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Commentary: What is a Good Life?

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Since 2007 I have been teaching Introduction to Cultural Anthropology to small groups of First Year Experience (FYE) students at Western Illinois University.  For the vast majority of students, this is the first time they have ever heard of anthropology and for many it may be the only anthropology class they ever take.  As professors and parents we ask young humans to make significant decisions about the trajectory of their lives from the moment they begin college.  Pick a major, find a job, all while they are simultaneously figuring out what brings them meaning and purpose in a world in which meaning and purpose are not guaranteed. Alfred Kroeber, one of the founding fathers of anthropology said that “Anthropology is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.” 

Ours is a discipline that teaches students not only about the science of studying humans, but also about the art of asking questions, making connections, and stepping out of your comfort zone to try new things. By looking at how people the world over approach and resolve problems that all humans face – of being hungry and solving that problem, of curing our sick, and getting along with others -- we can discover new and potentially better ways of being human. 

The very first day of class I tell my students, my job is to make you uncomfortable.  We will talk about things that are often taboo around the dinner table - like sex and politics, drugs and climate change – and that we will discuss these topics without judgement, what anthropologists call cultural relativism.  We are simply trying to understand why people do what they do, regardless of whether we agree with it or not.  Part of being intellectually uncomfortable sometimes also means being physically and socially uncomfortable.  One of their assignments literally pushes them out into the community to interact with others that they may never have crossed paths with otherwise. 

This semester my students were asked to complete 10 hours of community service with either the Good Food Collaborative or the McDonough County Animal Shelter.  At the end of the service-learning project, students were asked to reflect on what they learned from the experience and relate it back to any of the eight themes from Michael Wesch’s book, The Art of Being Human.  

Wesch is a brilliant educator and Professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University who calls for his colleagues to “mess with old models” of teaching.  One way to do this is by taking the lessons of the classroom into the real world. 

In addition to identifying themes they observed during their volunteer hours, students also had to describe the anthropological methods which they employed and explore how these methods might be useful for them in their future careers. The papers were remarkable and demonstrated why disciplines like anthropology provide students with valuable tools necessary to succeed in life even if they choose professionally oriented disciplines like nursing or engineering. 

One student who I remember sighing loudly and rolling her eyes when we first discussed the assignment wrote this: 

“What surprised me the most about this project was honestly me wanting to volunteer more.  I had lots of service hours in high school, but I did it for my resume and to get a silver cord.  My Good Food Collaborative volunteer experience was amazing.  [Volunteering] made me feel better about myself and I also loved giving back to the community… I am honored to be a part of it.”

Another student wrote:

“Using participant observation and really ‘seeing’ the community has been an invaluable experience.  The second lesson in the book is called the ‘Art of Seeing’ and it is all about really paying attention to the world around us.  Wesch writes that ‘Culture is like water to us.  We are so immersed in our own ideas and assumptions that we don’t see them.’ Talking to older volunteers was a real eye-opening experience as was delivering food.  Seeing poverty up close was heartbreaking.  All of those themes we talked about in class – inequality, racism, power – came to life and I now see the world around me in a more holistic way.  It’s like someone turned the lights on.”

The final two assignments for the semester ask students to reflect on what it means to live a good life.  Using Wesch’s model, I ask them to take stock of their current values and ideas and to determine whether or not their culture allows them to live the way they want to.  Hopefully by this point in the semester they understand that culture is not stagnant and is always changing.  If we don’t like it, we have the power to alter its structure. 

The final assignment is for them to write their personal manifesto reflecting on their goals in life, view of the world, and key lessons they have learned from this class.   I am hopeful that these final papers will reflect a newfound awareness of the world.  Fingers crossed that few of my students will be like the little fish in David Foster Wallace’s 2005 speech to Kenyon College graduates who asks, “What the hell is water?”

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.