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Literature, other texts open ASU Barrett Honors College students to a world of ideas

Photo of The Human Event books

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October 09, 2023

Mia Osmonbekov knows full well the power of books. It was through books that she learned to speak English and encountered diverse cultures.

Osmonbekov, a second-year Arizona State University student majoring in journalism and mass communication with a minor in Spanish, was born in Atlanta to parents from Kyrgyzstan who came to the United States to study at Emory University.

As an infant, Osmonbekov moved to Kyrgyzstan with her mother and lived there for about five years. She spoke only Russian with her mom and family. She then returned to the U.S. when she was a young child.

“I came back here for school and didn’t speak any English and had to learn it through 'Dora the Explorer' and reading as many books as I could,” Osmonbekov said.

Her reading advanced from children’s books to the Bible and the works of noted authors Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy and Alexandre Dumas.

As a student in Barrett, The Honors College at ASU, she continued to immerse herself in books in the honors college’s signature course for first-year students, The Human Event, a yearlong seminar focused on the multicultural history of human culture and thought.

A Socratic seminar focused on helping students develop their own ideas about inspiring texts from around the world, The Human Event cultivates students’ abilities to share their insights and opinions in class discussions and in written essays and papers with emphasis on critical thinking and analysis.

“The exposure to different texts and materials that I'd otherwise never come across was eye-opening and made me realize how much more work was out there than just the Western tradition. Reading 'Sunjata,' 'The Bhagavad Gita,' and 'The Art of War' sort of broke me out of my Eurocentric literary mindset and opened up a whole new world of literature,” Osmonbekov said.

“Reading 'The Book of the City of Ladies' by Christine Pizan dating from the medieval ages blew my mind because I had no idea that there were female writers from that time! I grew up reading Dickens, Tolstoy and Dumas, so all this was really important diversification. Women and people of color were often erased or degraded in those stories, so seeing their stories made me look at classic literature differently,” she added.

Osmonbekov, who is on the staff of the ASU State Press student-run newspaper, said The Human Event exposed her to similar and universal themes in works from radically different cultures and historical periods, giving her a solid base of literary and historical knowledge, helping her craft and defend her opinions more compellingly, and making her a better and more concise writer.

“How cool is it that 'The Bhagavad Gita' and the Torah have so much in common? Or how 'The Iliad' and 'The Art of War' show two different ways of valuing violence that feel scarily modern? And that cultures from opposite ends of the globe can come to strikingly similar conclusions about the law, love and violence?” she said.

“It changed the way I view current political and social trends by showing me how these patterns emerged centuries ago. It made me a better critical thinker. The Human Event has a lot to offer. Even if the texts can be archaic, they're timeless and have really helped me analyze and process my surroundings and the information I take in more critically.”

Honors Faculty Fellow Alex Young, who teaches The Human Event, said the course helps students expand their understanding of the pressing questions they will face in their lives as professionals and citizens.

“Unlike more traditional 'great books' programs that rely on a prescribed curriculum of texts focusing on Western civilization, Barrett's innovative curriculum allows more latitude for our talented faculty to help their students examine particular threads in the broader tapestry of global culture,” Young said.

For example, alongside the familiar Greek epic 'The Iliad,' students might read the Mandan epic 'Sunjata' from West Africa, philosophical works ranging from the classical philosophers of ancient China to the decolonial theorists of contemporary South America.

“Empowered by the global perspectives they encounter in The Human Event, Barrett students emerge from their first year at ASU ready to take on the international opportunities Barrett offers them, ranging from our unique faculty-led study abroad offerings to the international scholarships that so many of our Barrett students are awarded every year,” Young said.

Honors Faculty Fellow Clare Carrasco said, “When shaping the course, it is crucial for us to stretch our knowledge as faculty members and really take a close look at our reading lists. It’s not simply diversifying by adding a token text to what is a Eurocentric center.”

“It really means taking a hard look and thinking about who is represented. For example, are there women? Are there women of color? Are there Indigenous authors? So, it’s really thinking carefully about whose experiences are being represented,” added Carrasco, who, in addition to books, includes oral histories, visual art and storytelling, and music and film into her teaching of The Human Event.

“The first-year Barrett experience is all about expanding students’ horizons as they find a place among their diverse peers at Barrett and begin to take advantage of all the opportunities ASU has to offer them,” Young said. “The global intellectual breadth of texts Barrett students encounter in The Human Event plays a crucial part in that process.”

In honor of National Book Month in October, here is a list of texts from The Human Event recommended for interesting reads:

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