RELIGION
11/19/2015 05:51 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2015

Franklin & Marshall College Students Explore 'The Examined Life'

If students don’t ask the big questions, "an enormous opportunity will be wasted."
At Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, associate professor of philosophy Lee Franklin helped designed
The Washington Post via Getty Images
At Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, associate professor of philosophy Lee Franklin helped designed a unique course, "What is the Examined Life?"

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” So goes the famous declaration attributed to Socrates.

Over the last year at Franklin & Marshall, a liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, associate philosophy professor Lee Franklin has asked students to tackle the question that naturally follows.

In his course “What is the Examined Life?” launched in the fall semester of 2014, Franklin -- along with faculty who specialize in art, art history, anthropology and religion (Amelia Rauser, Misty Bastian, and Stephen Cooper) -- hopes to “to introduce students to central works of our intellectual tradition, and to frame the practices of intellectual discourse not so much as useful skills (say, for professional advancement), but as habits of mind that enrich one's life, one's relationships, and one's self-understanding pervasively,” Franklin said in an email.

The course is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities through its “enduring questions” grant program, which encourages professors and universities to pursue courses on religion, philosophy and the big questions of life.

Franklin, who also teaches classes on ancient and medieval philosophy, spoke via email with The Huffington Post about “the examined life” and teaching students about it.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” goes a famous saying by Socrates that's the basis for Lee Franklin's c
mahroch via Getty Images
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” goes a famous saying by Socrates that's the basis for Lee Franklin's course at Franklin & Marshall College.

What do students think “the examined life” is?

When students come into the course, their ideas of the examined life surely vary, and are in many ways vague. Perhaps they are familiar with the Socratic statement, from which the course takes its name, that "the unexamined life is not worth living.” But familiarity with this single sentence doesn't tell you much about what Socrates had in mind. In any case, the course does not aim to develop a single, prescriptive view of the examined life. Instead, we want to show students that a great many works, from different times and places, and occupying different genres of writing, are expressions of self-examination.

So our syllabus ranges over ancient texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and selections from the Hebrew Bible, to writings of Greek and Roman philosophers, to early modern political and social texts (Rousseau's “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality,” which begins with a shout out to the Delphic Oracle's command to “'know thyself”), to Jane Austen's novels, and many more. Along the way, we consider works of art and architecture as expressions of self-reflection. The Parthenon, for instance, can be investigated as 5th century B.C.E Athens' civic self-portrait. The manuscript illustration of early medieval Benedictine communities, likewise, can be seen as an exercise in spiritual meditation.

In essence, we're trying to bridge the gap between something people do frequently and quite naturally -- self-examination is not idle, it is something we live, and live through every day -- and the tradition of more developed forms of self-reflection on offer in philosophy, literature, art, and other forms of human inquiry.

Against this diverse history of self-reflection, we then ask students to reflect on what counts as self-examination in the current day and age through a series of assignments called "Experiments in Self-Examination.” On one hand, the students are given opportunities to try out some of the practices we encounter through our reading. So, they have a chance to "live like a Stoic" for a week, through a program created at the University of Essex. Alternately, after studying renaissance self-portraits, we ask them to rethink selfies, and to create a more deliberate selfie. Finally, they have the opportunity to try out and report on a reflective practice current today, such as yoga or meditation, or even biometric analysis.

In essence, we're trying to bridge the gap between something people do frequently and quite naturally -- self-examination is not idle, it is something we live, and live through every day -- and the tradition of more developed forms of self-reflection on offer in philosophy, literature, art, and other forms of human inquiry.  

Is “the examined life” the same as “the good life?”

That's not at all a simple question. Socrates thinks so. Rousseau, at least in the “Discourse on Inequality,” has his doubts. How important is a developed self-understanding, a rich and engaged intellectual life, central to living well or happily?

Our course focuses on the many ways human beings seek to understand themselves, their place in the cosmos, their relations to their fellow human beings, and themselves. In many cases, the pursuit of this self-understanding is closely connected to an attempt to say what the best life is for us.

How important is a developed self-understanding, a rich and engaged intellectual life, central to living well or happily?

One reason for this is that you can't say how we should live unless you understand what we are. Conversely, asking how we should live is a pretty central part of a meaningful self-examination. But human beings seem to pursue self-understanding before they are sure that it will benefit them, and sometimes in spite of evidence that it won't. On one reading, Oedipus the King illustrates this very point. We want to be aware, it seems, even if it has no clear beneficial consequence. Even if it hurts.

How do students change through the course?

That's another hard question to answer, if only because I don't know them very well when we start. But from what I've observed, it seems that at least some students come away with three important lessons.

First, they appreciate much more deeply the value of hoary, ancient texts that might previously have seemed inaccessible or formidable. Part of what they learn is about themselves -- that they can engage with and learn from these texts. At the same time they learn that these far off authors and texts are dealing with the very same concerns that confront them, questions of who they are, what has shaped their identities, what they do and should value, and which sorts of relationships to pursue, how to confront death. 

Second, (at least I hope), they appreciate their academic study in a new light, seeing that their college education holds personal and intellectual benefits far, far beyond the acquisition of a professional credential or training.

Third, they are able to assess contemporary forms of self presentation and self-reflection more critically and independently. For example, our study of self-portraiture clearly opened students' eyes to just how much can be communicated in seemingly trivial details of visual self-representation. They have to rethink what they are saying about themselves, even accidentally, in their selfies.

Why study “the examined life?”

Look, I'm a true believer, so I think Socrates said it best: "the unexamined life is not worth living." That's not because there's some big payoff at the end of one's self-reflection. It's just because living as a reflective, self-aware, intellectually active person is an immeasurably valuable way of being in the world, even if it involves confusion, uncertainty, and the encounter with unpleasant realities.

As an educator, I think these questions are especially urgent because so much of what gets said about higher education calculates its value only in terms of career benefits, and these only in terms of salaries ... [Return on investment] is as poor a measure of educational value as Fitbit data is a measure of personal well being.

So I think it's important for everybody to ask these questions. As an educator, I think these questions are especially urgent because so much of what gets said about higher education calculates its value only in terms of career benefits, and these only in terms of salaries ... [Return on investment] is as poor a measure of educational value as Fitbit data is a measure of personal well being.

The problem is that our students come to college steeped in this approach to their own education. And, since they're young and intelligent people, they are naturally drawn to big questions, but they don't always feel like they have permission to ask them. But if they don't, an enormous opportunity will be wasted.  

Many of my colleagues are delighted that the course is being taught, and have expressed interest in becoming part of the Examined Life team. But it's not for everyone, and that's fine.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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