We are living in an era that highly values the power of big data and STEM, and we cannot counter-argue how significant these subjects matter to our daily life. Traits that are often linked to STEM such as curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, and pioneering are desirable and praised.

However, our world has evolved from a wealth of knowledge across disciplines to become what it is today and is still constantly changing. We do not know how long this era will last or how it will transform because, for example, just two decades ago, big data was still very much unheard of, and those said traits were once identified with philosophers, though they are always desirable.

It is inadequate to favor one subject over another at any point in our human development. It is even more important today to have a more interdisciplinary education to tackle the grand challenges the human race is facing because our problems are increasingly intertwined, and so are our lives. And only when we fully delve into ourselves – humanities, can we instill changes for a better future.

As a Vietnamese university that is inspired by the American liberal arts and engineering model, Fulbright University Vietnam understood the importance of interdisciplinary education. During the first and second years at Fulbright, students are required to complete five different core courses, which provide them with a multi-faceted knowledge of the world we are living in; Global Humanities and Social Change is one of these five core courses*.

The Concept of Change 

Global Humanities and Social Change is designed to help students examine key moments in the global history of thought through the lens of textual analysis. The course looks at key texts in five core periods and epistemic traditions: (1) classical epistemologies and origin myths; (2) major transitions of the post-classical era; (3) Renaissance, Enlightenment, Revolution and transitions to modernity; (4) Modern Era; and (5) (Post) Colonialism.

By exploring through the texts, students are able to not only analyze and grapple with complex ideas, which influence social policy and shape perception in the contemporary world but also understand the evolution of change. “The goal of Global Humanities is to introduce students to historical changes concerning different people’s approaches to education, politics, ethics, and culture, and to consider how these historical changes have shaped our world today,” says Dr. Kevin Hart, the core coordinator for the course and a faculty member in Literature.

Dr. Kevin Hart, the core coordinator for the course

What makes the course even more enticing is that students are not boxed into just theoretical texts such as Plato’s The Republic or Rousseau’s The Social Contract but can re-evaluate famous literary pieces such as The One Thousand and One Nights to identify the similarities and differences of “change” across concepts and texts, time and places.

Course lecturers, depending on their background and perspective, have the flexibility to tailor reading materials to fit the subject matter. “The range of materials allows us to step outside our comfort zones … to tackle new subject matter and texts. … I may naturally lean towards providing my students with a more historical way to think about the texts we encounter, but it has been gratifying to engage with anthropology and literary analysis as well,” explains Dr. Andrew Bellisari, a faculty member in History and one of the main instructors of this course.

Ultimately, Global Humanities and Social Change hope to provide students a foundation to analyze how “change” has changed historically, how it will affect our lives in modern times, and how we should prepare for and cope with “change” in the future. With this foundation, students will be more equipped to respond to the greatest challenges of our times such as discrimination, inequality, radicalism, etc…

An Understanding of the World 

Changes are inherent, yet not all changes are desirable. At Fulbright, we aspire to create the next generation of positive change-makers in Vietnam for a rapidly evolving world. And it is our responsibility to build an educational experience that can instill positive impacts so that our students can create a better world in the future. To achieve this, we first need to help students understand the global pasts and learn from all they offer.

One of the aims of Global Humanities and Social Change is to de-exceptionalize the Vietnamese experience by showing our students how similar the experiences of very different people have been around the world and throughout time. Our students can build empathy with other cultures and see the shared human experience of change,” adds Dr. Bellisari.

Dr. Andrew Bellisari

Within the texts in this course, students can engage in the thinking processes practiced in different cultures and historical periods, and be exposed to various ways of thinking, analyzing, and questioning. The experiences gained from studying these texts may be qualitatively different, but they are all vital pieces of re-evaluation and self-reflection, which will help Fulbright students become better citizens of the world.

This course helps me re-evaluate ideas which I thought were true, or ethical values that I unquestionably follow. It propels me to question why my society considers this is right and this is wrong, or whether these things hold absolute truth. It teaches me how to think critically about matters in life, equality in our society, and even my own set of ethical values,” shares Hoang Phuong Mai, a Class of 2024 student.

