On a quiet, foggy November morning on campus, a spirited debate is already in progress in Meghan Sullivan’s philosophy class.
In a large auditorium on the Notre Dame campus, more than 100 undergraduates lean forward to watch as two teams present arguments on whether Notre Dame students should participate in more protests.
With references to Aristotle, Plato, and Martin Luther King Jr., the speakers take turns arguing about whether seeking to change the world through activism ultimately gives life meaning.
The audience drums their hands on their chairs to show appreciation for particularly strong points and tracks the flow of the debate on score cards. At a break, students from the audience stand to weigh in on the topic with their own arguments.
When it’s over, two large screens on the walls give live updates as students text in votes on the value of a life of activism.
The course, God and the Good Life, is not only transforming the way students are introduced to philosophy — it is changing their perspectives, trajectories, and lives.
Nearly 1,200 students have enrolled in the course since Sullivan launched it two years ago, and for many, it has become a defining experience in their undergraduate education.
“It is safe to say that GGL has changed my life,” said junior Samuel Kennedy. “Because I took this course, I realized that philosophy is my greatest passion, that there were no compelling reasons not to spend these four years studying what I love, and that my calling in life is to teach.”
The course focuses on how to live a meaningful and moral life, as students look to foundational philosophical texts to shed light on real-world problems and questions of what we owe other people, how we justify our beliefs, whether we should practice a religion, and what it means to have faith in God and others.
While the class integrates the latest technology and teaching methods, its goals are as old as philosophy itself, Sullivan said.
“In some respects, this is a new idea — this idea that you can confront undergraduates with these questions about how they want to shape their lives,” she said. “But in another way, this is the oldest way of teaching there is.
“Aristotle and Plato are obviously deeply worried about whether they’re able to correctly help form young people in Athens. This is what everyone has been trying to teach since 400 B.C.”
Its ability to connect those ageless questions to the present is what makes the course so engaging and popular, said Kennedy, now a philosophy major.
“GGL shows how each philosopher’s ideas are not dead, but are, in fact, extremely relevant both to world events and to the lived experiences of the students in the classroom,” he said. “Students are asked not just to analyze arguments from a text, but to apply them to their civic and personal lives and to use them as a launch point from which to develop their own philosophies of life.”
Debate is essential
Sullivan, who taught a traditional introduction to philosophy course for several years before creating GGL, began rethinking her approach to the topic in 2015, after returning from a sabbatical.
“Aristotle’s philosophy for living is that you shouldn’t find yourself in the grips of a big theory,” she said. “Nobody becomes a moral person because they read a philosophy text and memorize theories. It’s more that life poses you problems, you try to solve them, and you learn from your mistakes. It’s more like learning to play tennis than learning how to solve a calculus equation.
“That started me thinking, if you really took these conceptions of the good life seriously, how would it change how you teach?”
For Sullivan, that meant designing a course that is interactive, action-oriented, and project-based. In addition to participating in twice-weekly debates on real-world issues with the full class, students engage in small dialogue groups of 12 to 15 students led by undergraduate GGL fellows who have already taken the class.
“Debate is an essential skill in philosophy,” Sullivan said. “In this class, we learn the art of argumentation because we think that discovering and confronting the most serious objections to your views are one of the best ways of strengthening them.”
Over the semester, the students also design a campaign with their dialogue groups to bring the good life to Notre Dame and work to compose a philosophical “apology” — an essay that defends their own philosophical views and reflects on the events in their lives that led them to those beliefs.
The course, which has been featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, has been so successful that Sullivan received an $806,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation last summer to expand and adapt it into a curricular model used by faculty across the country. Together with faculty from Wesleyan University and Fordham University, she also co-led a two-week National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on teaching philosophy as a way of life.
And she has received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to pilot a summer 2019 research workshop for philosophers interested in public engagement with questions of faith and meaning, with guest faculty member James Ryerson, an editor from The New York Times.
Its success and wider potential is the result of a “perfect storm” of factors, she said.
“It’s students who are deeply interested in these questions, a really deep tradition to draw from, lots of creative assignments, and new ways of thinking about teaching and learning which are really exciting right now,” Sullivan said. “And hopefully, it’s just going to keep growing and morphing.”
Big names and hot topics
With support from the Mellon grant, GGL has added project director Justin Christy, postdoctoral fellow Paul Blaschko, and two graduate student fellows, as well as growing its undergraduate fellows program from 11 students in spring 2017 to 36. The class also expanded to four sections this year, taught by Sullivan and assistant professor Brian Cutter, encompassing more than 600 students — about a third of the freshman class.
Sullivan and the team are also continually working to improve and update the class, seeking out new issues to discuss and bringing in a variety of guest speakers — from South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to video game designers Ryan and Amy Green.
Michael Schur — creator of TV comedies Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place, which focuses on many of the same topics as Sullivan’s class — will come to Notre Dame on Sept. 16 for God and the Good Life-related events.
“We’ve gotten really good at finding things we want to argue about in class that are relevant to the philosophy,” Sullivan said, “but keeping that fresh always keeps us on our toes — especially when science and national politics and big ethical debates are changing every day. We’re always getting new ideas and debating how to connect them with the philosophy we want to talk about in class.”
The undergraduate fellowship program is one of the most critical components of the course design, Sullivan said. GGL fellows not only lead dialogue groups but also help to create digital resources for the course and provide feedback to improve it.
“One of our strengths is that we elicit a lot of student feedback. And the fellows, in effect, serve as an undergraduate advisory board who have all recently taken the class,” she said. “We meet with them once a week and pose questions like, ‘how do you think this homework assignment worked?’ or ‘what aren’t people understanding?’”
In turn, the leadership experience fellows gain is invaluable, Kennedy said.
“This is an incredible, rare experience that has helped me develop valuable skills like public speaking, leadership, teamwork, and responsibility that are applicable in virtually every career field,” he said. “It has also been incredible to watch my fellow classmates grow and change throughout the course and to guide them through that process.
“To see 10 or so people from all walks of life go from complete strangers to close friends sharing intimate reflections on their lives in just a few weeks has been immensely rewarding.”
Junior philosophy major and GGL fellow Anne Jarrett said the course has also helped her and the students she leads to become more empathetic.
“Because of the nature of GGL, we tackle big and difficult topics, like diversity, charity, the existence of a god, the meaning of life — things that we’re able to have academic, frank discussions about for the first time,” she said. “I have seen so many students become more thoughtful, inquisitive, and compassionate through our dialogues.”
The dialogue groups are designed to have a diversity of experience and beliefs so that disagreements can occur, Jarrett said.
“This encourages students to deeply examine their own beliefs, to be open — and charitable — to opposing views, and perhaps to change their minds,” she said. “In today’s political climate, these skills are absolutely necessary, and I have seen no course as equipped as GGL to hone them.”
Philosophy is for everyone
By the next class period, Sullivan’s students have moved on from debating the value of a life of action to considering a life of contemplation — and specifically, whether the world needs more philosophers.
But despite the topic — and the course’s popularity — Sullivan said her goal for GGL is not necessarily to inspire more students to major in philosophy.
“On one hand, I want the major to grow because we’ve got a phenomenal major,” she said. “But on the other hand, the gestalt of this class, and even the fellows program, is that philosophy is for everyone, not just people who major in it, not just specialized scholars. These kinds of questions are universal.”
Sophomore Patrick McGuire agrees. An economics and sociology major, he said the course and fellowship program have had a profound impact on him.
“Though GGL may not have influenced the ‘what’ of my career plans, it has certainly influenced the ‘how,’” he said. “Thanks to this course, I hope to apply my newfound passion for understanding in all that I do — in the classroom and the workplace. I am seeking to examine more deeply the ethical implications of my actions, question more effectively my own faulty beliefs, and live a more intentional and philosophical life.”
Now a GGL fellow, he encourages students from all majors and disciplines to take advantage of all it has to offer.
“GGL is such a dynamic, influential, and unique course for students,” he said. “It encourages thought on the big questions in life, the small ones, and provides an opportunity to carry out your ideas in action-based campaign projects.
“GGL embraces and embodies the liberal arts approach to education in its breadth and depth of content and the passion of all those involved. This course produces engaged citizen-philosophers at Notre Dame.”