A Life Worth Living

In Plato’s The Apology Socrates, with no despair at his certain fate, utters the classic line “…the unexamined life is not worth living.”

What kind of process occurs when we read a literary work about a tortured character whose life is seemedly as distant and as foreign to us as the moon? What effects do great authors expect to have on us when we join hands with them to journey through the lives of such characters? Are these authors inviting us to something deeper than a vicarious experience that vanishes and leaves no trace?

Inside the classroom

During the course of the year, we will engage a number of major enduring literary and autobiographical texts from a variety of cultures, including European, African, South Asian, and American. The approach to these works will be to explore the processes of self-discovery and self-understanding that each of the major characters undergoes. Through systematic, close readings of the texts we will attend critically to the parallels of such processes to those arising necessarily in our own lives as students of the humanities. The interaction of ourselves as texts of study with the literary texts will free the texts that are to be read from a position as objects to be kept at bay academically and conceptually, and move them into our subjective and personal realms. We will address directly how one might assume responsibility for the results of such an interaction so that one's life becomes a litmus test of one's education. We will explore the significance of our individual processes of formation as inherently essential to our study of the humanities as well as to our lives well beyond college. To facilitate this process and to dispose us to reach for a depth inspired by vulnerability and equanimity we will travel and participate together in a training period of contemplative and yogic practices in the week immediately before the beginning of the fall semester.

Outside the classroom

Once a practice is established, we will meditate privately and in weekly group settings. Other contemplative practices will be interwoven into our otherwise conventional class setting as well. It will be integrated into our course framework with the same rigor as found in conventional studies. Mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. It is both a mental attitude of openness and acceptance purposefully cultivated during daily formal contemplative practice. No true, deeper process of learning can take place without a distinct sense and disposition of equanimity. However, our contemplative practices will not be a substitute for critical thinking, but a complement, to support, and, in many ways, enable and encourage it. Our formal cultivation of the disposition of mindfulness and equanimity as a community will create a solid basis for individual and group response in class. The degree and pace to which each of us will find his or her way to correlating their experiences of self-discovery to our course materials may vary widely. This is an experiment manageable only by the students and their collective commitment to the processes under investigation.

Research and Capstone projects

The final projects will include travel to three dramatic productions in New York. We will also present fully rehearsed dramatic public readings from Hamlet (Fall 2017) and a full dramatic public reading of Uncle Vanya (Spring 2018), both to be followed by Q&A. We will also have an opportunity to participate in a Community Based Learning project in an after school reading program in Richmond.