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Legacy of Failure: Losing and Losers

Ryan Swanson,

Course Description

Failure. Losing. Rejection. Defeat. A look around American society and throughout history reveals that countless noble efforts and ideas have failed. Individuals have crashed and burned, so to speak. Some of these failing endeavors nearly succeeded; others never had a chance. This course will investigate notable failures and "losers" in America's past and present. The course will weave together economics, history, and psychology in order to address how and why these failures occurred. Just as significantly, we will study how the rejections were received. The course will begin with Articles of Confederation and end with the New Mexico Spaceport. In between we will consider winless basketball teams, real estate collapses, failed inventors, and spectacularly flawed political experiments. And we will, of course, consider the very definition of failure itself.

Readings and Texts

Michael Lewis, The Big Short
Pat Conroy, My Losing Season
Scott Sandage, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America
Nathaniel Philbrick, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of Little Bighorn
Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle: A Memoir

Films and Other Course Materials

The Best that Never Was; Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine; The Natural; Four Falls of Buffalo; Waiting for Superman; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Course Fee


Student Requirements

Students will write and speak throughout the semester. Multiple small papers and speeches will provide students with the opportunity to improve upon both their written and verbal communication.

About the Instructor

Ryan Swanson earned his PhD in History at Georgetown University. He is a historian who studies sports and the US 19th century primarily. He has failed at many things, thus preparing him, at least in part, to teach this course.