Challenging New Students to Consider Humanity's Enduring Questions

November 09, 2021
Students reading and discussing Core literature
First-year SUA students Maya Hidana, Solar Kawabata, and Devin Weber

It is one of SUA’s signature experiences, a rigorous introduction to university-level intellectual work during which first-year students delve into the works of some of humanity’s most profound thinkers and grapple with life’s most vexing questions. Core 1 is a three-week, intensive seminar that both faculty and students describe as a consuming, eye-opening, and rewarding experience.

With each section limited to 12 students, faculty members from across disciplines guide students through selections from seminal texts from around the globe. Professors choose readings from works such as Confucius’ The Analects, Plato’s Republic, Laozi’s Tao Te Ching, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and may augment those with additional works drawn from their own expertise.

The goals of the Core sequence—Core 1 is followed by Core 2 in the spring of students’ second year—are ambitious. Classes are designed to help students explore the commonalities and differences of the human experience from multiple perspectives, and develop critical thinking skills to evaluate ideas in relation to their own lives.

“Core is a point of departure, helping a student take a pen and begin to draw a map of the world of thought, find themselves on that map, and find others in relation to themselves,” said John Pavel Kehlen, professor of Asian literature, who has been teaching Core sections since 2003. “We don’t pretend we will get answers, but asking the questions is the first step to what I call becoming a liberal artist.”

Asking the Enduring Questions

In the early stages of planning the Core program before the Aliso Viejo campus opened in 2001, SUA faculty members came up with a list of essential texts. Michael D. Golden, professor of Music Theory and Composition, said the works were chosen primarily because they “arguably had extensive influence across time and space, and so became part of the canon—things an ‘educated person should know about.’ ”

Prof. Golden said although he doesn’t necessarily disagree with that assessment, his own repeated readings of the texts and studying them with students through the years has altered how he teaches the class.

“I have come to believe that it is more important for us to strive to learn something about the nature and meaning of human life from the enduring questions themselves, and perhaps even more from the creative and diverse ways in which humans everywhere have attempted to answer them over the millenia,” Prof. Golden said.

Alongside the Torah, the Upanishads, Plato, and Confucius, he now includes and gives equal weight in the course to Indigenous sources. “In other words, all of these texts are myths—human attempts to answer questions that remain ultimately unanswerable,” said Prof. Golden.

Gathering around the seminar table to share different perspectives on tough questions was particularly gratifying this semester, said Prof. Kehlen, as students’ responses were filtered through their experience of the pandemic and the tumultuous events of the past few years.

While the texts students read and discuss are ancient, the questions they pose remain necessary and provocative. Plato’s pondering the answer to the question, “What is justice?” is one example that students could easily connect to current events, said Kehlen.

Maya Hidana ’25 agreed that the readings were timely. “Although we were often studying very ancient, crusty texts, our Core teacher did a great job of helping us connect these readings to the here and now,” she said.

An Intense Experience

Both students and faculty agree that Core is an intense experience. “The lack of sleep during the first Core class has become legendary,” jokes Prof. Golden, who said part of the intensity comes “from the challenge of pursuing wisdom as opposed to just acquiring knowledge.”

When students say they are frustrated by the difficult questions they’re discussing, Prof. Kehlen said he reassures them they are not alone—and the struggle is worth it. “I’ve been reading these works for 30 years and learn something each time,” he said. “Some of the most interesting and joyful conversations I’ve had come from teaching Core. I am absolutely another student at the table.”

For many students, the volume of reading required during Core was the most challenging aspect of the program. Some of those readings made an especially strong impression. Solar Kawabata ’25, said that Laozi’s Tao Te Ching had the greatest impact on his thinking, especially his concept of “effortless effort.” “The way I interpret this is that the effort you make should feel natural,” said Kawabata. “It’s difficult, but I’m trying to apply this to everything I do so that I feel more grounded in my own confidence and sense of self.”

What might have been one of the most difficult topics to discuss—death—deeply affected Naylah Oliveira Santos ’25. “I feel that confronting the question of death more deeply really made me want to keep growing and not take a single moment here for granted,” she said. She named the Essays of Montaigne as the book that made the strongest impression on her during the course.

“Montaigne writes about how we are always fearing death, and that we don’t know if it’s an end or a new beginning,” she said. “When death comes, we need to be prepared. We need to be happy with the life we’ve lived.”

A Richer Understanding

One purpose of Core is to prompt students to begin reflecting on the concept and reality of becoming global citizens. The class did so successfully, said Devin Weber ’25.

“We compared different ideas about goodness, justice, and understanding oneself,” said Weber. “I also gained an understanding of what my fellow classmates think. Here’s what global citizenship means to me now: there are certain sets of paradigms that guide societies around the world. However, there is no one set that is the absolute correct set of paradigms. Each has drawbacks and benefits. Global citizenship involves learning from each one to create something new that benefits people around the world.”

Olveira Santos said the perspectives of both East and West were alive in classroom discussions. “Hearing all of the different perspectives from classmates around the world and reading about these two major philosophical traditions has definitely shaped my thinking about what it means to be a global citizen,” she said.

Hidana said the program succeeded in transforming her notion of what it means to become a global citizen. “I thought global citizenship meant being free of restrictions and free to travel around the world,” said Hidana. “Now, after Core 1, I believe global citizenship is a proactive, engaged, and contributive way of life. I feel this burning need to do something—to contribute something to the world.”

Despite how difficult Core 1 can be for students at the time, faculty say students often tell them years later how much they appreciated, and learned, from the class.

“Examining the enduring questions and the answers that our lives have been based on up until now can shake us up, broaden our perspective, and provoke fresh thinking and reflection,” said Prof. Golden. “And that, it seems to me, is the best possible introduction to university education.”