The William Sloane Coffin ’42 Colloquia

Launched in 2011, the William Sloane Coffin ’42 Colloquium series is one model of integrative learning at Andover.   Bringing instructors from across Phillips Academy–and sometimes guests from outside the institution–together to engage students in a particular topic, each colloquium places the responsibility for integrating the varied approaches to understanding in the hands of the students.  Typically, more than fifteen faculty members representing more than six departments participate in a colloquium.

This type of course is named in honor of the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr., a member of Andover’s Class of 1942.  Dr. Coffin was the longtime chaplain at Yale University and later the senior minister at Riverside Church in New York.

Colloquia Offered:

Dylan (Fall 2011)

Activist.  Poet.  Seer.  Judas.  Prophet.  Singer.  Messiah.  Bob Dylan has been called all of these and more, but when asked to describe himself in 1965, he replied, “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man.”

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the recording of his first album, members of the faculty are collaborating to present a colloquium devoted to Bob Dylan.  Annually nominated and seriously considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature, often compared to such artists as Mozart, Picasso, and Whitman, and always the master of self-deprecation and obfuscation, Dylan is ripe for study despite his protestations that he is not.

Throughout the term, we will try to balance the hyperbolic vision of Dylan as artistic genius descended from Valhalla with the story of a man from Minnesota who has had a profound influence, at the least, on music today:  rock, folk, R&B, country, punk, rap, and hip-hop.  We will approach Dylan through myriad lenses, give his music close scrutiny, read what others have to say, and try to figure out what all the fuss is about.


Justice, Law, Tyranny (Fall 2012)

In allegory and myth, justice is represented as a goddess, blindfolded, holding a sword in one hand and scales in the other.  The countless statues and images of her around the world signify that objectivity, vengeance, and truth are heavenly qualities gifted to humankind.  So, dispassionately and disinterestedly, she stands vigil atop courthouses and legislative halls, where matters of law, custom, and social order are debated.  Despite such divine inspiration, it is mortals who make laws and establish social order, and men and women have not always lived up to Justice’s example.  Taking a long view of history, it might seem that human law has been the servant of tyranny, not the instrument of justice:  Herod’s law ordered the death of infant boys in Judea; Papal law imprisoned Galileo; the American Constitution valued a Negro at three-fifths of a man; the Nuremberg Race Laws stripped Jews of citizenship; today Wahhabi law denies Saudi women of basic civil rights.

Yet systems of law have also stood as some of civilization’s greatest achievements, from the Code of Hammurabi and the Ten Commandments to the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.  Measures of law have protected the innocent, emancipated slaves, delivered suffrage to the unrepresented, and helped spread economic and social justice across the globe.

This fall, members of the faculty are collaborating to present a colloquium exploring the curious relationship between justice, law, and tyranny.  Our approach will be interdisciplinary, considering our subject through studies of history, jurisprudence, literature, drama, film, philosophy, science, and economics.  We will attempt to ascertain how well balanced are Justice’s scales in any given historical moment, and perhaps come away with a better appreciation of why her sword is double-edged.


London:  Harbinger of Modernity (Fall 2013)

Civil War and Regicide.  Plague and Fire.  In the late seventeenth century, London emerged from these colossal historical events and became a cultural, economic, intellectual, military, and political center of not only Europe but also the increasingly westernized world.

In this colloquium, we will study this moment in London’s history, and we will focus on how London’s people and institutions fueled the origins of the modern world, from the discoveries of Newton to the music of Purcell, from the theories of Locke to the writings of Milton.  Yet, throughout the term, we will also explore how such progress and achievement depended on the maintenance of social hierarchies and oppression based on race, class, and gender.


Darwin (Fall 2014)

Relativity, Incompleteness, Subjectivity (Fall 2015)

In a 1923 letter, the German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, “All human knowledge takes the form of interpretation,” and with that sentence he captured the epoch:  the collapse of Objectivity.

In this colloquium, we will investigate the collapse of Objectivity in the first half of the 20th century:  its origins, its manifestations, its consequences.  Our work will include examinations of two 20th-century discoveries that are understood, and perhaps misunderstood, as dismantling the much-vaunted Objectivity of mathematics and the sciences, including Einstein’s Theories of Special and General Relativity and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems as well as explorations of how “relativity,” “incompleteness,” and “subjectivity” reflect cultural, historical, and philosophical trends across the arts and humanities.


Youth From Every Quarter (Winter 2017)

Decades before the public education reforms of Horace Mann, Phillips Academy was founded as a school that “shall be ever equally open to Youth, of requisite qualifications, from every quarter.”

In this colloquium, we will interrogate the three words often omitted from this statement of egalitarian ideal: “of requisite qualifications.” By developing historical and contemporary understandings of Phillips Academy itself, we will explore issues of effort, merit, and privilege.

When the Academy was founded, what constituted qualification? Who determined it, for what purposes, and with what consequences? How have answers to these questions evolved during the last 238 years, and why?


The Storm (Winter 2018)

Harvey.  Irma.  José.  Maria.  Within weeks this fall, these hurricanes plagued North America:  costing lives, straining resources, and creating instability.  Although understood as “natural disasters”—chaos among the stars—much of the catastrophe wrought by each storm emerged not from cosmic disorder but rather from human choice.

