In the context of modern American society, the college campus is often portrayed as the “ultimate destination,” a place in which the individual must continually strive in order to reach the pinnacle of their academic potential. While it is true that the undergraduate experience is extremely rewarding, the glorification of higher education can make learning seem like a finite process.
In the fall of 2015, Boston College introduced two new, interdisciplinary types of courses, developed to remind students that education is not a process of acquiring all the answers, but rather an ongoing opportunity to approach each day with a sense of curiosity. These “Enduring Questions” and "Complex Problems” courses are designed to integrate two distinct subjects by focusing on a common theme, either a sequence of essential questions or the exploration of a contemporary issue. Though previously open only to freshmen, these courses will be offered to students of all ages beginning next semester.
Barbara Mattie, LSOE ‘20, took the Enduring Questions course “Engagement, Empathy, and Ethics” over the past fall semester. Students engaged in the study of spiritual exercises with Professor Brian Robinette and the study of aesthetic exercises with Professor Daniel Callahan. Reflecting on her experience, she said she is extremely happy with her decision to take the course and that more students should be made aware of the opportunity.
“Initially, I took the pilot course so that I could fulfill the music and theology core, but once I realized how much the courses were connected and shared common themes, I began to really enjoy the material,” Mattie says. “I got a lot more out of these classes than I ever could have expected.”
This attitude of unforeseen satisfaction seems to be a trend among students who took the Pilot Courses last semester. Many freshmen said they went into the experience unsure as to whether they had made the right decision in straying from the norm.
Given the novelty of the Pilot Courses, it is no mystery why a young and inexperienced freshman would feel slightly intimidated. According to Professor John Michalczyk, however, who teaches “Social Problems on the Silver Screen” with Professor Lynn Lyerly, the Core Renewal classes should not be a source of fear but rather something that should provoke excitement.
“I believe that the new Core Pilot courses offer a fresh look at two different disciplines,” he says. “We often pigeon-hole our knowledge, but these types of courses expand the breadth of one discipline which would not normally be juxtaposed with the other one. It also brings together two professors to share innovative ways of teaching the Core Curriculum, learning from each other.”
Given the competitive nature of the college campus, Michalcyk’s idea of discovering “a fresh perspective” is often overshadowed by the more urgent desire to achieve good grades and to acquire as much knowledge as possible. The Core Pilot courses serve as a reminder that we cannot reach our full potential by simply cramming our minds with “answers;” we must expand them by approaching what we think we know with a spirit of inquiry.
Frances Hartnett, MCAS ‘20, who took “Health, Illness, and Disability” last semester with Professor Amy Boesky and Professor Sam Moorman, said that she never would have imagined herself studying disease and literature in the the same classroom. She said that exploring questions of health and illness, while simultaneously engaging in literary analysis and personal narratives, allowed her to absorb the material in a way like she has never before.
“I really enjoyed this pilot course,” Hartnett said. “It allowed me to study an interesting topic from two distinct disciplines and made me realize that these disciplines seem to overlap when studying a topic such as health, disease, and illness. Larger issues within this field require perspectives from both disciplines to reach a solution. I would definitely recommend this course.”
Hartnett went on to say how taking a pilot course has not only helped her to acquire a new perspective, but also served to redefine the role of education in her daily life. Given the many responsibilities and obligations students have, it can be tempting to compartmentalize the different aspects of daily life, believing that academics must be kept separate from one’s passions or interests. The Pilot Courses offer an opportunity to cross the boundaries which we create in our minds and to take what we learn in the classroom and apply it in the real world.
“The Core Pilot program allows for a much more integrated learning experience,” said Santino LaBate, MCAS ‘20. “In most normal courses, information is learned and then filed away. In spiritual and aesthetic exercises, learning is a much more involved process. Both professors ensured that students really lived what they learned.”
In a video produced last year by Boston College’s Youtube channel, Professor Thomas Epstein spoke extensively on how this idea of “living what we learn” applies to his course “What is the Good Life?” Working with his colleague Professor Stephen Pope, Epstein combined the study of Slavic and Eastern Languages with the study of theology. Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of the Pilot Courses, he says, is the opportunities to go out and explore the so-called “real world.”
“We hope to bring it literally out of the classroom into museums, concert halls, and lecture halls to see how these questions live in the real world,” says Epstein. “I see a very useful collision in art and theology and a chance to smudge the boundaries between academics and life.”
Reflecting on Epstein’s insights, perhaps the most important part of the college education is not in fact the answers, but the questions themselves. Perhaps the pinnacle of our potential lies not in our ability to acquire knowledge but in our commitment to curiosity. How refreshing it is to think that the “ultimate destination” is not a faraway place in which we must strive for, but rather that inquisitive space within ourselves, in which the true spirit of education lies.