Enduring Questions

  • What is justice?
  • What is truth?
  • What is love?

These are all examples of Enduring Questions.

An Enduring Question is why do some questions endure, and what, if anything, is the human value of those questions? A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities helps propel discussion of Enduring Questions.

Political science professor Chris Colmo received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study Gandhi and the Enduring Question: What is justice? Exploring Enduring Questions requires a predisciplinary approach.

Approach

"On a recent trip to Sicily, I heard a guide who was taking tourists through the Greek ruins of Agrigento refer to Empedocles as a preSocratic philosopher. I was struck by the thought that surely Empedocles never thought of himself as a preSocratic philosopher. The idea amused me, though I am not sure it would have amused Empedocles. Is it possible to see Empedocles anew, not as one in the shadow of things yet to come, but as one beginning almost from scratch the journey of the human mind?" -- Chris Colmo

Could Empedocles, while surely not preSocratic, be described as a predisciplinary thinker? Or does a predisciplinary Empedocles suffer from the same paradox as a preSocratic Empedocles? Certainly Empedocles could not have thought of himself as a precursor to disciplines that would arise only much latter. But does Empedocles somehow remind us of the freshness, the boldness, the new beginning that must belong to a predisciplinary approach? Such an approach must be naïve in some fundamental sense. While such naïveté must be a necessary feature of a radical beginning, it is not a thing to be desired in itself. We cannot and should not all begin by reinventing the wheel. There is no human progress in a predisciplinary world. We have progress precisely because we have disciplines, separate sciences, that build on the knowledge already acquired or created in those disciplines. Each new generation of researchers takes on faith the assumptions and discoveries of the last generation in order to build the tower of knowledge ever higher.

Of course, an expert researcher in the modern university would sense something wrong with that last sentence. Even at the undergraduate level, perhaps especially at the undergraduate level, we are all trying to teach our students “to think like professionals in our discipline.” We want to inculcate in them the assumptions and the methods that will allow them to quickly assimilate the knowledge that has been gained in our field, and we want them to move ahead as quickly as possible to add new knowledge based on those same assumptions and methods.

Yet we also want our students to learn to think critically. Critical thinking is one of the primary goals of university education in the United States today. Of course, one can think critically on the basis of inherited assumptions and methods, and most of the time this is what thinking critically means. But we also sense that sometimes thinking critically requires just the opposite of “thinking like a professional in our discipline.” Sometimes thinking critically requires questioning the very assumptions and methods upon which the discipline is built. In other words, we may think critically within our discipline, or we may think critically about our discipline. Predisciplinary thinking would seem at the very least to require some version of the latter, of critical thinking in its most radical sense.

Seminar

A course that focuses on an Enduring Question fits in well with the Liberal Arts and Sciences Seminars that are already part of the core curriculum for undergraduates in the Rosary College of Arts and Sciences. These seminars are devoted to student discussion of just the kind of Enduring Questions that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is trying to encourage.

But coming up with a topic was not as easy as it might seem. For starters, I tend to think in terms of Great Books rather than Enduring Questions. In some ways using books by Plato and Shakespeare provides a kind of safety net for a young teacher.  Students are placed in the hands of teachers, such as Plato or Shakespeare, who surely knew what they were doing. This is why the Great Books are so valuable. Putting a Great Book into the hands of students also puts them in the hands of a Great Teacher. 

One of the ways a professor can get in the way of a Great Teacher is by taking bits and pieces of what he or she wrote and give only that to my students. Perhaps they should read the whole book. One of the criteria for the Enduring Questions Pilot Courses that the NEH sought to sponsor was reading whole books rather than just selections. However, the NEH criteria did not focus primarily on reading Great Books.  The focus is also on choosing a theme, an Enduring Question [create link].  It is not hard to find questions of which humankind has not managed to dispose.

“What is the best way to live one’s life?”  “Is there only one true faith?” “What is human happiness?” “What is a liberal education?” “What is the relation between science and the humanities?” “What is art?” “What is justice?”

This is an opportunity to explore questions often wondered about, but perhaps to explore it in a new way.

Professor Richard Sorabji raised the question “Is Gandhi a model for the Stoic wise person?” in his keynote address at a conference in New York City. This topic invites students to learn about two new themes at once, Gandhi and Stoicism.

Gandhi, above all, raises the question of justice, a question that is closely related to the question of the wise person. Does justice require that I harm no one, as Gandhi seemed to think? This question relates to something Socrates says in Plato’s Gorgias.  “It is better to suffer injustice than to do injustice.” But did Socrates mean the same thing as Gandhi seemed to mean. Gandhi himself had been influenced not so much by Socrates or by the Stoics, as by Tolstoy.  And so the theme of Gandhi and the Stoics gradually evolved into the theme of Gandhi and the Western Classics, focusing, of course, on the question, “What is justice?”