COMMON INTELLECTUAL EXPERIENCE
The Common Intellectual Experience takes its bearings from a statement as startling today as it was twenty-five hundred years ago: "The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being". Socrates’ dictum seeks to awaken us to our situation. He wants, specifically, to rouse us to see that each of us confronts an array of possibilities concerning how we might live and that whether we live a worthwhile life depends on the specific path we choose to take. With so much at stake, Socrates urges us to examine those choices before us with the greatest possible care. Equipped, as we are, with the capacity for rational deliberation, to do otherwise is hardly a human life at all.
No one is more likely to heed Socrates’ challenge than the first-year college student. Wondering intensely about the future course of his or her life, not yet unshakably fixed to a single point of view, this student especially hears Socrates’ call. The Common Intellectual Experience seeks to provide the conditions in which such a student can begin the examination essential to a life worth living.
In The Common Intellectual Experience we confront students with a variety of texts diverse in form and content. We enable them not only to learn about these texts but to learn from them. We urge the students to take the texts seriously because they should take themselves seriously, and these books might have something of the utmost importance to teach. We thus approach each text with the possibility that it sees more deeply than we do, that it might in fact be true.
One might ask, as students often do, how can we learn from these texts? What do the books or paintings, many of them hundreds or even thousands of years old, have to do with our lives here and now? Our response is that there are questions that endure as long as there are humans. We have tried to express these in the three leading questions of the course: What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? What is the universe and how do we fit into it?
But still, students ask, in thinking about ourselves, can we really be aided by considering the concerns of people so different from us, people from so long ago, often so alien? Let us suggest three reasons that we must be concerned with them. First, some of those old views are the original expressions of ways of thinking, religious and scientific, that remain powerful in our lives. If we want to judge for ourselves the truth of these views, we must go to the source; we can’t rely on what we've heard from others. Second, many more recent views arise in reaction to older understandings, just as the story of Noah in the Bible responds to the story of the Flood in Gilgamesh, or Galileo’s understanding of nature explicitly opposes Aristotle’s. What's true of any conversation is true of the 5000-year old conversation of humankind: to understand it, and to enter into it, we need to hear the voices of all the participants. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the very differences among our texts are central to the activity of self-examination. If one seeks to discern how to live, one must face those ideas that seem alien and strange.
This last point requires further elaboration. Each of us, we think, has some opinions about these big questions. These opinions are like our homes, familiar and comfortable. Even more, they are like that picture on the kitchen wall that we have seen so often we no longer even recognize that it's there, so accustomed are we to its presence. It's only when we leave the comfort and familiarity of our intellectual home, when we subject our opinions to the challenges of others, that we begin to recognize our own starting point because we then no longer take it for granted. When students leave their intellectual homes to grapple with powerful alternatives they become more aware of the ideas that shape the judgments they make about their lives. We think that students can't know where they stand here and now without engaging these texts, some of them very old, in all their diversity.
That engagement must occur in conversation with others. Absent that challenge, it’s unlikely that students will examine thoroughly the beliefs most in need of examination, namely, those they most deeply cherish. Formidable guardians preserve the sanctity of these beliefs, including especially the approval we receive from adhering to the accepted way. Thus, the obstacles to that challenge are not only, or perhaps not even primarily, intellectual. Hence this inquiry requires aspects of character, above all courage, that ultimately depend on each individual. It is for this reason that the program is an experience. As such, its aim is not to convey pieces of information but to engender in each student the desire for that self-scrutiny one can only undertake for oneself. Acting on this desire, students begin to experience the pleasure and satisfaction of truly knowing their own minds.
We teach the course in small sections each comprising no more than 16 students. In this setting students can engage with one another, make the arguments that support their views, listen carefully to others’ arguments, and reflect. Because of the common character of this course, they can participate in this conversation night and day, in and out of the classroom. Whether students’ discussions solidify their initial opinions or convince them to change, one thing is certain: as a result of these conversations they will better know themselves.
"The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being"--it's a controversial claim, a claim which itself must be questioned. But the claim has plausibility insofar as the self-knowledge gained in that examination brings us closer to what everyone desires: to know what makes us happy. And this is the simple premise of this course: how one chooses to lead one’s life is of the utmost significance and is therefore worthy of reflection. We believe that in providing for the possibility of such self-knowledge The Common Intellectual Experience stands at the heart of our college’s mission.