Statement of Purpose
A liberal education seeks to enable humans to understand, appreciate, and possibly alter the bounds of biology and tradition and to promote the development of self-critical, tolerant individuals who are committed to working with others to achieve a common good. The study of religious traditions and an introduction to sustained philosophical inquiry are central components of effective liberal education. It is in these two arenas that students can best reflect directly on how humans raise and respond to fundamental questions like "What kind of life is most worth living? What kinds of social arrangements best promote human flourishing? What obligations, if any, do I have to others? What are the roles of faith and knowledge in achieving a meaningful existence?" It is a special feature of these questions that efforts to answer each alone forces a thinker to confront the need to address the other questions as well. Young children raise these questions. Students of all ages can be engaged in productive reflection on them with the aid of age-appropriate texts and instruction.
Regardless of when students enroll in a course in philosophy or religious studies, they are able to select from a variety of offerings. We believe that this policy increases the likelihood that students will bring some established commitment and curiosity to our class explorations. We encourage students to think for themselves, to discover and assess the way they are inclined to answer fundamental questions of meaning, justice, and knowledge and to do so with a growing awareness of the variety of approaches and conclusions humans in various cultures have found compelling over time. Critical reflection about the questions and the answers they find persuasive helps students identify and assess the influences of tradition, convention, parents, peers and fashion on their beliefs and actions. It puts students in the best possible position to identify justifiable and evolving positions of their own.
We are committed to working with outstanding literature in each field for a number of reasons. To understand and critically examine texts like the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita or the Republic of Plato, students must develop their awareness of cultural context and confront issues of interpretation. They must work together to clarify key concepts and achieve empathetic understanding of unfamiliar dimensions of experience. They must learn to support their views of the meaning of a text by identifying key issues and responses offered in the text in ways that accurately reflect the complexity of the material at hand. The study of the core texts of religious and philosophical traditions confers a number of additional benefits: it can (1) unveil the intellectual roots of ideas that are still at work in the minds of our students and the world at large (2) provide models of inquiry and action for students (3) reveal new ways of thinking about contemporary experience (4) allow a student to understand and even participate in conversations about fundamental issues that have evolved over many years (5) promote awareness that even a single tradition speaks with many voices and draws on as well as dismisses many cultural resources (6) raise important questions about what these texts have brought about and why they continue to be studied.
We seek to help our students reflect on the fact that texts have authors, audiences and linguistic, cultural and political contexts. With this in mind, we encourage students to ask a variety of important questions as they strive to understand and assess the views supported in the texts. Included among these questions are the following: "What in the cultures of the time might account for this way of addressing fundamental human concerns? Who, if anyone, is likely to benefit if this point of view becomes dominant? What objections have and have not been raised to the view in question? For what reasons? Whose response, if anyone's, is absent? For what possible reasons and with what results?"
Where possible and appropriate, we seek to include a comparative element in our courses. Fundamental assumptions about what is real and what is important are the most difficult parts of a position to identify and evaluate, especially if the position is or reflects one's own. These are the very beliefs an author or agent is most likely to take for granted, to feel no need to explicitly support. A course that encourages students to compare and assess the way two or more traditions address fundamental human concerns can promote a deeper understanding of a perspective that may be shared by a significant number of people in another culture. It can also help students uncover unidentified assumptions of their own--assumptions that once located can then be held up for evaluation, according to criteria that are themselves then available for identification and evaluation.
In all of our courses we hope to inspire our students to continue their searches for meaning, justice, and the foundation of knowledge after the term ends. We strive to provide them with the skills, understanding, and attitudes they will need in order to progress in the future.