By Nicole Chiulli (CAS’23)
Liberty, Fanaticism (Religious and Secular), and Civic Unity (also known as UC105, a philosophy course); this was my Fall first-year seminar in KHC, and I’ll be honest – to this day, I still have no idea why I chose to take it.
I’ve always been a lover of STEM; I knew with absolute certainty coming into college that I was going to major in neuroscience. I appreciate the concreteness of science, the clear answers and tangible outcomes. It’s how I entered neuro in the first place – I studied psychology in high school, and found myself frustrated at the open-endedness of it all. It seemed to me that there were no actual answers; just contradicting theories, innumerable “what-if’s” and “possibly, maybe’s.” The subjectivity of it disheartened me. I was amazed by the human mind and all it entailed, but psychology was unfulfilling and general biology was unsatisfying. (Of course, once I discovered that I could major in neuroscience specifically, I was sold – going into painstaking detail about anything and everything neurobiological was exactly what I wanted.)
In other words, I thrive on working with the physical problems of the world. Which explains why, when I told my parents which course I chose for my first semester, they looked at me with a whole new level of incredulousness. My dad recovered first, concealing his confusion with a hesitant, “Well, I’m glad you’re leaving your comfort zone.” My mom asked me point blank: “Why on earth would you do that?”
I really didn’t have an answer. I remember scrolling through the first-year seminar options, meticulously reading each description. They all looked interesting, and a good number of them lined up with subjects I liked. And yet, for some reason, I got stuck on UC105. I kept going back to the description, couldn’t get it out of my head despite the many choices which fit me better. I had never taken a class before on the topics it listed, had never even mentioned them throughout high school. Philosophy was something completely unfamiliar to me, and everything I knew about myself suggested that I would hate it.
I took it anyway. I remember my first day of the class, walking through the doors of the School of Theology; it was held in a cozy little room on the fifth floor where there was a single long table and, three out of the four walls were entirely covered by bookshelves. There were twelve of us, and we sat around the table with Professor Griswold at the head. We went over the course structure – there were no exams, no final projects. We simply had to read different material for every class by various philosophers; then, every week we each had to write a one page paper which somehow connected to the class topics. Over the semester, we were all expected to read at least two of our papers out loud to the class and lead discussion, but other than that, there were no assignments.
I remember trying to write my very first paper and having no idea where to begin. These papers had no prompts, just a strict one-page limit and the vague direction to be thoughtful. This was bizarre to me, and it was two in the morning, and all of the philosophical jargon from the readings was making my brain hurt. So, I wrote a page about how entirely confused I was. I pointed out all of the things I didn’t understand, and why I didn’t understand them, and how I was approaching them in my head. Basically, it was an entire page of my inner monologue, stream-of-consciousness style. The next day I regretfully handed it in with the knowledge that I was going to fail my first paper. Imagine my surprise when it was marked as an A.
From there, things only went up. Class consisted of an hour and fifteen minutes of pure conversation. We would talk, ask questions, argue – sometimes about the readings and our papers, sometimes about things going on in the world around us. I won’t spoil the topics for those who are planning on taking it, but they were ridiculously engaging. We would debate and debate and debate and come up with no answers. My suitemate happened to be in the class with me, and she and I would press on for hours back in our dorm. Both in and out of class, we would agonize over philosophical questions, having minor existential crises every other day. At some point in the semester, Professor Griswold began bringing in cookies – “vitamins for the mind,” as he called them – to sustain us throughout our endeavors. Every class ended with more questions than we started with, and we never reached any conclusions. It was frustrating and painful and confusing, and surprisingly, I loved every minute of it.
Somewhere along the line, I realized that we never would find the answers, and that that was okay. I learned that thinking through the abstract, impossible questions isn’t pointless, even when there’s no solution in sight. I gained a better understanding of myself, my friends and my world in the process (and ate a whole lot of cookies). To this day, UC105 remains my favorite class I’ve ever taken. The professor was amazing, the topics were fascinating, and the class structure was awesome. I don’t know why I took it, but I’m incredibly glad that I did.