By comparing and contrasting historical and modern texts, students can find their answers to urgent epistemological and ethical problems for the present and future: how to empathize with other people beyond the physical territories, and how to cope with different intellectual, religious, social, and cultural points of views.

Through different stories from different civilizations across places and time, I learn to be more open and become a more well-rounded person. I learn to care more than just my own life. I am eager to solve societal grand challenges such as feminism, systematic racism, the East-West divide, etc… I have never been more mature,” says Quach Thi Xuan Trang, a Class of 2023 student. 

Setting up for Success

Besides knowledge, the Global Humanities and Social Change course also nurtures different habits of mind that allow students to mature into successful, productive citizens of the world who can appreciate others, experience and embrace the notion of empathy, and seek lifelong learning.

This course serves as one of several foundations for developing the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills that students will take into every aspect of their studies and professional lives after Fulbright,” Dr. Ian Kalman, a faculty member in Social Science and the course’s instructor, emphasizes.

Dr. Ian Kalman

Not only required to familiarize themselves with all reading materials but students are also asked to analyze texts in ways that are applicable in the classroom and the professional world beyond the classroom. Such ability to process information and to deal with difficult situations is important to everyone personally and professionally.

It is especially important for helping to deal with contemporary global issues at local, national, and international levels. That is why our future change-makers must continue honing the skills to “connect ideas, sourcing, scrutinizing and evaluating information to solve complex problems,” adds Dr. Matthew McDonald, a faculty member in Psychology and this course’s instructor.

To Vu Ha Vy, a Class of 2024 student, the Global Humanities and Social Change course opens her eyes to new ways of viewing issues and encourages her to consider diverse opinions and ideas.

But to Vo Linh Dan, another Co24 student, the course is more than just tangible skills. “It is not the easiest core course, but it is very intellectually rewarding. … I appreciate how it re-shapes my perception of society and humanity. Such experience affirms my plan to pursue History and Social Studies as majors,” she concludes.

Dr. Matthew McDonald

Thach Thao – Thuy Hang 

* Following the American tradition, students begin their studies at Fulbright by building a breadth of knowledge and skills through a set of core courses of the liberal arts and science. These courses incorporate the key competencies of critical, innovative, and creative thinking, effective communication, reasoning, civic engagement, collaboration, ethical reasoning, and lifelong learning. These courses also illustrate the power of interdisciplinary study to solve modern problems. 

The core curriculum includes: Global Humanities and Social Change, Modern Vietnamese Culture & Society, Quantitative Reasoning for a Digital Age, Scientific Inquiry, and Design and Systems Thinking.

Digital technology transforms the way we live: from how we travel, to what we use for money, to how we swipe to find love. At the heart of these social, cultural, and economic changes lie mathematics and computer science. But how can we gather the information, interpret the data, and construct the algorithms that drive these advances and affect our lives?

It is commonly expected that students who wish to gain a better understanding of data and computer science will specialize in STEM fields before getting to those big questions. But Fulbright’s newly minted course titled Quantitative Reasoning in the Digital Age is part of our core curriculum, which means it is compulsory for all students regardless of their backgrounds and career goals. Whether they wish to specialize in immediately relevant fields, e.g. Engineering or Integrated Science, or if they intend to pursue supposedly more tangential fields, such as Vietnamese Studies or History. All students stand to benefit from a balanced set of quantitative and qualitative analysis skills to develop a deeper, more sophisticated understanding of a complex world, the necessary foundation to become flexible thinkers and agile problem solvers.

Qualitative approaches are sometimes given greater emphasis in the humanities, but students should be aware of different ways of looking at similar kinds of problems. For example, I could imagine students having taken classes such as Dr. Kalman’s digital anthropology suddenly making connections between the way they studied people and cultures in digital spaces and how they could investigate this differently using data-centric approaches they learn in our class,” explains Dr. Walker.

A behavioral economist, Dr. Walker designed the course with two other professors: Dr. Tran Vinh Linh, specialized in applied mathematics, and Dr. Sebastian Dziallas, a computing education specialist. With a deep emphasis on interdisciplinary thinking, this constitutes a concerted effort to go beyond the common understanding of “hard” and “soft” sciences, offering every student a groundbreaking introduction to computational thinking and data driven approaches. The professors are supported by 3 sophomores working as teaching assistants for the semester. Throughout the course, the students will work in groups to conduct research and model ways people make friends and build social networks before sharing their insights in their final presentations.

