Humanities and Social Sciences
Have you ever wondered how movies “work” to manipulate the audience or exactly what music does to “grab” the listener? Did a trip to the MFA when you were in grade school inspire you with a lifelong love of impressionist painting? Have discussions about the rise of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin made you want to know more about how economies work? Or maybe you’d like to learn more about how to think through upcoming arguments in the Supreme Court.
We hope that the discussions, readings, and research you enjoy in your core courses will trigger your imagination in many directions. To help satisfy your curiosity, we offer a broad and changing selection of electives in the humanities and social sciences. Often, we will add new courses to the curriculum in response to students’ and teachers’ lively interest.
- Art History
- City of Boston
- Conducting and Advanced Music Theory/Composition
- Constitutional Law
- Education Policy and Politics
- Film Analysis
- Foundations of Modern Philosophy
- Health and Community
- Introduction to Psychology
- Music Theory
- Nature and Purpose of Education
- Ninth-Grade Seminar
- Jazz Theory
- Greek Tragedy and Its Legacy
- Russian Literature in Translation
- Psychology: Special Topics
We generally offer two courses in alternating years:
19th-Century Painting (Mostly French)
Late 19th- and Early 20th-Century French and American Painting
We offer these courses in alternate years, so you can take both of them if you wish, in the order that suits your schedule.
Every class begins with an image of a work of art, projected on a screen. Or perhaps we zoom in on just a detail—say, the hand from Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of the government official Marat, gruesomely murdered in his bathtub, but firmly holding a pen as if he were still doing his civic duty. Major ideas emerge from such details—not from lectures or general surveys, but rather from what you observe and how you respond, and from lively exchanges with your classmates. Similarly, you will write most of your essays in class, basing them on your own first-hand experience of paintings you’ve never seen before. In looking closely at a painting’s details, colors, composition, and brushwork, you will begin to build a coherent interpretation.
Your confidence in your eye and critical judgment will grow. Examining several works by a particular artist, you will make imaginative connections. In this way, you’ll be able to work toward a larger understanding of an artist’s whole career and his contribution to the development of art in his own period and beyond. Studying the period covered by the two art history courses reveals revolutionary transformations in styles of painting. In the nineteenth-century course you begin with the crisp, controlled geometry of David’s classical heroic scenes, arranged as if on a stage. In the middle of the year you encounter the Romantic artists’ unleashing of wild energy in humans, beasts, and the natural world in compositions that seem ready to explode. What is happening in the artists’ imaginations and in the world that would account for such a change? You will look for answers to this question in the paintings themselves, as well as in the artists’ own words in their letters and journals. Beyond slides and books we consult at school, you will get to know Boston’s great collections of paintings and write about some of the works of art in them.
I came to realize that painting is not just an exercise in color and texture. Ultimately, these works of art reflect on our very own existence, our very lives.
Part of our required Ninth-Grade Seminar, this course is designed to make you comfortable with the city of Boston while at the same time examining the uncomfortable questions cities raise. As we eat our way through Boston (cannoli, banh mi, ice cream, pizza!) we will examine how Boston’s neighborhoods differ from one another and how they have changed over time. Classroom discussions focus on the costs and benefits of segregation and economic development, as well as environmental justice. Throughout we will be asking two linked questions: Who decides how cities change? And who should decide? In a way, this class is a mini-course in the question of what it means to have a multi-ethnic, multicultural democracy—a question our country has been debating since its inception.
What we learned in the Boston course is that when you study a city––walking through its neighborhoods, sampling its foods, looking at its beautiful and ugly spaces, its historic houses, and its surprises––it becomes your city."
Basing its rulings on the principles of Constitutional Law, the Supreme Court makes the ultimate decisions on many of the nation’s biggest social and political issues. We read some of the leading Supreme Court opinions, with a focus on questions of equality and social justice. On the practical side, you will get a feel for what lawyers and judges actually do, by arguing cases yourself—in class and in our “moot court” event in May.
During the first semester, we examine the structure of the Constitution itself and study a series of prominent Supreme Court cases that established the principle of judicial review of acts of Congress, clarified the powers of the federal government over interstate commerce, and resolved key political battles concerning social welfare legislation. We analyze different modes of constitutional interpretation and examine the relationship between the Court and historical events. We ask ourselves as well: How do we judge the role the Court has played at these significant moments? Have its decisions simply reflected the times? Perhaps led the charge? Or, perhaps, held back progress?
