Last week Charles Dickens turned 200. I was privileged to have what were literally front-row seats at a number of commemorations of the day in London, the most impressive of which was a wreathlaying ceremony at Westminster Abbey. I heard many heartfelt tributes to Dickens that morning in the abbey – including a powerful reading from Bleak House by Ralph Fiennes and a reflection on Dickens as a champion of the weak and powerless by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I was in London as President of the American Friends of the Charles Dickens Museum, a group founded to assist the museum in transforming itself into a world-class cultural and education resource. Throughout the day, I met Dickens enthusiasts from all over the world, including a group from a small city in Holland that hosts the world’s largest Dickens festival, visited by over 100,000 people each December. Indeed, there were celebrations of the bicentenary of his birth not only in the U.K. and the U.S., but in scores of countries and hundreds of cities throughout the world.
A good part of my adult life has been devoted to my profession as a Dickens scholar. I’m fortunate that some of the work I have done still is considered of value. But what impressed me most about the bicentenary celebrations was the way in which Dickens lives still among a contemporary audience that numbers in the millions. Critics will come and critics will go; Dickens and his great novels will endure because he is read.
Back in New York, I hosted a small celebration in the Liberal Studies office for our community, including our students. I reminisced at the event that over the course of my own career as a student, a teacher, and a scholar, I had read Bleak House at least 14 times, and each time it has been a fresh and profoundly moving experience. I realize now, it is time to read it yet again.

Recently I saw an extraordinary performance of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” on Broadway. A friend asked me what I thought of it, and I answered, “It was great.” Since then, I’ve been thinking about what that word – great – really means.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before I saw it. This production has been controversial, with the four-hour operatic version slimmed both in time to two hours and in scope, with a smaller orchestra and chorus. The critics, on the whole, have not been impressed with the changes.
Frankly, I think the carping by music critics misplaced. Audra McDonald’s performance was spectacular, but the entire cast was no less convincing. To judge from the audience response when I saw it, it was a complete success. At the end, the applause went on for what seemed like hours.
There is indeed something magical about this improbable opera, written in the middle of the Great Depression by two New York Jews, the children of Russian immigrants, who started their careers in Tin Pan Alley even before they graduated high school, and set in a poor African-American community on the South Carolina coast. What could be more improbable? And yet somehow it has captured audiences in every decade since it was written.
Some of its appeal undoubtedly is in the marvelous music: several of the lyrics, like “Summertime,” and “It ain’t necessarily so,” have become living parts of our popular culture. But there is more to its appeal, and that “more” is why we keep returning to it and why it still is so fresh.
What makes a great work great is that it not only can but must be reinvented by everyone who encounters it, and in each generation. Most works of art are worth experiencing once; some even twice; but those that are truly great can be revisited again and again, and with each encounter we find something new, something unexpected, something transcendent.

This week, I would like to introduce a Liberal Studies faculty member, Brendan Hogan, who is at NYU Paris this academic year, teaching our Social Foundations core sequence to a group of 50 exceptional Core Program and Global Liberal Studies freshmen. Next week, Brendan will be delivering an invited lecture at the Ecole Normal Superieure in Paris, an event co-sponsored by Université Paris 1, the Sorbonne.
Our international freshman entry programs in Paris, Florence, London, and Shanghai provide students with a unique opportunity for cultural immersion at the beginning of their academic careers. They study the same great works curriculum as Core Program students in New York, but inflected to take full advantage of the cultural resources of each site. In China, they study the rise of empire and walk the Great Wall; in Florence, they study Greek tragedy while they sit in a Greco-Roman theatre in Fiesole; in Paris, they explore medieval art as they explore the cathedral at Chartres.
However, these programs are remarkable not only because they are located in four of the world’s great cities, but also because of our faculty. Brendan is developing an international reputation as a scholar in his field, philosophy; he is also passionately dedicated to undergraduate teaching. Working closely with students in and out of the classroom, Brendan is an effective and innovative teacher focused on student learning. For him, and for all of our faculty, teaching the great works to beginning college students is the most fulfilling and rewarding career he can imagine.
Liberal Studies is built around the great works of the world’s most important cultural traditions, but every much a part of the program is great teaching provided by great faculty, including Brendan and all of my outstanding and accomplished faculty colleagues.