Data-powered discovery

In this ambitious course, students gain exposure to mathematical and programming tools that allow them to extrapolate, visualize and find meaning in data. While Fulbright’s version of Quantitative reasoning does indeed develop foundational skills in mathematics and computer science, it does so concurrently to demonstrating how those concepts inform fields as diverse as economics, psychology, history, and philosophy. For Tran Thanh Thuy, who had already developed an interest in computer science, enrolling in the course made her better appreciate its possibilities. “When I enrolled for the class I was focused on the “computing” aspect. So I was surprised when the problems we were given related to so many different topics. There was biology, social networks, chemistry, and so on. It really showed me that computer science is useful for everything, as long as we know how we can convert our problem into usable numbers and the tools we can use to find a solution,” she recalled.

This sense of discovery is critical to any introductory class. For students who already have notions of specializing like Thuy, this is both an opportunity to confirm their interest and experience different ways to approach their future specialty. For those unfamiliar with the subject, the course constitutes a major determinant for future career orientation. “As a core course, the goal is not to turn everyone into a math specialist. You might come out of the course thinking ‘I didn’t expect that. Maybe I’ll take another course.’ And that’s great. You can also come out having learned something you didn’t expect, even if you know that this isn’t for you. That’s also a win.’,” explains Dr. Dziallas.

 

Dr. Sebastian Dziallas

Although quantitative reasoning is a technical topic, dense theoretical lectures are not the focus- individual discovery takes center stage instead. Compared to standard lesson plans that begin with theory, before moving to how it is applied, and ending with problems for students to solve, the approach here is reversed. The professors start with problems that have real and immediate application, before consolidating and concluding with the underpinning theory. For example, students were made to find the shortest point between two locations, a ubiquitous problem routinely solved by rideshare and map applications around the globe. “By giving them real world problems, we encourage students to find ways to turn information into useable data that can be modeled mathematically, use computational tools to assist said modelling, before drawing conclusions that will answer the problem,” says Dr. Linh. This problem-theory-application-problem cycle gives students a reason to drive their own learning and go through the “pain” of assimilating theory. Each worksheet given in class must be solved by students either individually or in groups, and function as both puzzle and building block, leading to larger understanding.

“Think of this course as a video game: on one level you solve riddles that give you useful tools to solve those on the next levels, and you plow ahead until reaching the endgame,” says Nguyen Cao Nghi. As both a second-year and as a teaching assistant for this course, he summarizes the Fulbright method rather succinctly: “rather than depositing knowledge in students’ heads, the aim is to constantly challenge them to find their own methods with as little guidance as possible.”

“But you’re not alone in this game,” he continues. “You are always supported by your 5 teammates, 3 TAs, 3 instructors, and a team of more than 10 peer mentors from the Learning Support department.”

Accessible knowledge

In the professors’ perspective, teaching assistants have played a crucial role in making this introductory course more accessible, as they often quickly identified aspects of the course that could be challenging. Beyond difficult mathematical concepts, a surprising issue was the use of English vocabulary. Not because students didn’t know a specific word, but instead because that word had varied definition. A perfect illustration is the word graph: “It can mean a social network in the context of the class. In math, it usually refers to a mathematical function. In economics, it’s usually related to supply and demand. Because we identified it quickly we could clarify immediately,” explains Graeme.

Dr. Graeme Walker

Beyond the lexical difficulties, however, graphs and other visual medium such as maps further posed unique challenges to the two visually-impaired Fulbrighters currently studying quantitative reasoning. The professors, TAs, and academic assistant had to devise unconventional solutions to ensure the materials were accessible to all, such as creating tactile maps or even simply drawing matrices and vectors on the palm of their hands.

This course is very new and exciting to us, and I can only imagine how foreign it can be to them. We have learned so much from the different perspectives involved in the making of this course,” Graeme emphasized.

Team Brain

What constitutes an approachable problem for a budding computer scientist might not be the same for a student who has a stronger affinity for the social sciences or the humanities, making such varied backgrounds and expectations a major challenge when designing the course.

Furthermore, while some students are sophomores used to Fulbright’s active, student-centric approach to learning, others are first years coming from high school, where traditional teaching methods emphasize learning the right answers to perform well on a test. “It’s quite new for Vietnamese students to do anything rather informal like this. In high school, they all have their book, they learn by heart to do well on the exam, without wondering about the hows and whys of what they are learning,” explains Dr. Linh.

Yet what could be a detriment can also become a strength. In quantitative reasoning, students are encouraged to learn from their peers as much as they learn from the teaching assistants and the professors.

“In the class, we often work in groups or pairs. Sometimes I’m the one explaining, sometimes someone else will see it from an angle I hadn’t thought about at all. And I am most enthusiastic about working with my team on the science project. We have many different roles to conduct experiments, to think through the data, to learn from each other. I think it’s a great way for me to develop myself,” reflects Thuy.

This collaborative spirit is crucial at Fulbright, and it is not reserved to students. As an innovative course, the professors found necessary to offer channels for students to take charge and refine the learning experience for themselves and their future peers, thus getting acquainted with the co-designing process at the core of Fulbright’s philosophy. Every lesson, students are encouraged to provide feedback on their learning experience through reflections and short surveys, a constant two-way channel of communication. “We have to do the reflection at the end of the class, every time. I think that is also a good time for some people who are not really good at math or science to explain their difficulties,” says Thuy.

Furthermore, the survey questions themselves – designed by students in a prior year – are subject to being changed, added upon, or even removed. “People often think that innovation is a product or something that you produce, but it’s really a process. And being part of that process is very important for students to experience. How they can take somebody else’s work and improve upon it, and how this is one way that we continue to make things a little bit better,” concludes Graeme.

In the true Fulbright spirit, they will present their findings with the Fulbright community when the course ends, building tighter social networks along the way.

Antoine Touch

Modern Vietnamese Culture and Society is one of the most sought-after core courses of the undergraduate program at Fulbright University Vietnam, mostly because of the multidimensional approach to knowledge and vivid learning experiences both inside and outside the classroom. This course invites students into a wide array of ideas, issues, and perspectives encountered in modern Vietnam, ranging from socio-cultural, politico-economic aspects to questions of nationalism, international relations, and globalization when examining the country in its regional and global contexts.

Christopher K. Goscha, a leading Vietnam scholar at the University of Quebec at Montreal, sat as a panelist in a conference held by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center on May 9, 2017. During the one-hour event, the renowned historian discussed his latest book, Vietnam: A New History, which tells the full history of Vietnam from antiquity to the present day. Vietnam: A New History is the slightly revised American version of The Penguin History of Vietnam, widely acclaimed by international scholars as a brilliant account of Vietnam’s history, with an approach to the changes of Vietnam throughout centuries and the development of Vietnam in the Southeast Asian and regional contexts. The conference was filmed by American cable and satellite television network C-SPAN.

The conference along with Goscha’s book and two other books by British scholar Raymond Williams and researcher Chris Barker are the documents that first-year students at Fulbright were introduced to before the first class of this course. They were required to read around 50 pages of Goscha’s book and watch the conference before the first class.

But it was just a gentle warm-up.

Multidimensional approach to knowledge

Quach Minh Phat, a student of Class 2024, still remembers the “terrifying week” when he was required to read more than 80 pages of books before the session about colonialism. As the Modern Vietnamese Culture and Society course’s curriculum is mainly built based on discussions, research, field study trips and essays, the number of references is much bigger than that of other courses.

The course will last through the Fall Semester, with 13 sessions covering 13 topics, each having different references, mostly books written by local and international scholars. To help students not to be overwhelmed by the huge number of readings, the Instructor, Dr. Nguyen Nam, and four Teaching Assistants are always ready to guide students in the reading, writing, or lecture-note taking. Fulbright’s Learning Support Team also held a workshop on how to strategically read scientific papers written in English specifically for this course.

Discussions are always in focus, with significant time reserved both in weekly sections and interspersed among the lectures. In the evening before the next class, Phat and other members of his team joined an online discussion session with a teaching assistant to prepare for the class.

Following the instructions from teaching assistants, we gathered until 1-2 a.m. to prepare for the next class in the morning. Late night gatherings like that have become memorable, not to say invaluable experiences for us. The fact that we spent so much time to prepare for classes means we are deeply engaged and got serious about the course. In return, we understand the lessons very well,” Phat said.

 

The course offers a wide range of diverse and updated materials. For each session, students will be introduced to three and more books written in both Vietnamese and English by leading Vietnamese and international scholars specializing in Vietnamese culture and history. For such topic as the history of the Nguyen Dynasty, students are also introduced to the Sino-language text translated into Vietnamese alphabet.

We don’t want to miss any opportunity for our students to access the most authentic materials. The Vietnamese and English-language versions support each other; sometimes the Vietnamese version cannot express the full meaning, but the English version can, and sometimes students have to read the Vietnamese version carefully to deeply understand what has been lost in translation,” Dr. Nam explained.

According to Dr. Nam, students of this course will have the chance to work on “texts” broadly defined as not only written materials but also any “primary sources” exposed to them and requiring their “close-reading” and interpretation, such as social phenomena, museum exhibitions, or historical commemorations.

When we talk about “texts,” we usually associate it with reading. But in this course, “texts” are broadly defined as not only written materials for “reading,” but also for perceiving and interpreting. How could the documents be perceived? It depends on the person who perceives it.  As a matter of fact, their perceptions will be subjective. No interpretations are fully objective. Therefore, when you study history or culture, it is essential to respect different ideas; you cannot say only your ideas are correct or objective,” Dr. Nam explained.

In addition to primary and secondary sources employed as reading assignments, students are required to watch several feature films and documentaries with their final-project teams prior to going to class.

Interdisciplinary by nature, this course also takes students out of the classroom through field study trips, enabling them to experience first-hand how society builds its present, reconstructs its past, and shapes its future.

Finding Vietnamese identity

Using online platforms, the course invites leading Vietnamese and international scholars to lecture on the topics of the course based on their own research works in an attempt to add vigor to the classroom.

In this Fall Semester, Dr. Nguyen Nam invited Prof. Bruce Lockhart from the National University of Singapore to lecture on the Southward Advance of Vietnamese people from the 11th century to the mid-19th century.

When students are exposed to a diverse world of ideas and viewpoints about Vietnamese culture, history, and society, some of them admit they find some ideas and viewpoints of international scholars new, interesting, yet a bit strange to them. The main purpose of this course is to give students access to new layers of knowledge about Vietnamese culture, history and society, sometimes far beyond what they have learnt in high school, so that students can assess others’ interpretations with an open but critical mind.

When students approach other perspectives from leading scholars in the world, it doesn’t mean they will be totally influenced by their views. If students just believe whatever these scholars say, they don’t have critical thinking. When students read the books by these scholars, I always remind them to find the points for criticisms. But what are the foundations for criticisms? They are the scientific basis on which students assess things in a multidimensional academic space and the acknowledgement of Vietnamese identity of each student. Students will realize where they are standing to enrich their knowledge and know more about the cultural and social settings in which they are living,” Dr. Nam explained.

As for Ta Thi Thuy Duyen of Class 2024, the fact that she has to “digest” hundreds of book pages is not as important as how to approach, assess, and potentially accept new ideas and views of each single matter.

In this course, I have the chance to approach many interesting sources and materials on Vietnamese culture, history and society, but it doesn’t mean I will believe these sources immediately. Many things have grown on us after this course, such as the love for our country. The Vietnamese identity and cultural characteristics are analyzed systematically in this course. Thanks to it, I can put myself in the larger setting of the country and the world to realize that I am part of it, and I have a civic responsibility to my community and my society,” Duyen noted.

After having access to diverse ideas and views with an open yet critical mind, some students said they became bolder when they assess the facts and phenomena related to the culture, history and society of Vietnam in the past and present.

I realize that my knowledge about Vietnamese culture and society needs to be challenged, as it is still limited. This course encourages me to seek new knowledge, new concepts. It broadens my capability of thinking and gives me new perspectives. At the same time, it helps me realize the national identity that defines Vietnamese people. It’s important to understand that national identity. I know where I come from, what is my origin. And I realize I won’t be lost in this modern world,” Phat said.

