Teaching (applied) Stoicism in college

Image from virtualstoa.org

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!

6 thoughts on “Teaching (applied) Stoicism in college

  1. frankbenefield

    Love it! I work in higher education and teach a one credit First Year seminar course designed to help student succeed early in college and learn some practical skills they can apply throughout their college career. I am sold on Stoicism as student success system and although I have not presented applied Philosophy in a classroom setting I am planning to this Fall and the blog post was very helpful.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Mitch Leventhal

    I am just winding up a semester doing something similar at the University at Albany. The course is graduate level Organizational Leadership, taught (primarily) to students working toward MS or PhD in educational policy and leadership, or Advanced Grad Certificates in school leadership. The course typically tracks all of the contemporary leadership theories, but I aligned each week with one of Marcus’ books and Epictetus’ Enchiridion, and required students to meditate on Marcus, and relate Stoic principles back to the various leadership theories via multiple weekly blog/discussion forum entries. The results have been far better than I expected. The course still has one class left, then the final – which will involve each student producing a personal Enchiridion for Leadership. None of the students had been exposed to Stoic philosophy prior (in fact, most had never taken a philosophy course). This courses was not taught as a philosophy course, either. Rather, it was designed to provide future leaders with personal tools to lead. Massimo, I will share the syllabus, etc. with you directly via email. I am convinced that these modern experiments infusing Stoicism into non-philosophy courses is important.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. tclever

    I just had a somewhat similar experience (almost by accident):

    This semester, I taught 2 sections of advanced college writing, The textbook I used was Current Issues and Enduring Questions. We spent most of the semester on the “current issues.”

    However, the last part of the course focused on an “enduring question”: what is happiness? The textbook has many terrific readings on the topic, including excerpts from WALDEN, an interview with the Dalai Lama, and…12 sections from the Enchiridion! (You can see the table of contents here–scroll down to the very last section: http://bit.ly/2pvbOvM ).

    The class had to complete a series of “mini-assignments,” including writing a 250-word essay on which one of the 12 excerpts from Epictetus they agreed with the most. The responses were compelling. Students had no trouble seeing how Epictetus’s ideas might be applied to their own lives.

    For the final writing assignment, I asked the students to reflect on the happiness section of the course: Can reading/discussing/writing about happiness help anyone on their quest for happiness? Over half the students who answered “yes” singled out the Epictetus excerpts as “proof.” Their reflections were quite personal, with students saying that reading Epictetus really helped them deal with recent difficulties in their lives.

    I was not expecting such a strong response! Several students wanted to learn more, so I pointed them toward your “24 Spiritual Exercises” booklet.

    Anyway, I just wanted to pass that along. Congratulations on the new book! My copy will arrive by mail today. Looking forward to it!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Benjamin Walker

    Hi Massimo, great results, and great news that the course is becoming permanent, congratulations!

    I run a course on Stoicism at college level, but delivered to prisoners in the UK (http://thecritoproject.org/). The course has been a huge success, and I’m running it again, starting in August this year. All the students commented in particular on how apt Stoicism was as a practice for a life live in prison. I’m just writing up my audit for the year, and I’ll bring copy with me to Rome in July, when I come to attend your class, if you’d be interested. For now, here are some choice remarks from my students…

    “It makes you realise, when you study things deeply, it changes the way you do things, you see that your life is important. … I don’t think you can reach enlightenment, but you can improve a life, looking at things logically, seeing a thing for what it is, not letting it affect you, and catching it and pushing it away, so before it escalates out of control and stresses you out, you’re just nipping it in the bud. It’s definitely a good skill for life. I think it’s a very good subject for people to learn in prison.”

    “I make a lot more effort to be diligent in my reasoning now. I used to think Philosophy was a humanity but now now I see it is more ‘portable’ and can be applied in virtually all aspects of your life. This has made me relax more and reflect.”

    “It’s like having a tool that changes how I look at myself and the world. It has stopped me rushing into making decisions and to think more. It shows you how wrong you were in how you see the world.”

    “What’s important in life – not letting things effect you, things that are out of your control, getting stressed – there’s loads of stuff in stoicism that you can adapt to life skills. We were writing journals as well, where we picked a certain part of the Meditations, contemplate it during the day, and write our own meditations, and you find yourself next day, and they day after, with these things sticking with you. You know, like, say someone annoys you, which in this environment, there’s plenty of chance of that happening, you do what you read in the Meditations, you just catch it, break it down, look at it logically, and think ‘what’s there to get annoyed about in that?’”

    “The course has had a huge impact on me. It’s taught me that I have a level of choice In what I believe, I have a choice in how much I let the world get to me… You can choose the content of your thoughts, you can choose how you react at crucial points, and what you choose to react to.”

    Liked by 5 people

  5. leonidsblog

    Speaking of learning about Stoicism: At 11:10 PM May 8, I received a notice from Amazon that my Kindle copy of How to Be A Stoic was available. I’ve read the introduction and look forward to reading the remainder of the book.

    Liked by 1 person

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