar, a two-period course taken each of the four years of Upper School, students embark on an integrated study of literature, history, philosophy, and theology. Rather than read secondary texts and have teachers lecture at them, students are engaged in reading and discussing original texts and source documents, and writing essays about issues that emerge from their study. Historical lectures frame and supplement the discussions. The Humane Letters seminars encourage our private high school students to understand and analyze the enduring principles of Western civilization through careful, integrated study of both history and great literature. This study is like life: cross-disciplinary and open-ended.

private high school

What Makes Humane Letters Unique?

  • Primary Texts - Rather than reading textbooks about history, high school students read the great primary texts that made history.
  • Student-Led Discussions - Students discuss texts with a teacher as a wise guide. This Socratic dialogue enables students to think through and articulate issues for themselves to develop skills and confidence in public speaking.
  • Analytic Essays - Students learn to write clearly and to defend a claim cogently.
  • The Great Conversation - Texts students read have endured for generations and are valued in for their truth, goodness, and beauty or their impact on society. Many of these works are no longer read in high schools, even though they had a shaping influence on our society and culture. We believe that training leaders requires not mere familiarity with current ideas and trends, but an understanding that the great problems and questions of our day are not new - they have been formulated and contemplated over centuries of thinkers and leaders. Students need to understand the history and currents of ideas, thereby taking part in "The Great Conversation."

Grade 9

American History & Literature
Grade 9 Humane Letters introduces the basic chronology of events in American history from colonial times to the early 20th century. High school students read original texts, with special attention given to the foundational texts of American democracy. Students discover the meanings of events in their historical contexts, and so understand how contemporary events are deeply rooted in the past. Students also learn both the fundamental skills necessary to participate effectively in the seminar and how to write a basic five-paragraph essay.

Grade 9 Reading List

  • Documents in American History
  • American Poetry
  • The Federalist Papers
  • Selections from the writings of Thomas Jefferson
  • Selections from the Lincoln-Douglas debates
  • Henry Thoreau's Walden and Civil Disobedience
  • Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage
  • Upton Sinclair's The Jungle
  • Willa Cather’s My Antonia
  • Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Catherine O'Connor's Short Stories of Crane
  • Frederick Douglass’s A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
  • Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Thornton Wilder’s Our Town
  • Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea

Grade 10

European History & Literature
Grade 10 students explore the history, literature, and political philosophy of England and Europe from 1066 through the early twentieth century. Students continue to work on writing coherent analytical essays and on developing more sophisticated organizational and stylistic techniques.

Grade 10 Reading List

  • T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
  • Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons
  • Hobbes, Leviathan (selections)
  • Locke, Of Civil Government (selections)
  • Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Inequality
  • Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
  • Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution (selections)
  • Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (Part III)
  • Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto
  • Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
  • George Orwell, Animal Farm; British poetry

Grade 11

Ancient & Early Church Studies
In Grade 11, Humane Letters focuses on the close reading and discussion of texts drawn from the classical Greek and the early Christian corpus. Students continue to work on writing analytical essays; they write at least six essays per semester.

Grade 11 Reading List

  • Homer, Iliad and Odyssey
  • Aeschylus, Oresteia
  • Sophocles, Theban plays
  • Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
  • Plato, Meno, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Republic
  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
  • Augustine, The Confessions
  • Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Grade 12

Western Politics & Philosophy
The final year of Humane Letters focuses on a close reading and discussion of texts in medieval and modern literature, philosophy, theology, and poetry. Students write approximately six essays per semester, and they are expected to argue with increasing depth, grace and sophistication.

Grade 12 Reading List

  • Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter
  • Luther, Commentary on Galatians (selections)
  • Flannery O’Connor, Parker’s Back
  • Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Law
  • Shakespeare, Macbeth and Hamlet
  • Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government
  • Rousseau, On the Social Contract
  • John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
  • Dante, Inferno
  • James Agee, A Death in the Family
  • Raymond Carver, A Small, Good Thing
  • Montaigne, In Defense of Raymond Sebond
  • Descartes, Meditations
  • Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West and Sunday Morning
  • Ethan Canin, The Palace Thief
  • Hegel, Reason in History
  • Marx, Alienated Labor and Private Property and Communism
  • Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov