Wilfred McClay writes for the Martin Center about the recent discovery of a particularly challenging college class.

We’re used to hearing that American college students don’t like reading and avoid tough courses where they have to. But a new course at the University of Oklahoma (OU) proves that many students are eager for a demanding course.

Here’s the story.

In the fall of 1941, as a visiting faculty member at the University of Michigan, the poet W.H. Auden offered an undergraduate course of staggering intellectual scope, entitled “Fate and the Individual in European Literature.” We know little about the origins or trajectory of this remarkable course: how it was conceived, how it was taught, how it was received.

It is mentioned in passing in some biographical accounts of Auden’s life. There are a few testimonials from students enrolled in the course (among whom was one Kenneth Millar, better known by his detective-fiction pseudonym Ross McDonald), but it has otherwise passed down into the memory hole—until recently.

Seventy-one years after the course was taught, a faded, marked-up copy of Auden’s original one-page syllabus was unearthed in Michigan’s archives by the literary scholar Alan Jacobs. He then posted on the internet for all to see. Soon it was circulating widely, eliciting a surprising amount of commentary.

Scholars were excited by the discovery, for it provided them with a list of texts that Auden himself, one of the greatest poets and critics of the twentieth century, considered central to the Western intellectual tradition. In a way, it was like a guided tour of the intellectual furniture of a great poet’s mind.

The course was enormous. …

… The two-semester course that we developed tries to capture the same sweep, intellectual richness, and mingling of seriousness and delight that Auden’s syllabus embodied.