Thought-provoking course

Le Minh Tu, a student of Class 2024, praises the course for provoking big thoughts and questions about the complex nature of social phenomena, saying she learnt a lot from the stories about the past.

I don’t think this course changes my ideology, but it enriches my mind with multidimensional aspects of the culture, the history of my country and the lessons of the past,” she stressed.

As the summary of the course states, “at the end of this course, students will find that not only is there more than one way to study Vietnam, but that there may be more than one Vietnam to study.”

For me, open-mindedness is the most important takeaway from this course. There are many diverse and complex aspects of history. The most important thing is to be open-minded to accept the diversity and complexity, not to frame yourself in any way of thinking or perceiving,” Duyen shared her thought.

Phat himself has grown special feelings for history-related contents in the course. The lectures, the debates and discussions constitute different ways to face the facts of history.

What impresses me the most after all is the feelings left after I read the interpretations of historical stories from various sides and even stories told straight-forward. Behind these historical stories are the fates of human beings. I think a lot about historical figures, and I feel deeply empathized with my country. I empathize with the pains that Vietnamese people suffered in the past, and I look at Vietnamese history with a more generous attitude. This course arouses the love for my country in such a natural, gentle yet intense way, and this kind of patriotism doesn’t need to be forced or be something of a cliché,” Phat concluded.

Xuan Linh – Doan Hang

“In philosophy, there is no right or wrong answer. Any action can be understandable and unforgivable at the same time. We get to consider and define what is right or wrong for ourselves. This is not a definitive answer on a single topic, but instead a skill that will accompany and guide us in life,” reflects Dinh Ngoc Lam, a student who has completed “Ethics and Moral Philosophy,” a course currently taught and coordinated by Professor Ian Kalman at Fulbright University Vietnam.

Amidst the current COVID-19 outbreak, the Fulbright campus is on precautionary lockdown, while some classes have continued online. This is the case for “Ethics and Moral Philosophy.” We discussed with Ian the objectives and methods of his class, as well as the role philosophy can play, both in life and in times of crisis.

A fundamental discipline

Covering Western philosophical texts, from Plato to Arendt, and Eastern classics, such as Lao Tzu and Confucius, the objective of the class goes beyond the scope of an Ethics class, and into the fundamentals.

In contemporary use, “ethics” will tell you if you could get arrested for what you do. It is a code of conduct of sorts, in medical fields, in business, journalism, everywhere. Some even see it as an instruction guide to life, but it will only give you partial answers. Moral philosophy is what allows you to test or dispute the guidelines in the first place. It speaks to the fundamental questions, challenging your assumptions, goals and desires. And with better questions come better answers.”

At Fulbright, Ethics and Moral Philosophy is a core course, which means it is obligatory for all students, regardless of future specialization. Although some might question the utility of the subject for future engineering majors, for example, studying philosophy holds profound implications regardless of career choices.

Ian explains: “There’s a synergy of knowledge in which you gain depths to other fields, whether you want to be an engineer, marketer, political scientist or a lawyer. This is why we have core education. Having a deeper understanding of the world and a better understanding of the path to achieve your goals is immensely beneficial. We also live in a complex, interconnected world, with no easy answer. Trying to study subjects as separate units misses a lot of the nuance and sophistication required to see the bigger picture.

Innovation, in particular, comes out of questioning, challenging convention, and creating change. In our class, we begin with Socrates, who just asked a lot of questions. He kept asking us to define and understand the words we employ – and therefore the world and ourselves – ever more deeply. Building those habits will have a lasting impact no matter what you study.”

Dr Ian Kalman

This is doubly true at Fulbright University, where a culture of innovation and creative, multidisciplinary problem solving is already growing deep roots, for students and professors alike.

“Our students are particularly socially aware, active and conscious. For me this is because those who apply for and come to this school are looking for a specific sort of education.