In the second semester, we focus on social justice and the Court’s role in cases relating to such matters as freedom of speech and religion, race discrimination and affirmative action, reproductive freedom, gun control, the rights of criminal defendants, and marriage equality. And given the importance of dissenting opinions in the Supreme Court’s history, you’ll learn how to argue from multiple perspectives.
I found myself grappling with the question of whether a policy that appears (or is) unconstitutional is automatically unjust. Does affirmative action violate the Constitution, even if the ideals behind it do not? As moral citizens we seek a more just society for everyone, regardless of race. How else can we achieve equality?
Why aren’t rent controls efficient? What exactly is bad about monopolies? Is the free market truly the best economic system? What does the Federal Reserve Bank do?
In Economics you examine these questions and many others. In the first semester, we will study the law of supply and demand, market structures such as perfect competition and monopoly, and both the extraordinary efficiencies and the inefficiencies of the free market. In the second semester, we will turn to the economy as a whole. What is GDP? How do we ensure economic growth, low unemployment, and low inflation? Can we actually do this? We will study fiscal policy such as stimulus spending and tax policy and monetary policy, those mysterious actions by the Federal Reserve. This course will prepare you for both the Microeconomics and Macroeconomics Advanced Placement tests.
We learned concepts that explain how decisions are made and prices are set. Money makes the world go ’round, and studying economics helped me understand why and how.
Living in an age of glitzy special effects and post-postmodern mixing and matching, we are often seduced into passive viewing. These courses will remind you that watching a film well requires as much energy and focus as studying a novel.
Starting with the talkies, we look at American history and the country’s psyche through the lens of its films. We spend first semester and part of second watching seminal examples of distinctively American genres—the Gangster Film, the Western, the Musical Film, the Screwball Comedy, Film Noir, etc. Depending on your particular interests, we may also view more recent films that may be seen as critiques, revisions, and homages made in response to their forerunners. During the final part of the year, you will undertake an independent project on a film, style, genre, or director of your choosing.
Films viewed often include: Scarface (Hawks, 1932); Swingtime (Stevens, 1936); Golddiggers (Leroy, 1933); Fury (Lang, 1936); Cat-People (Tourneur, 1942); Stagecoach (Ford, 1939); Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941); Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944); To Be Or Not To Be (Lubitsch, 1942); Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946); Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, 1948); On the Waterfront (Kazan, 1954); Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957); Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958).
I love movies, so I took this course. But I never thought that old black and white films could be so visually exciting, so sophisticated. We learned to notice all the techniques directors use to manipulate us as viewers. In those days ‘special effects’ might have meant just digging a hole in the floor, but they were incredibly effective.
The French New Wave
The French cinematic movement known as the New Wave emerged from both a dissatisfaction with what its young auteurs saw as the petrified formulas and conventions of commercial film, and a belief that those same conventions (and the Hollywood tradition generally) nevertheless retained a power that could be subverted, redirected, and revitalized, in order to address the great Technicolor mess of the postwar world. Through close readings of their films and writings, we will explore the ways that these filmmakers (including Godard, Truffaut, Agnes Varda, Chris Marker, Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, and Jacques Demy) responded to contemporary politics and aesthetic debates, creating a visual and narrative language that continues to influence cinema around the world.
We begin the year in European silent films of the 1920s and work our way through nearly five decades of world cinema. As always, close reading gives us the means to see how directorial choices create effects and determine our responses. We can thus examine big and small similarities and differences across time and space. Starting with Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), and ending with Hitchcock’s Psycho, we choose among the masterpieces of the following directors: Eisenstein, Dreyer, Lang, Dali and Buñuel, Vigo, Murnau, Renoir, Rossellini, Welles, Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Fellini, Ray, Bergman, Truffaut, and Godard.
I learned what it means to be an active viewer. Watching clips over and over again to tease out what the director was doing technically to make me react as I did reminded me of what we do in English class. And it was every bit as rewarding.
