Two University of Arizona faculty members have received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to design, develop and offer undergraduate courses on two important questions to all of humankind.
UA faculty members Michael B. Gill and Robert Schon took two of the 16 “Enduring Questions” awards granted by NEH.
Gill, an associate professor of philosophy, received a grant to offer a course for Honors College students to address the question, "Where Does Morality Come From?"
"I like the idea of having the time and space to read things and teach things I normally don't," Gill said.
"I was eager to produce a course to ask the question about morality, but in a way that wasn't restricted to a discipline," he also said. "There are intelligent and reasonable positions on different sides of the issue."
Meanwhile, Schon, an assistant professor of anthropology and classics, is offering a course in the spring, focusing on the question: "Why Cooperate?" He and Gill are funded at $25,000 each.
"One of my main goals is to help students to think independently and to challenge them a bit," Schon said.
The intention is not to come to a uniform answer to the question, but to help students to think more critically and broadly about ways in which the questions may be answered.
As the NEH site notes, the grant program is designed to support the development of an "intellectual community" while encouraging both students and faculty to "grapple with a fundamental question addressed by the humanities, and to join together in a deep and sustained program of reading in order to encounter influential thinkers over the centuries and into the present day."
Schon, a Bronze Age expert who specializes in Mycenaean Greece and the archaeology of the Mediterranean and Balkan regions, said has long been attracted to the centuries old issue of cooperation.
"There is this puzzle of why we sacrifice our self-interest for the greater good," said Schon, who also co-directs the Marsala Hinterland Survey, a field project investigating interactions between the Greeks, Phoenicians and indigenous populations.
"I am trying to take on a new perspective in my research and 'Why Cooperate?' will allow me to test out some new ideas," Schon said.
Consider state formation.
"In general, the idea has been that states form as a result of coercion and monopolizing violence; forcing people to do what you want them to do," Schon said. "But, as we are seeing in parts of the world this very day, that strategy ultimately fails.”
Both Schon and Gill have relied on an interdisciplinary approach to offering their courses, relying on texts in the social sciences, humanities, philosophy, literature and other disciplines.
In addressing morality, "a pressing issue in our lives and decisions, Gill said it is important to understand that people often make judgements about beliefs and actions.
"We always make judgements. The question is: Where does all that come from? Are we simply reflecting our own feelings? Is it a mere matter of culture? Is it a complicated mix of that?"
Toward investigating answers to those questions, Gill said it has been especially important and insightful to draw more heavily on literature, not just philosophical texts.
"A straight philosophy or literature course on this subject could be great, but there is something valuable you can get by trying to bring together different disciplines," Gill said.
And, in particular, Schon is incorporating theories related to reciprocity and democracy as well as examples from literature. He also is drawing on game theory, a mathematical approach to explaining why it’s better for people cooperate with each other.
"We each have moments when we are selfish and others when we are more altruistic," he said. "Exploring the complexities of human nature is one of the hallmarks of higher education."
Gill, who has spent the summer months developing his course and plans to teach it again next year, said he appreciates the opportunity to teach a course that is all together open, collaborative and experimental.
"It's fantastic to have these students, and it's been great in the first weeks," Gill said. "They are enthusiastic, hard working and seem to be completely in the spirit of this interdisciplinary exploration."