We equip them with the right tools, we work with the classics, and encourage them to come to their own conclusions, building lasting habits and intellectual rigor. Even if they want to go into business, or math, or another field seemingly unrelated to philosophy, the form of education provided here will have a profound impact on the way they make mindful decisions and change the world around them. We are training, at Fulbright, the next generation of philosophers and thinkers, whichever field they dedicate their minds and energy to,” says Ian.

Training a generation of thinkers

For Ian, there are 3 main components to the class: Discourse, Reflection and Synthesis.

Discourse is a primary function of the classroom, as it allows students to engage with, challenge and analyze foundational texts. “I’ve been very impressed with how mature, responsible, and reflexive students are, both encouraging and challenging each other. I’m also really impressed by how we’ve managed to foster that online,” relates Ian. While classes happen on Zoom, with digital blackboards and online lectures, Ian manages a Facebook group, a platform where most of the dialogue currently happens. Students are given prompts, polls and links responding to student posts or to questions, and the latter produce information on the message board. These are often broad philosophical questions, which Ian then asks they support with text, or question and challenge, to improve the way their classmates think about it.

Students are also supported in taking ownership of the texts studied. Reflection essays encourage students to take a concept they have been learning about and apply it to their own life in short form writings, but also constitutes a major aspect of the class. “The goal is to take a philosophical text, which was written in one context and bring it into the context of your own life. In order to do that, you need a somewhat substantial understanding of the philosopher.” Ian explains. Student chosen topics include how Plato’s allegory of the cave helped them think about depression in different ways, or how Aristotle talking about unequal friendships made them see their roommate situations and responsibilities in the household in a different light.

“If we look around us, everything holds philosophical implications, from presidential elections and debates to business and science. Studying philosophy and mastering different schools of thought can be dry, and dense, and challenging. But it holds the key to overcoming obstacles and making sense of the world,” reflects Dinh Ngoc Lam.

The final exam mobilizes all the knowledge students are expected to have. This includes a history of philosophy, important thinkers, core concepts, fundamental discourses that have taken place over thousands of years. But for Ian, the most critical aspect, and the key to mastery, is to provide thoughtful analysis articulating several thinkers. Synthesis isn’t simply knowing the concepts – because you can memorize those – but connecting the concepts to each other.  “Yes, they should know what a social contract is, and what the Socratic method is.  They should have good understanding of what Confucius’ idea of filiality was. But then we take that one step further: How does Confucius’ concept of filiality relate to Aristotle’s idea of family? This is something that could be in the exam. It demonstrates the ability to connect people who weren’t talking to each other. Throughout the course, we push students to connect ideas in class, and build the skills to talk about and process information in this way.”

Philosophy in the face of crisis

With schools closed, routines disrupted, worries and uncertainties, some find safety and reassurance in the continuation of classes, and Ian provides much needed regularity with the course. But inevitably, those concerns also find their way into the safer spaces of academic pursuit. “Although the Co-Design Year is finished, I still believe in the spirit of Co-Design, and the class is still evolving. I’ve tried to treat this a learning opportunity. The students have been amazing, flexible and thoughtful, sensitive and reflective, and I think philosophy can help on many levels.”

In terms of helping us make sense of the crisis, Ian mention that Aristotle suggests the purpose of life is a specific type of happiness: eudaemonia or flourishing. This is a form of happiness that is not just rewarding but enduring, standing up to challenges. “Both the Aristotelian and Confucian approach to ethics, is a cultivation of personal growth. So that when difficulties arise, you have the tools and habits to think about it rationally and have a measured response. Your sources of happiness are also not fully external, which means you can find comfort or purpose in the face of adversity. Finally, you have the support structures and friendships that help you weather the storm,” Ian continues.

Philosophy can also make you a more effective leader: “The Utilitarianism school of thought has had the most enduring impact on public health care, the idea that the greatest good for the greatest number is how we should think about disease control. But other philosophical approaches are important, such as asking: what rights do people in areas with disease have, what are the responsibilities of some parts of the world to other parts of the world? What’s the importance of human dignity? And how can we protect that at times that are trying? In my opinion, the ability to think through those things can make you a more resilient observer and participant in trying times, to be more aware of what you’re trying to do, to achieve your goals as best as possible, or just to be there for your community,” Ian concludes.

Antoine R.Touch