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Instilling a Love of Great Books

Undergraduates who embrace the challenges of Philosophy’s Perspectives Program relish its rewards

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Adj. Assoc. Prof. Brian Braman (Philosophy) at a recent Perspectives class, which includes plenty of reading (photo below) as well as discussion. (Photos by Lee Pellegrini)

By Jack Dunn | Director of News & Public Affairs

Published: Feb. 28, 2013

For senior Bryan Cocchiara, his freshman-year decision to enroll in the Perspectives Program — a four-year interdisciplinary course of study grounded in the great books of Western culture — was based on a practical desire to satisfy his core requirements. But like so many students who embraced the challenge of the Philosophy Department’s signature program, something unexpected occurred along the way.  

“I fell in love with the material — Aristotle, Aquinas, Nietzsche, Kant — which forced me to acknowledge my place in the world and my particular answers to the enduring questions of humanity: Namely, who are we, what are we doing, and where are we going?” said Cocchiara, a Holmdel, NJ, native. “It fulfilled me intellectually, oriented me spiritually and contributed a great deal to my personal growth and development. But above all, it allowed me to develop deep relationships not only with superb faculty, but with some of the brightest and most thoughtful students at Boston College.”

Described by its student and alumni participants as the most academically challenging and rewarding experience of their four years, Perspectives integrates the humanities and natural sciences by bringing faculty and students into conversation with the ancient, modern and contemporary thinkers who have shaped Western intellectual and spiritual thought.  

Divided into four year-long sections, Perspectives I, or Perspectives on Western Culture, attracts some 580 of the University’s top freshmen from all four schools and colleges, immersing them in the works of the Greek philosophers, the Bible, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Calvin, Ignatius, Freud and Marx. In addition to the classroom lectures and extensive readings, the freshmen meet weekly with their instructors to discuss the assigned material and explore ways in which the course can help to shape students’ lives and the choices they make. 

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On average, some 70-80 students will choose to continue the Perspectives Program during sophomore and junior years. During the second-year course, Perspectives II, Modernism and the Arts, students grapple with the contradictions of modernism through the novels of Flaubert, Tolstoy and James Joyce; the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington; and the contributions of artists ranging from Monet and Picasso to architects such as Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright.   

Perspectives III, Horizon of the New Social Sciences, investigates secularism and the new social sciences through the writings of Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Jefferson, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, John Maynard Keynes, Louis Brandeis and Max Weber.  While Perspectives IV, New Scientific Visions, explores contemporary thinking in science and math through the lens of scientific visionaries ranging from Newton and Einstein to Darwin and Kelvin.

Approximately 20-25 students will complete the four-year Perspectives sequence and the senior-year honors thesis it requires.  

Founded in 1971 by the late Philosophy Department Chairman Joseph Flanagan, SJ, and Lonergan Summer Workshop and Institute Director Frederick Lawrence, the Perspectives Program has been guided since 1998 by Adjunct Associate Professor of Philosophy Brian Braman who, students say, is the heart, soul and animating spirit behind its success.  

“I made the decision to enroll in Perspectives when I heard Brian Braman talk about it during Admitted Eagle Day,” said senior Taylor Cavallo of Douglaston, NY.  “Professor Braman is not only a brilliant professor, but more importantly, he is approachable, congenial and caring. He pushes students to meet their fullest potential, a level that they might not even know they possess, while always offering the right words of encouragement. He is the best professor I have had at BC.”

Grace Simmons ’05, a former UGBC president who took Perspectives and double-majored in philosophy and political science before earning an MBA from Harvard Business School and embarking on a career as vice president of strategic initiatives at Chobani, cites Braman as an unforgettable professor who inspires his students with his passion for teaching and his own life-long love of learning.

“Of all of the many things I cherish about my BC experience, Perspectives and my philosophy major were my greatest gifts,” said Simmons. “I have never felt as passionate about learning as I did with Brian Braman. He makes such deep intellectual connections with his students, and cares personally about each individual in his class, becoming, along with his wife, Peggy, surrogate parents to so many BC students.”

Simmons came to BC to study political science in preparation for her original goal of studying law. One class with Braman changed her direction.

“He told me early on, ‘Don’t be afraid to pursue what you are passionate about,’” said Simmons. “I trusted his advice, and the knowledge I learned during those four years helps me so much in the business world today. It is knowledge that stays with you your whole life. I am so glad to have met Brian, and to have taken Perspectives at BC.”

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For Braman, teaching Perspectives and mentoring students are the logical responses to the ultimate philosophical question: What should I do with my life?   

“Fifteen years ago, my wonderful friend and mentor Father Joe Flanagan, SJ, gave me a chance to teach this course,” said Braman. “He had the capacity to see things about me that I could not see myself. What he helped me to appropriate intellectually is something I can never put a value on.”  

Braman seized the opportunity and with the help of colleagues from the Philosophy Department, including Professor Patrick Byrne, Lonergan Center Associate Director Kerry Cronin, Adjunct Assistant Professor Michael Kelly, Associate Professor Jeffrey Bloechl and Adjunct Assistant Professor Holly Vandewall, has created one of BC’s most intellectually stimulating courses, one that upholds the longstanding traditions of a Jesuit, liberal arts education.  

“All of our Perspectives courses encourage students to live their lives intellectually and to examine how they will unfold once they leave the classroom,” said Braman. “Our goal is to teach our students to be men and women for others, individuals who will see their lives as something greater than themselves and who will choose what is worthwhile and meaningful for them and their community.  Our hope is to get them to fall in love with something significant that will shape the choices they make throughout their lives.”

Braman’s infectious love of teaching has inspired those who work with him. “Brian is an incredible teacher; his pedagogical range is stunning and, I would argue, unsurpassed at Boston College, and his depth and breadth of knowledge is impressive. But it is his desire for, and cultivation of, intellectual friendship and companionship that makes him the man and teacher he is at Boston College,” said Cronin. “I and others who have worked with him over the years so deeply admire how he instills a love of great books, great conversations, and great friendship among his students.”

BC Resident Director Katie Wostbrock, whose freshmen Perspectives students devote three to four hours per month to non-classroom events in addition to the 18 hours of monthly coursework, offered similar praise for the Perspectives Living and Learning program, which Braman developed to give students additional opportunities to interact with their professors and each other.

“Brian always goes above and beyond for his students,” said Wostbrock. “He is willing to volunteer his time during evenings and weekends to offer them opportunities to augment their classroom learning because he knows it is an invaluable educational experience. I see first-hand how his student-focused approach to teaching has such an extraordinary impact.”

Fifteen years after taking his charge from Fr. Flanagan, Braman remains energized teaching his Perspective sections and working with students to find their place in the world. “This is my vocation,” said Braman. “It is what God has blessed me with, by helping me find what I was meant to do.”

Braman sees the Perspectives Program and Perspectives Honors Sequence continuing to thrive in the years to come, serving as a natural counter to the popular trend of majors in science, technology, engineering and math.  “Data from employers suggests that they are looking to hire employees who can think critically, are creative, and are intellectually flexible,” said Braman.  “From that viewpoint, our Perspectives students are the ideal candidates to succeed in the workplace, as well as in life.”