Last semester (Fall 2016) I did an experiment at the City College of New York, where I am a faculty in the Department of Philosophy: I taught a course in applied Stoicism. That is, I didn’t teach the class as part of our offerings in Ancient Philosophy (I’m not qualified for that, we have my excellent colleague, Nick Pappas, to cover that area), but rather as an example of applied philosophy. Of course, I did introduce my students to the ancients, but I also used a modern Stoic text, as well as peppered the semester with practical exercises for the students to carry out in groups or on their own.
The syllabus for the class began with a short description of what we would be up to during the semester: “The ancient practical philosophy of Stoicism turns out to be very much of use to people in the 21st century. In order to appreciate this, we will need to both look at selected classical texts and at what some modern philosophers have proposed to update the original approach for modern sensibilities. In the process, we will discuss some of the common misconceptions about Stoicism: no, it isn’t about going through life with a stiff upper lip, and Mr. Spock from Star Trek isn’t exactly a model Stoic.”
I chose four texts for the course: Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, Epictetus’ Discourses, and Marcus’ Meditations, accompanied by A Guide to the Good Life, by Bill Irvine. Throughout the semester we alternated among these four, beginning with an overview of Stoicism from Irvine’s book, then taking up a letter from Seneca, moving to a chapter from one of the books of the Discourses, and finally one of the books of the Meditations. And then back again, cycling through more Irvine > Seneca > Epictetus > Marcus.
The learning objectives of the course were:
i) To acquire familiarity with a major example of an ancient philosophical system;
ii) To explore the idea of what it may mean to adopt and develop a philosophy of life;
iii) To improve reading and comprehension skills on technical material;
iv) To improve analytical thinking skills;
v) To improve analytical writing skills.
The students were evaluated by means of a midterm, a final, and a blog discussion that lasted throughout the entire semester, were they really opened up in terms of applying Stoic principles to their lives (their privacy was guaranteed by hosting the blog on an intranet).
The blog in particular was an enlightening experience. City College students are ethnically, religiously, and socioeconomically very diverse, so it was fascinating to see how they found Stoicism useful to deal with the small and large problems characterizing their very different lives.
I just received the students’ own evaluations of the course, and I am going to present some of the most interesting bits below. This material convinced me to ask my Department to make the course a permanent offering (it was presented the first time as an experimental course).
To the question: “did the course stimulated your interest in the subject matter?” 100% of the students (n=12) responded with the highest mark, 5/5. To the question “was what you learned from the course worth your time and effort?” ten students responded with 5/5, two students with 4/5. To put things in perspective, these were without a doubt the highest responses I got for any course I have taught so far (and I usually do get high marks for those questions).
Here are some of the individual student comments, grouped by question:
What were the most important things you learned? “I learned to take a step back and assess problems from a distance.” “How ancient teachings are relevant today.” “Negative visualization!” “Dichotomy of control, primarily. I find myself using it a lot.” “To become a better (virtuous) individual.”
What did you appreciate most about the course? “The practical value of learning philosophy.” “Everything we learned was very practical.” “I hope this course gets offered and taught every semester.”
Suggestions to improve the course? “Nothing. The course was by far the most enjoyable course I have ever taken in all three years I have attended CCNY.” “More Stoicism!”
Does anyone know of any other college level courses on Modern or Practical Stoicism? Let me know, and share the syllabi if available!
Categories: Modern Stoicism