We will trace the course of Western philosophy set by Descartes’ epochal declaration, “I think, therefore I am,” examining the dilemmas that arise from the radical separation of mind and body that follows from this axiom. In particular, we will concentrate on problems associated with the categories of substance and causality, and how the mind apprehends them, exploring solutions proposed by a number of 18th-century philosophers, including Descartes’ fellow “Continental rationalists” (Spinoza and/or Leibnitz), on the one hand, and the so-called British empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, and Hume), on the other. Thereafter, we will attempt to grasp the grand synthesis of these two competing traditions offered by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, which he dubbed “transcendental idealism.” If time allows, we will briefly dip our toes into the post-Kantian idealists (e.g. Fichte and/or Hegel) as a preview of a possible future course in 19th-century thought. As you immerse yourself in the history of philosophy, you will also hone the skills needed to engage dense philosophical texts that range from exquisitely elegant (Hume) to maddeningly abstruse (Kant). Written work will be in the form of reading questions, brief (1-2 pages) passage/argument analyses, and in-class essays.
Smart and information-savvy as your generation is, it might surprise you to discover how many people mistakenly believe you can get a sexually transmitted disease from a toilet seat or similar myths. Part of our Ninth-Grade Seminar, Health and Community provides a comfortable place (or as comfortable as possible) to examine crucial questions about "growing up" and all that it entails. We learn about different drugs, what leads some people to abuse them, and their effects on brain chemistry and behavior. We explore the biology of sex, and learn about sexually transmitted infections and how to prevent them. The school’s psychologist joins us for a number of discussion sessions dealing with mental health and wellness and ways to manage stress.
By the end, you will have learned to think and talk with clarity and maturity—and without embarrassment—about complicated matters, many of which, at one time or another, in one way or another, will affect every one of us during our lives. And you will have the information you need to make healthy, informed choices.
I'm glad that Health and Community is a requirement. It's not just learning about drugs and sex—it broadens your horizons. It's important not to be blind to things just because they're awkward to talk about."
Music Theory 1 and 2
We study notation, music history, rhythm, pitch, and intervals. You’ll do formal analysis and four-part writing, including secondary dominants and modulation. Heavy emphasis on ear training and solfège teaches you to listen. Music, like any language, is a system; understanding how it’s put together helps you comprehend—analytically and therefore more pleasurably—any kind of music and notice correspondences between different styles of music. In the second year, we deepen our structural and formal analysis of music and do more sophisticated ear training and composition exercises. Often students are ready to take the music theory AP by the conclusion of this course. All members of both classes must also join either orchestra or chorus.
If you’re interested in theory, the level of your musical background doesn’t matter. The program here can take people at any level and bring their theory to an AP level in just two years.
Music Theory 3
We study scores intensively—especially those from the classical symphonic literature. You may also study conducting. All members of the class must also join either orchestra or chorus.
All of us had already spent time in previous classes studying the smaller musical forms—their minutiae. Now we could move on to consider them in a larger context: how all those tiny details can add up to a glorious whole, like a delicate Mozart symphony or a grand Bach chorale.
Music Theory Advanced: Seminar in Conducting and Advanced Theory
This course is for those of you who have completed the school’s music-theory sequence and have scored a minimum of 4 on the music theory AP exam. We study basic and complex beat patterns and independence of hand gestures as we continue with advanced ear training and score analysis. You will discover ways to use physical gestures to mold individual phrases and to weave them into a unified whole. The goal is for you to learn the skills that will enable you to conduct the chorus or the orchestra during a rehearsal or performance in the spring.
The music program at Commonwealth is amazingly accommodating. Our teacher created a year-long conducting course for just three of us.
In extraordinary cases, by permission of the teacher and the faculty, independent study seminars are given in conducting, solfège, analysis, etc.
By now, most of you have spent about one third of your lives in school, but you may not have had many opportunities to consciously reflect on your experiences. In this course, we’ll look at education in four other countries—Finland, Poland, Korea and China—as a way to see American educational practices and values more clearly. We’ll also reflect on our own school experiences and trace their origins back through American history.
Throughout the course we’ll ask “What does it mean to be an educated person?” and “What is your definition of ‘a good school’"? These questions can be answered from multiple perspectives, and we’ll continue to revisit them throughout the year. As we delve into those questions, we’ll examine a host of educational practices—testing, graduation requirements, curriculum, considering gender and race in education—and ask why these practices exist and how they have impacted us, as individuals and as a society.