In this colloquium, we will explore the phenomenon of the hurricane, and our topics will include:  the politics and the science of climate change; the interplay of race, class, and gender on where and how people live and on how they are affected by disaster; the romanticizing of the storm in art and literature; the priorities of media and the role of government; the privileging of some threatened and harmed populations more than others; the ethics and economics of prevention, response, and recovery; the application of mathematical modeling and statistics; and the use of devastation as an opportunity to remake the world via “disaster capitalism” in service of  neoliberal rationality.

Through much of the term, 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which remains, arguably, the most consequential event on American soil in the 21st century, will serve as a case study.


King (Spring 2018)

On 3 April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sick with fever, addressed a crowd of Memphis sanitation workers who were striking for better working conditions.  His speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” proved to be his last:  he was assassinated the next day.

This spring, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. King, we will use varied approaches—art, ethics, history, law, literature, music, and theology, among others—to explore and interrogate the Iconic and Mythical King:  connecting his life and his legacy and seeing his continued presence politically and culturally.


Conservatism (Fall 2018)

In the 1955 mission statement for the newly founded journal the National Review, William F. Buckley wrote the following: “The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order. We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. On this point we are, without reservations, on the conservative side.” In its skepticism of social change and its defense of natural order, Buckley’s National Review signified a mid-20th century renewal of American conservative thought, a political counterweight to postwar New Deal liberalism, with intellectual roots stretching back to the founding of the nation. But what specifically did it mean in 1955, and what does it mean now, to be “on the conservative side”?

In this version of the William Sloane Coffin Jr ’42 Colloquia Series, we will explore the many dimensions of American conservatism as expressed in theory and in practice. Topics may include: the philosophy of conservatism; Edmund Burke and the American Revolution; conservative laissez faire capitalism and the Chicago School of economics; race, gender, and the conservative commitment to individual liberty; European and American conservatism in comparative study; anti-Communism; faith and science in conservative thought; and American exceptionalism. We will also devote attention to those ideas and ideologies that have been offshoots of traditional conservativism, challenges to traditional conservatism, or both, such as libertarianism, neo-conservatism, Marxism, and neo-liberalism. Finally, we will consider conservatism as a philosophical position that seeks stability, conservation, and tradition across disciplines ranging from the arts to the sciences. The authors we read may include William F. Buckley, Edmund Burke, John C. Calhoun, Benjamin Disraeli, Ross Douthat, Milton Friedman, Eugene Genovese, Barry Goldwater, Louis Hartz, Friedrich Hayek, Richard Hofstadter, Samuel Huntington, Robert Kagan, Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, Joseph McCarthy, George Nash, Reinhold Niebuhr, Peggy Noonan, Corey Robin, Phyllis Schlafly, Leo Strauss, Sam Tanenhaus, Lionel Trilling, Richard Weaver, Garry Wills, and Gordon Wood.


Jazz (Spring 2020)

In his study of novelist Ralph Ellison, Berndt Ostendorf writes, “…all American culture is jazz shaped.” In this colloquium, we will explore this remarkable claim, and in the spirit of jazz, we will move among multiple riffs.

Riff 1—Often called America’s original art form, jazz is improvised music. Robert O’Meally, in Seeing Jazz: Artists and Writers on Jazz, describes jazz as part of a supercharged cultural continuum in which musicians, dancers, painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, novelists, and essayists have worked and played to capture the essence of the music.

Riff 2—“Jazz is a story about race and race relations and prejudice, about minstrelsy and Jim Crow, lynchings, and civil rights…Jazz offers the explosive hypothesis that those who had the peculiar experience of being unfree in a free land might actually be at the center of our history.” (Ken Burns, director, Jazz)

Riff 3—“Jazz has an internal dynamic. Jazz musicians, like everyone else, have to make a living. While they are doing that, however, they are expected to extend and recreate the form itself. But there is risk involved in attempting to create art in a popular context, the risk of losing one’s audience if the music goes beyond what the audience understands. This sets up a tension between the acts of performance and the act of creation. This tension is nowhere more evident than jazz, because it is a music where creation occurs during performance. One of the key elements of jazz—improvisation—demands that new melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic patterns emerge in the context of
performance. But limits have to be imposed by both audiences and performers. The narrow line between authenticity and creativity must be perceived and manipulated by the good jazz player.” (Charles Nanry)

Throughout the term, we will examine these claims, listen to a lot of music, and explore a variety of other topics and texts, perhaps: theories of improvisation in painting, dancing, writing, and acting; Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz; post-modern philosophy; socioeconomic class, gender, and sexuality; genes/genomics and improvisation; theories of time and other physics of jazz, etc.

Following the model of previous William Sloane Coffin ’42 Colloquia, different members of the faculty will lead each class session. (Mr. Holley, Coordinator)


Some Future Topics:

Focus on a particular year:  1789, or 1848, or 1968, or 1973, or 1905 or pick a century and have each different pick a different decade or pick a decade and pick a different year

Teddy Roosevelt


Ex Pats and Exiles 


Marx, Freud, Nietzsche

Dr. Suess




Muhammad Ali 


Frederick Wiseman

Andover, Lowell, Lawrence

Los Angeles:  Chinatown to Lebowski

Oxford Connections


New Orleans




Capital / Consumption

Slavery and Emancipation








Agency (Freedom)

War Crimes




Free Speech




The Humanities in Crisis


The Blues


History of Science

Copernican Revolution

Intellectual History 19th c or other

The Frontier

Farmers:  the Land 

The Sea






Death and the Afterlife

Native America / peoples


French Revolution 

The Island

Mad Men




Time and Memory


The Internet

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