Saturday, January 22, 2011

Two Weeks In

The second week of the new semester just finished. It's hard for me to believe we're already two weeks in. Of course, the first two weeks are fairly skimpy weeks. I always use the very first day of a new course simply to get the students to start talking in a pre-theoretical way about the issues we'll be exploring together in the course, and so ease into the course fairly gradually.

On the first day in my Intro to Ethics class, my large lecture that meets on Mondays and Wednesdays at 9:00, I ask the students to list the three things in life that they think are most important, and then we get that list up on the board to serve as a preview of the rest of the semester. Someone always says "happiness" - happiness shapes the ethical theories of Aristotle and John Stuart Mill. Someone else will say "friendship" or "love" - Aristotle has a lot to say about these as well. "Morals" - well, Kant will cover that territory with great thoroughness. "Freedom" - Sartre. "Creativity" - Nietzsche. It's always fun to see what the students will generate in this brainstorming exercise.

My Major Social Theories class, a medium-sized class that meets on MWF at 11:00, provides an introduction to the history of western political philosophy: Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Marx, and Rawls. There, on the first day I ask the students why we come together to form a political community. In addition to the expected answer of "security," I also got answers that had to do with meeting basic needs, including the need for "belonging." By the end of the hour we were already in to a good discussion about how we might weigh and balance these different goals and values.

So far the students in both classes seem motivated and lively. We're partway through Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics in the first class; we're well into Plato's Republic in the other. It's not a bad way to make a living: talking about some of the most fascinating books ever written with intellectually curious young people encountering these books for the very first time.

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