All ninth graders take a special year-long seminar designed to prepare them to succeed throughout their time at Commonwealth, including how to:
- Communicate effectively and respectfully, particularly in a digital world
- Navigate Boston comfortably and conscientiously (our "City of Boston" unit, see above, replete with field trips around the city and challenging questions)
- Study and plan their time effectively
- Safeguard their health and wellness by examining crucial questions about "growing up" and all that it entails (our "Health and Community" unit, see above)
Jazz music can be deeply instinctive or intensely cerebral—sometimes both at once. When listening to the shifting chord changes of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” or the abstract ensemble improvisations of late-era Coltrane, have you ever wondered how it all hangs together? Beginning with Jazz Theory 1 you can find out. We combine close listening to jazz performances with learning basic music theory: notation, ear-training, harmony, and music theory allow you to grasp concepts of improvisation. You will become a literate musician. As you come to understand more fully what you hear, you also gain a historical overview of jazz and how great jazz performers work. This gives you the opportunity to define your own role in a jazz group—which is helpful since every student in Jazz Theory must take Jazz Ensemble as well. Most work is done in class, including exploring concepts on your instrument.
Studying jazz theory, I learned the rules—the science beneath the art. I no longer think of those concepts as rules, but as tools for improvisation.
Jazz Theory Advanced
As you advance your understanding of jazz theory (you can take this class for up to four years), you will become increasingly knowledgeable and adept at listening, playing, analyzing, and composing. We do intense ear-training and study harmony, nomenclature, and writing jazz notation. More advanced classes include jazz arranging and jazz composition. All the way through, we emphasize playing what you learn and incorporating your skills into performance situations—such as Jazz Ensemble!
I found that studying jazz theory is a unique opportunity not only for serious musicians but also for people who might not continue music after Commonwealth. Our teacher takes time to develop our individual abilities according to what we need most—be it simple ear training, improvement through practice, or composing. And as a bonus, in Jazz Ensemble we get to perform with well-known guest artists.
What is justice? Are there absolute ethical standards, or do moral principles always promote the interests of those who formulate them? How is it that discourse can so effectively conceal—or distort, or invent—truth? Will human nature respond to reason, or is the psyche moved only by the seduction of its own passions—and the flattery of clever speakers? Is a society founded on persuasion, i.e. democracy, especially prone to self-deception and destruction? These are some of the questions we will encounter in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the great tragic poets of the fifth century B.C.E.
As we read closely a number of their plays, we will consider how the genre of tragedy as such responded to the cultural dislocations caused by the intellectual revolution and unprecedented horrors of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.). Then we’ll observe the influence of tragedy on Thucydides, reading his history of this disastrous conflict precisely as the tragedy of Athens’ willful and self-destructive folly. Finally, we’ll explore Plato’s literary and intellectual debt to tragedy, taking as our cue the philosopher’s decision to present his ideas in the form of fictional dialogues set, significantly, during the Peloponnesian War.
Texts include Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Euripides’ Bacchae, Thucydides’ Histories, and the Gorgias, Symposium, and Phaedrus of Plato.
This course changed the way I examine society. We analyzed sociology, history, political science, mythology, and philosophy in our discoveries––deep in the smooth and delightful subtleties of Greek literature. Some of the texts we read still haunt me (in a good way!).
What do dreams mean? Can memories be repressed? What are the psychological motives for racism? Can statistics "lie?" How can academic research inform social policy decisions? Is IQ determined by genes or environment? What causes mental illness, and what are the most effective treatments for it?
In Psychology we will examine these questions, among others, from various points of view. We will read classic and contemporary texts by prominent theorists and researchers in the field. We will consider the historical evolution of psychological questions and ideas, and explore professional disagreements and controversies. In the classroom, we will combine lecture, question-and-answer, interactive activities, and open-ended discussion. We will also use media sources (newspaper articles, television and movie clips)— and some clinical case material—to illustrate concepts and facilitate conversation.
Though this course is not designed to prepare students for the Psychology AP exam, we will use a college-level textbook and read primary sources in the psychological literature. The course will also introduce students to basic social science statistics and research design.