COOL CLASSES: “Topics in Enlightenment History: The Self Before The Selfie”

This history seminar uses primary-source readings, historical scholarship, and theoretical texts to explore the “self talk” of the Enlightenment period and to explore parallels to our own social-media age.

Class name: “Topics in Enlightenment History: The Self Before The Selfie”

Taught by: Frank A. Kafker Professor of History and Associate Professor of History Lisa Jane Graham


Here’s what Graham had to say about her class:

It is important to remind ourselves that the self has a long history in Western culture. This class focuses on a pivotal moment, the Enlightenment, when “self-talk” exploded in various fields including medicine, art and literature, political economy, and criminal law. Self-talk encompassed prescriptions for the self as well as new forms of self-reflection and self-expression. The readings highlight these developments and the anxieties they evoked. I want students to see how the current surge in modes of self-expression — Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and the like — is not the first of its kind.

As a scholar of the Enlightenment, I am struck by the similarity between current discussions of social media and those of the eighteenth century. The same warnings about isolation, addiction, and virtual reality echo across the centuries. Then as now, material and technological changes transformed modes of social interaction and communication. They also propelled arguments for surveillance to protect individuals and prevent social dissolution. The class explores how these earlier debates about the self shaped distinguishing features of modern life like solitude and celebrity, capitalism and democracy.

See what other courses the Department of History is offering this semester.

Photo of the class viewing items for their research papers from Quaker and Special Collections by Dex Coen Gilbert ’21.

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.