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Human Experience

Overview of the Course

Human Experience

This is the first year of your education at Eckerd College, and the first year of our new General Education core syllabus titled Human Experience. This new syllabus draws on our eighteen-year history of teaching a comprehensive first-year survey course, which engaged some of the influential works and ideas of Western civilization in a conversation with important works of non-Western civilizations. Human Experience continues this tradition, as we will embark on a journey through time that fosters cross-cultural communication and allows you to consider alternatives to the received wisdom of your own culture. Ideas have consequences, and it is important for modern students to realize how their own world-views have been shaped by the ideas and experiences of the past, from the ancient world to our own. What we believe, accomplish, and value today has emerged from the ideas and struggles of our history and philosophy. For example, a complete understanding of the American Revolution requires knowledge of ancient Greek philosophy, the ideal of the state and republic of Rome, the shattering of the Western order of the Middle Ages by the ideas of the Renaissance and the Reformation, and the liberating ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers in the 17th Century. Ideas do have great consequences, and our task is to engage the ideas of what we call “the West” with those of other great civilizations. Ultimately, we must ask how these ideas have influenced the past, continue to shape the present, and may shed light on our futures as human beings who share the same single planet.

Central to our approach in constructing the course Human Experience is a recognition of the global context out of which all civilizations have derived and an acknowledgement that we live in a world of inter-relationships, mutual dependency, and extreme vulnerability on a global scale. The diverse modern world is filled with global and cross-cultural relationships and exchanges. The actual lived human experiences across our small world are thus not solely either “Western” or “Eastern,” but rather influenced and impacted (for better and worse) by those outside particular boundaries and cultures. Our times thus require that everyone, Westerners and non-Westerners alike, begin to communicate with greater understanding and sensitivity toward cultures and peoples unlike their own.    

The fall semester, Human Experience: Then and Now, begins with a discussion of “The Liberal Arts and Your Intellectual Journey.” The main intellectual goal we hope to help you achieve during your four years at Eckerd College is to become a “liberally educated” person. According to Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, to become a liberally educated person involves developing three abilities. First, the capacity for critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions—for what Socrates called “the examined life.” Second, the ability to think of oneself as what Stoic philosophers called a “citizen of the world.” And third, what Nussbaum calls the “narrative imagination,” which is the ability to try to understand what it might be like to experience life from a position other than one’s own. We will study Nussbaum’s writings on the value of the liberal arts and challenge you to think about her approach in relation to your intellectual journey.[1]

Following our discussion of the liberal arts, we will embark on four major “units” beginning with “Journeys, Then and Now” and proceeding to three interrelated units titled “Questions, Then and Now.” The three “big questions” we will explore in this unit are: “What is Justice?”; “What is Power?”; and “What is Freedom?” Each of these units will include a plenary presentation and classroom discussions of several interrelated texts from across time and cultures. By juxtaposing classic and modern works in each unit, we will come to see these works not as static monuments, but as dynamic, vital influences continuously impacting current culture and thought. The content and evolution of the ideas of justice, power, and freedom can only be understood through an intellectual framework based on the “integration of knowledge” from a variety of disciplines across the academy. And thus, our conversations in Human Experience this fall are based on enduring questions that each generation asks: What is justice? What is power? What is freedom?

An important part of Human Experience in both the fall and spring semesters is an exposure to the Arts and Sciences. We will also give considerable attention to multiple expressions of secular and religious values as a way of understanding our world. During the year we will encounter the arts on a fairly significant level. In fact, a major focus in both Fall and Spring semesters is the visual arts, both historically as well as technically. In the same way we will encounter the discoveries and technical transformations that have led to our scientific modern age. In a less tangible, but no less important way, values and ethics inform many of the world events around us, and provide a key to understanding human behavior on a completely different level. Human creativity, human invention, and values identification are of central importance to an understanding of the “human experience,” and who we are as human beings, how we see ourselves, and where we believe we fit in the cosmos.  

Our Spring semester, Human Experience: Selves and Others, builds upon the “big questions” of the fall semester, but is more focused on how those big ideas apply in specific circumstances. The fundamental goal of Selves and Others is to help you cultivate effective and informed global and national citizenship. The syllabus will be structured around four themes: 1) Cultivating Empathy; 2) Understanding Others; 3) Understanding Science and Uncertainty; and 4) Understanding Individual and Global Responsibility. By focusing on significant human dilemmas considered in cultural, historical, and multi-disciplinary perspectives, the spring course aims to introduce you to the intellectual and practical skills needed to identify, research, and analyze key issues concerning citizenship and ethics.  

At Eckerd College we profoundly believe in and are committed to nurturing intellectual independence. We promote a type of liberalism, presented eloquently by notable scholars Michael Bérubé and William Cronon, in which all sides of every issue deserve full debate and consideration.[2] Intellectual independence is our very reason for being, and thus we promote the idea that every theory, proposition, and idea is open to every kind of reasonable challenge. And this is why you will see your professors spending enormous time and energy trying to promote lively, critical classroom discussions.

You will not achieve a liberal arts education by simply reading and/or reciting key passages of the “great books.” Rather, true understanding can only come through engagement; to that end, you must engage in classroom discussions and debates. Classroom discussions provide you with an opportunity to try out your ideas and raise your speculations in a safe space where each of us participates according to her or his abilities.

The faculty teaching Human Experience represent for you models of lifetime learners, individuals committed to becoming true professors of the liberal arts. These professors are certainly experts in their particular fields of study. Yet in Human Experience, these teachers become exemplary professors willing to engage materials outside her or his discipline, acquainted with the history of ideas, and reflective about responsible citizenship in the 21st century.

We hope that you will challenge your professors and fellow students, as they will challenge you. Challenge the “great books” and the other material you read for the course. But, you have to earn your intellectual spurs, and learn to make a good argument, before exerting your opinion. As philosopher Peter Singer notes, social understanding is not a taste, like a preference for chocolate rather than strawberry ice cream. Rather, your opinions and value judgments must be informed by a serious study of alternate ways of interpreting reality, contrasting visions, and conflicting concepts. Such an approach opens the door to honest, systematic investigation and analysis.[3]

We are privileged to help you engage in this process of striving to become a “liberally educated person” in the fullest sense of the term. In so doing, not only will the personal rewards to you be enormous, but your ability to positively impact the “human condition” in your life as a compassionate and informed citizen will be significantly enhanced. 

[1] Martha C. Nussbaum, “Foreword,” in Michael Nelson, Alive at the Core: Exemplary Approaches to General Education in the Humanities (John Wiley & Sons, 2000).

[2] Michael Bérubé, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? (Norton, 2006); William Cronon, “Only Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education,” The American Scholar, Volume 67, No. 4, Autumn 1998.

[3] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 3rd edition (Cambridge University Press, 2011); Peter Singer, The President of Good and Evil (Dutton, 2004).