CIE letter to students
Every first-year student takes the year long Common Intellectual Experience. The course explores the issues that lie at the heart of the kind of education Ursinus aims to provide, a liberal education. This education investigates questions that pertain to us as human beings: What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? What is the universe and what is our place in it? Thus, whatever your backgrounds or career aspirations may be as students, whatever our specialties may be as faculty, we share an intense interest in the answers to these questions. To fulfill our mission as a liberal arts college, we engage in this investigation from the very beginning of your time at Ursinus. We pursue answers to these questions in some of the most significant works of art, religion, philosophy, literature, and science.
We expect this to be one of the most important and fulfilling of your experiences at Ursinus. Yet it won’t always be easy. As we search for answers to these questions, we’ll discover the troubling fact that, while the answers we read in each text may be profound, they also differ in significant ways. Socrates' view of happiness is unacceptable to Jesus; the way of life advocated by Krishna clashes directly with the way of life advocated by Descartes; what is self-evident to Jefferson is not self-evident to Darwin. When the authorities disagree, there's no other way to proceed than for us to attempt to evaluate these ways of life. Accordingly, we seek to clarify for ourselves why we find one extraordinarily attractive and another deeply objectionable.
This is a task best undertaken together. If we don't discuss our views with others, it's too easy to presume we know things that we may not. It's too easy to be assured that our beliefs are obviously superior to those held by people from some other place and time. As difficult as it can be, if we don’t subject our beliefs to others’ scrutiny we only harm ourselves. For without such scrutiny we'll never really know whether we're right about the most important thing: the meaning of happiness.
In the CIE we meet in small classes so that everyone has the opportunity to participate in discussions where we listen carefully to others' arguments and refine our views based on careful deliberation. Such a conversation should not be confined to the classroom. The issue of how we ought to live our lives is not simply a "subject" in school, a narrow technical matter. Nor is mastery of it demonstrated by filling in bubbles on an answer sheet. Rather, it's a problem that informs or ought to inform our every waking hour. Because each of you will study the same set of readings, you should always be able to find someone who wants to think along with you. This is the chief purpose of a residential college: to enable you to engage in challenging conversation any place and any time. I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity.
Instructors from nearly every discipline teach the course. No one of us is an expert on all the material we'll be studying. But the questions we ask animate and underlie each of our separate disciplines. And, to repeat, each of us is intensely interested in these questions not only as a physicist or historian or economist, but as a human. Moreover, each of us understands that reflection on these questions is a lifelong endeavor. We hope this course provides the impetus for that endeavor.
As the year proceeds, expect to find yourself confused, disturbed, or angry. Because this conversation may involve challenging beliefs you cherish, it requires some courage. Expect also to find pleasure and satisfaction as you see the progress you're making on your way. Whatever you end up thinking, if you take the course seriously, you won't return from this journey the same person; you will be changed because you will better know yourself.