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Changing Students' Lives

A commentary essay in the CHE uses a course on 'philosophical anthropology' as a jump off point to discuss the importance of letting students discover their interests and excitement about learning:

When I was an undergraduate at Antioch College in the early ’80s, I took a course in philosophical anthropology. I’m still not entirely sure what "philosophical anthropology" means, but it was the best course I ever had. It did more to prepare me for graduate school and my career than any other course, and it was edge-of-your-seat, lean-across-the-table interesting. The problem is that the professor, Victor Ayoub, has retired, and committees in the modern world rarely approve courses like his.

The syllabus was about half a page in length. There were no course objectives, and the professor didn’t list his instructional activities or his grading procedures. What filled the half-page was a list of five or six books we would read during the semester and a sentence or two informing students that they would be expected to complete a research paper — the first part of which was due near the middle of the semester, with the rest being due at the end.

Professor Ayoub told us he chose the books on the list because he regarded them highly. None of the books seemed to fit any formal definitions of either philosophy or anthropology, and none were textbooks. The students were expected to pick their own research topics.

I ended up writing a 65-page paper on the influence of the French Revolution on American political thought. 

I mention that class because it reminds me of a student I myself once had. The first time I met him, when he was a freshman, he was diligent, focused, and inquisitive. By our second meeting, during his sophomore year, he was dutiful and lethargic. A few classes into the semester, I kept him after class and asked him what was wrong. He told me he was disappointed in college. He had been looking forward to the challenge, but it had turned out that it was easier than high school. He had lots of free time, there were fewer classes, and those few classes weren’t very demanding.

Apologies for the extended bloc quote, but this has to be one of the most pressing and urgent matters in the evolution of higher education: is college getting too easy for some of our brightest students? How do we get people to sufficiently challenge themselves? Whose duty even is that? This is the primary source of fulfillment in adulthood and simultaneously a near-ridiculous thing to say. 

Image: Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle of Higher Education

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