Giving It Away: Having a Full Life.
One of the most popular classes at the University of Pennsylvania
Is taught by Religious Studies professor Justin McDaniel.[i]
There are only 26 spots,
But more than 200 people stood in line to learn about the class, and
156 of them interviewed for it, applied to get in. 26 made it.
The class meets every Tuesday, get this, from 5pm to midnight.
Every Tuesday, seven hours.
Students enter the classroom, leave their cell phones in a box by the door
And receive a copy of the week’s reading.
They have no idea what they’ll get when they get there,
And no choice in the matter, either.
For four and a half hours, there’s no talking, note taking, certainly no email or facebook.
Just silence as you read the material for the week.
“Most people don’t know how to just sit and read a book for five hours.”
“We could do it at 8, 9, 10 years old
but you start to lose it when reading becomes an assignment,
or a competition.”
After reading time, there’s discussion about the work,
writing exercises, small group activities.
And at midnight: campus escorts on hand to walk students back to the dorms.
The course is called, and I’m not kidding about this: “Existential Despair”
Which might accurately describe what I would feel
if I had to endure such a class myself.
I can barely sit for thirty minutes without doodling.
And while, reportedly, an 8, 9, or 10 year old can sit, silently, reading for five hours
Try suggesting that to my daughters, as you attempt to take their ipad away
For higher learning, perhaps.
I can just imagine the outcry!
There’s existential dread, right there…
But the class has struck a nerve, and the students reportedly love it.
And that, alone, might tell you that McDaniel is on to something:
They read material that deals imaginatively, constructively
with topics like religious struggle
The nature of faith
illness and the end of life.
Or the end of relationships, struggles with identity.
These are basic human questions: existential questions.
Questions that get closer to asking: What is the meaning of life?
What is all this about?
They’re not always questions that elicit despair, though.
We get that wrong.
These are the same sort of questions that take our breath away
With the most magnificent sunset you’ve ever seen.
Or when you realize that you are the one responsible,
for caring for a loved one, or raising a child
And they look at you with gratitude and love in their eyes.
That is the stuff of existential joy, existential hope.
All of this is exactly the sort of thinking that comes with an adult consciousness
Its exactly what we deal with, during that young-adult transition into adulthood
Questions that, we learn, we don’t just solve and put away
But questions which stick with us, one way or another, our whole life long. [Read more…]