Lessons in Being Human

I tried something new this week on the first day of my spring term humanities seminar. Rather than hand out the syllabus and introduce the themes and texts coming up, I asked my students to think back over the past few months and identify Big Ideas To Hold On To from the fall semester: concepts, themes and implications from the books they want to bring with them into their 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond.

I share the results below for three reasons: (1) to provide a cheerier glimpse of the college experience than the 2011 Arum and Roksa study according to which 45 percent of students “demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college.” (2) to show that while lectures tend to leave students cold, discussion-centered courses can engage them in deep thinking about significant questions; and (3) to make a micro case that the demise of the humanities in higher education is a trend we ought to resist with all our might.


There is a fourth reason I share the Big Ideas my students came up with: I want to encourage you to read these books, or return to them, yourself. 

The Book of Genesis

“Piety is a necessary but not sufficient cause for God’s favor.”
“The relationship between God and humans, over the span of the text, is inconsistent.”
“God displays human tendencies.”
“Ruling through fear creates order.”
“God and humans are mutually dependent on one another for existence and power.”
“God blesses those who praise Him.”
“Humans do not have the capacity to understand God’s will.”

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound & Sophocles, Oedipus Rex

“Self-sabotage is required to become a hero."
“Knowledge of one’s fate is a burden.”
“Knowledge is burdensome.”
“Fate does exist, but there is free will within the predetermined fate.”
“One’s fate is the cause-and-effect of one’s decisions.”
“Know thyself: physical vision is not equivalent to sight.”
“The order of the many overcomes the well-being of the individual.”

Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo and Republic

“What is justice? Can a truly just society really exist?”
“How do we know who is fit to fill various societal roles?”
“The possession of wisdom hinges on your awareness of your limitations.”
“True wisdom is admitting to not knowing.”
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
“We live in a cave and the light will blind us.”
“True wisdom is knowing the impossibility of knowing anything; your journey of learning must never end.”
“Knowledge must come from the self; indoctrination is the predator of knowledge.

St. Augustine, Confessions

“People should refrain from deriving pleasure from necessities.”
“Overcoming and separating the body from the soul enables one to transcend the finite.”
“You have to admit to being naturally evil as a human before you can be saved.”
“God is a lens through which we can see the world and to find this lens we first have to overcome necessary obstacles.”
“Finding God is an internal journey, and one must overcome a multitude of malicious metaphysical maladies to manifest the meaning.”

Dante, Inferno

Contrapasso punishment: no sin goes unnoticed, and the punishment is poetically reciprocal to the sin.”
“One has to overcome fear if he wants to reach spiritual transformation and become close to God.”
“Dante focuses on punishment, exploring and revealing hidden complexities within the relationships of life and death, mortality and immortality, goodness and pain, and most of all, the futility and hopelessness which seems to be involved in them all.”
“Go through Hell to reach Heaven.”

Turns out there are lessons to be learned after kindergarten, after all.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

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