“Be patient, … and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” (Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet*)
We begin with the questions.
Education is a conversation, and the best conversations begin with real questions. The Open Questions curriculum is built around four questions that everyone confronts: What should matter to me? How should we live together? How can we understand the world? What will I do? One of the great rewards of a liberal arts education is the chance to engage these questions fully, seriously, intentionally, as part of an intellectual community. Together with professionals and scholars in all fields of knowledge, students explore these four questions from many different points of view, considering multiple answers and their meanings. Through grappling with these four questions, students prepare themselves to live thoughtfully and deliberately as human beings and as citizens.
What should matter to me?
What matters more: honesty or friendship? Love or success? Security or risk? We all make hard choices, and whether we realize it or not, those choices reflect our values. But how often do we stop to ask what those values represent and where they come from? The Open Questions curriculum invites us to take a careful look at what really matters – to ourselves, to the communities we live in, and to the world at large – and to make thoughtful decisions about our own principles. By doing this, we develop specific habits of mind – habits that support making a meaningful life as an individual and enable full participation in democracy.
How should we live together?
Deciding how to live means deciding how to live together. We need one another, and our value systems reflect this need. Whether with family and friends; within schools, neighborhoods, and religious communities; or in our towns, nations, and even on our shared planet, connections with others shape us, and we shape our communities. As our country and our world become more diverse and interconnected, this question grows more interesting, more urgent and more challenging. As we study the ways others across the world, both past and present, have answered this question, we prepare ourselves to live more thoughtfully, with greater moral sensitivity, in a world of burgeoning complexity.
How can we understand the world?
Important questions can’t be answered simply and straightforwardly; they are like books in a language we do not yet know how to read. The question How can we understand the world? asks us to reflect on the nature of knowledge and how it is communicated. Academic disciplines and specialized fields of knowledge speak their own languages and see the world through their own lenses. Each asks a different set of questions. By reflecting on the sources of knowledge, we see more clearly what different academic disciplines can teach us. We learn about their limitations as well – and about the limitations of disciplinary expertise itself. The more we understand what the disciplines have to offer, the better we can determine when and how to use them.
What will I do?
Difficult decisions with real consequences will confront all of us, often in situations of ambiguity, complexity, and rapid change. To live the questions now, reflection and action must inform each other. The Open Questions curriculum prepares us to face decisions and to shape our lives with the awareness and habits of thought that come from a solid foundation in reflection and inquiry. This final question ties the curriculum to Ursinus College’s mission: to prepare students for a life of thoughtfulness, responsibility, and independence.