Food for Thought


Food for Thought (originally Coffee with the Classics) is an informal dinner seminar where students engage fundamental questions in community without the stress of grades or papers. It provides an opportunity to read and discuss some of the most influential and provocative thinkers of the past and present. Our discussions are co-sponsored by Harrison College House, which provides the space and dinner for the seminar. All readings are also included free of charge. 

Fall 2019 Modules

Module 1 : Whom Do We Trust…? Or…How Do We Know What We Know?

Wednesdays, September 4—September 25

Our first Food for Thought module of Fall 2019 engaged with Penn’s annual Academic Theme, the Year of Data, in order to assist the university in pursuing its new objective of integrating learning. This module explored the meaning of knowledge, self and trust, with readings and discussions that addressed topics such as big data and epistemology, whether the foundation of knowledge lies in trust or doubt, knowing and being in the world, and attention and practical wisdom. As always, students explore a variety of diverse, interdisciplinary texts. Readings include selections from by Cathy O’Neil (author of the Penn Reading Project book associated with the Year of Data, Weapons of Math Destruction), Augustine, Descartes, Aristotle, A.A. Milne, W.H. Auden, C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and John Henry Newman. Full reader here. To RSVP click here.

Module 2 : In/Justice

Wednesdays, October 2, 16 & 23

Talk about justice abounds. We are deeply concerned with what others—or perhaps we?—are due.  Yet, for all this, we have deep disagreement about the nature of justice and its import for the world.  What does it mean to be just, and how can we develop that virtue as individuals and a society? For this 3-week module we will dive into justice from a different angle each week through the voices of figures like Dorothy Day, Plato, Aquinas, Josef Pieper and Martin Luther King Jr. Full reader here. To RSVP click here.

Module 3 : The Marvel of Creation

Wednesdays, November 13, 20 & December 4

What does it mean to be an animal, and what does it mean to be a person? What is life? How ought we think about and relate to God’s Creation in light of these things? These weighty questions will be central to the third Food for Thought Module of the Fall semester. Dr. Janice Chik, Barry Foundation Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of Collegium Institute’s Magi Project, will facilitate this module, drawing from diverse thinkers and texts to help students explore these ideas both philosophically and scientifically. Potential topics for discussion include animal and human consciousness, the possible role of a creative deity within the evolution of creaturely life, questions about “natures” or “essences” in Creation, animal ethics, and the roles of and relationship between science and philosophy in exploring these ideas. Full reader coming soon. To RSVP click here.

Spring 2019 Modules

Module 4 : Work & Play: An Exploration of Labor, Luxury, and Leisure

Wednesdays, January 23 – February 13th

Why do we work, and why do we need leisure? Do we really need leisure, or is that just a luxury?  What counts as leisure, and what would we need leisure for?  Just to be able to work more productively and efficiently?  Or do we lose something of our humanity when we become work machines?  For that matter, what is the significance of work for human beings? Would we be less human if we could find others (or other things) to do our work for us?  Is work simply a means to an end or is there something else to it? What can the humanities tell us about the right relationship between work and play, both here on college and thereafter? To answer these questions, we engaged with multiple sources – philosophical, journalistic, and literary, which included Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work” article, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, David Steindl-Rast’s Essential Writings, Diane Ackerman’s Deep Play, Charles Péguy’s poem “Sleep,” and Josef Pieper’s celebrated work, Leisure the Basis of Culture.

Module 5 : Double Lives

Wednesdays, March 13 – March 27th

Many of us — due to complex identities, competing obligations, dueling loves, and the plurality of social environments — find ourselves leading double lives. The main question posed in this module was, “How does one cope with a fragmentary existence, and is there hope for unity in the midst of plurality?” In this module, we consulted the experience of racial and ethnic minorities, confronted challenges women and men face to balance professional and domestic life, and engaged social and moral theory on the formation of identity. Our readings included William Shakespeare’s famous “All the World’s A Stage” speech, Alasdair MacIntyre’s, After Virtue, Erving Goffman’s sociological work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Carlos Eire’s memoir Learning to Die in Miami, W.E.B. Du Bois’ important work The Souls of Black Folk, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” and Christopher Lasch and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s Women and the Common Life. For one of the sessions, we invited Penn’s Assistant Chaplain, Sana Saeed, to lead the discussion on the experience of the “double” in our daily lives.

Module 6 : On Beauty and Being Just

Wednesdays, April 3 – April 24th

In this final Module of Food for Thought in the Spring, we explored Elaine Scarry’s “brave and timely book,” On Beauty and Being Just. In the book, she not only defends beauty from recent political arguments against it but also argues that beauty continually renews our search for truth and presses us toward a great concern for justice. Taking inspiration from writers and thinkers as diverse as Homer, Plato, Marcel Proust, Simone Weil, and Iris Murdoch as well as her own experiences, Scarry writes an elegant, passionate manifesto for the revival of beauty in our intellectual work as well as our homes, museums and classrooms. For one of the sessions we invited Professor Terence Sweeney from Villanova University, who gave further elucidations about qualities particular to beauty, and for one of the last sessions, we invited Dr. Delia Popa, also from Villanova, who led a discussion on how beauty assists us in our attention to justice.

Fall 2018 Modules

Module 1 : Why Does Tragedy Occur? The Problem of Evil. 

Wednesdays, September 5th – September 25th

Our first Food for Thought module sought to answer important questions: Why does tragedy occur? From whence does it come, and what purpose – if any – does it serve? What does it imply about God? To understand a large element of tragedy – the problem evil – our texts and conversations sprang from a variety of authors to get a multi-dimensional approach to this question. The four sessions of this module were split up into four central themes: Tragedy, Moral & Natural Evil, Theodicy, and Coping with Tragedy. Mixing together important texts from the past and present, our curriculum included excerpts from Sophocles’ Antigone, Augustine’s Enchiridion, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Seneca’s “On Providence,” Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Module 2: The Righteous Mind

Wednesdays, October 10th – October 24th

In light of the November 2018 elections, Module II of Food for Thought explored another why: Why are good people divided by politics and religion? This is the question that social psychologist Jonathan Haidt sought to answer in his recent book, The Righteous Mind. It is a reality that in our pluralistic society, we must learn to live with disagreement, so why do our disagreements devolve so frequently into vilification and conflict? Is it really possible, now or ever, to disagree constructively about matters of fundamental importance? For these sessions, we invited guest faculty facilitators familiar with Haidt’s research, like Professor Samir Nurmohamed from the Wharton Management Department and Professor Jonathan Zimmerman from the Penn Graduate school of Education.

Module 3: God, Aquinas, and the Search for Alien Life

Wednesdays, October 10th – October 24th

Before 1995 we only knew of nine planets, one of which has recently been demoted to ‘planetoid’. Since then the Kepler space mission has discovered and confirmed 2,327 extra planets beyond our Solar System. On March 21st 2017, Congress passed an act which requested a strategy for “the search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the Universe.” from the National Agencies. Our final and most popular Module of the fall explored fascinating questions associated with the intersection of science and religion – particularly: How would the discovery of extraterrestrial life affect the beliefs and practices of the human race? Would the discovery of alien life affect our ideas about God? Facilitated by Dr. Marisa March, a Penn astrophysicist and director of the Magi Project, our texts and discussions centered around the current state of the Universe, its many planets, and the implications for religious belief if we find life on one of them