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Course helps freshmen ponder life’s big questions

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It may be the University of Florida’s only course title to end in a question mark.

The goal is to have 6,700 different answers – one for each freshman who takes the course this year. That reach likely makes “What is the Good Life?” the highest-enrolled course in UF history.

“It’s that important,” said Paul D’Anieri, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and one of the course’s architects. “This is something we’ve really invented here. I think other universities are going to look to this as the model for what they do.”

Students consider the question in activities as diverse as a lecture on the Barbie doll as role model or corrupting image, a dance performance that included a staged lynching, and cold calculations of the dollar value of a human life. Students read “Siddhartha,”  “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”  “Antigone,” and “Man’s Search for Meaning.” The mandate that all freshmen take the course aims to encourage discussion outside lecture halls and theaters to anywhere students from far-flung majors mix — dorm rooms, dining halls, downtown streets.

A true common course – not one with dozens of iterations under one title, like so many Great Books courses — is an innovation in higher education. There’s no clear analog at another American university where so many students take the same course with such similar syllabi across hundreds of sections. It’s cutting-edge enough that the state Legislature established its legality by passing a bill to authorize as many as four common courses at the University of Florida.

“We had drifted away from a common academic experience as majors became more specialized, and as students increasingly entered UF already having earned college credits, allowing them to bypass our general education requirements,” said UF President Bernie Machen. “‘What is the Good Life?’ restores that common experience by bringing together students, whatever their interests or majors, to explore the fundamental questions of humanity and civilization.  We believe this approach encourages a global perspective and a sense of shared values, while also fostering critical thinking, quality writing and teamwork skills.”

The common course is also the revival of a tradition. The so-called C-courses, or comprehensive courses, were a series of required classes now looked upon with nostalgia by alumni of a certain age, as they recall instructors such as “Wild Bill” Carleton, for whom Carleton Auditorium is named, prowling about the stage exhorting his students to wrestle with big questions and assigned texts.

Some confess they groused about C-courses at the time, just as some of today’s students chafe at prescribed coursework. Yet unifying students even in grievance has value, administrators say. The class is one of the few tools a university as vast as UF has to create a common experience for Gators outside of certain autumn Saturdays.

The high-achieving students who enter UF have increasingly come with transcripts loaded with AP credits that allow them to vault over “why?” courses in the humanities and directly into the “how?” courses of their majors.

The course’s champions don’t want students to miss out on the timeless question of “Why?” The technical skills courses prepare students for their first job, they say, but those students are entering the workforce in an age when they’ll likely change careers several times in their working lives.

Students don’t describe “What is the Good Life?” as practical. But freshman economics major Lidia Kurganova says it’s relevant. Her professor’s recent lecture on “Siddhartha” as a point of entry into a discussion of the nature of happiness resonated so strongly with Lidia that she asked the professor to watch a YouTube video with a modern response. In it, the Don Draper character on the television series “Mad Men” scowls, “But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” Geometry doesn’t trigger that kind of response in her, Lidia said.

“I’m sure there are many students who ask, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” said Vasudha Narayanan, distinguished professor of religion and Lidia’s instructor. “The success of this course would be measured five years from now, 10 years from now, when someone says they remember what MLK and Gandhi said, that they read Abraham Heschel, Aldo Leopold, and Guy de Maupassant, that they learned a little bit about Islamic law; that it was a bonding experience socially. I hope they say it was the good life.”

Don Draper has a point, Narayanan acknowledged. Her exchange with Kurganova exemplifies that the course doesn’t wrap up the question in 16 weeks. In fact, the goal is to have students continue to ask it long after they graduate.

Writer: Chris Moran