What We Learned From Teaching a “Living a Good Life” Course During the Pandemic

Students were able to utilize the philosophical ideas and questions of the class to cope with the unprecedented challenges of their semester.

Pixpan_creative/ Shutterstock
Pixpan_creative/ Shutterstock

This fall, Wesleyan University offered a new course, “Living a Good Life,” which was the joint effort of my colleagues Stephen Angle (a specialist in Chinese philosophy), Tushar Irani (classical Western philosophy), and myself, Steven Horst (philosophy of mind, moral psychology). We had each been inspired years ago by Pierre Hadot’s book Philosophy as a Way of Life (Wiley-Blackwell, 1995), which argues that the Greek and Roman philosophical schools were primarily ways of living, rather than detached academic pursuits. In recent years, there has been a national movement towards teaching courses in this vein, with a national network of faculty organized by colleagues at the University of Notre Dame with the help of a grant from the Mellon Foundation, and two series of forthcoming books, one from Brill, and the other Oxford University Press’s “Guides to the Good Life.”  

Having each taught small “Philosophy as a Way of Life” courses, the three of us decided to pool our efforts to create a larger course that would both satisfy greater student demand and draw upon our different specializations. The course was divided into five units and had large lecture sessions weekly, in which one of us lectured on one of the philosophical schools or teachers — Socrates, Confucianism, Aristotle, Daoism, and Stoicism. We each also led smaller weekly breakout sessions, and the students met in the same small groups, led by a Peer Dialog Leader, for the final session of the week. We decided that most of the work for the course should be in the form of immersive exercises inspired by these schools’ theories of the good life and by the practices of self-cultivation they might have promoted. These consisted in seven days of “philosophical exercises,” along with daily journaling and an essay at the end of each unit. Irani designed the exercises for the Western schools, and Angle for the Chinese schools.

We started planning all this before COVID, and spent much of the summer of 2020 adapting the course to a hybrid model that allowed students attending remotely to participate equally. Colleagues at the University of Notre Dame helped us greatly in doing this, and in developing a fine website that would be home to all of the information and activities for the class. (The website for the course can be found here, and contains all of the exercises and assignments, as well as links to videos of the lectures, so you can get a feel for how the semester ran yourself if you like.)

We had a vague sense that this unusually trying semester would end up being a particularly good time to offer a class examining how we live. But it was only in reading final papers that we got a real sense of what a difference the readings and exercises made for many of our students, how hard the semester had been for many of them, and how many of them found in one or more of the exercises and philosophies something that could help them get through.  

We are excited to share two of these student papers to give some idea of the different perspectives that students in the class gained over the semester. It was difficult to choose — there were many well-written, deep, and heartfelt papers submitted for this course. The essays we have chosen provide a better window into what such a course can provide than anything we could say by way of summary. Our thanks to all our students, particularly those who have allowed us to pass on their papers for publication.

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