Over the fall semester, Robert Jackall, professor of anthropology and sociology, led 23 Williams students in an ambitious attempt to understand the phenomenon of violence in his ANSO 201 class. The award-winning course, inspired by Jackall’s work with New York City police detectives engaged in the war on drugs, was developed for an international competition sponsored by the Henry Guggenheim Foundation. Students were given readings on a wide variety of topics relevant to violence such as its biological explanations, its association with honor and its 20th century “industrialization,” best characterized by the Holocaust.
Unlike similar courses at Emory University and the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, Jackall’s is not a policy course; he does not claim to provide definitive answers. Still, he said that a solution would only be found once the phenomenon of violence is better understood. “I am convinced from my own long teaching experience at the College,” Jackall said, “that creative solutions, if there are any, will only be discovered by men and women who have learned how to think deeply and critically and historically.”
To that end, Jackall assigned substantial amounts of reading aimed at giving his students an understanding of social, cultural and biological implications of violence. According to Andrew Mitchell ’02, “we were exposed to as diverse an array of readings as I have ever encountered in a Williams College course.” The syllabus included Paradise Lost, The Communist Manifesto, Crime and Punishment and Walden, along with various sociological works on suicide, sexual violence and the samurai code of honor among others.
Jackall observed that the readings on the Japanese kamikazes, the Nazi genocide and the sexual significance of armed combat elicited the greatest student response as reflected by discussions as well as paper topics.
For their papers, students also chose to write on subjects such as the political violence in the Roman Republic, the depiction of organized crime in film and literature and the moral accountability of the scientists who paved the way for nuclear warfare.
The students overwhelmingly labeled the course a success. Justin Crowe ’03 elaborated: “By presenting violence within the context of biology, chemistry, history, philosophy, religion, literature, politics and art, Professor Jackall showed [us] how broad and all-encompassing violence truly is. We studied and read the great thinkers of the ages and in doing so, saw the evolution of different types of violence from and into each other. I feel that after taking Professor Jackall’s course I understand violence much better, not the problem of it, but the phenomenon of it.”
The tremendous amount of literature assigned for each class, however, prompted one student to observe that “the reading was sometimes too much for a week.” Jackall acknowledged this and plans on trimming down the course in the future. As of now, though, he is unsure whether he will offer the course next year, as he will be away for at least the fall semester.