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Anatomy of a Class: Students learn how to live 'like a Stoic'

October 25, 2017 at 10:11 am
By Thomas Rozwadowski

What are students learning at Carleton? We’ll regularly check the course list and pick the brains of beloved Carleton professors to find out why they've decided to teach a specific class in a given term. Today’s lesson: Classics 100: Living Like a Stoic.

It might not seem readily apparent in title alone. But Living Like a Stoic, Chico Zimmerman’s latest dip into the freshman-only Argument and Inquiry waters, is actually a by-product of the modern college coping environment.

As an academic advisor with a sharp eye on student culture, Zimmerman became invested in the weekly ups and downs of first-years. To his surprise, most of their complaints weren’t about academic adjustments. Instead, his counseling efforts were aimed at putting out “fires caused by social media,” the Classics professor says, “which seemed to create a roller coaster of constant emotional turmoil.”

“More so than at any point in my 29-year career, I got to know this cadre of freshmen. And as someone who is older and doesn’t ride the same kind of emotional roller coaster that they do, it became apparent they needed a mechanism for gaining perspective about the struggles in their lives,” Zimmerman says.

“That’s when I starting taking Stoicism seriously as a way of giving them insight through an actual course. What these students needed was a rational filter, something that would help them say, ‘OK, I may find some of these thoughts on social media offensive. I may get a negative text. But it doesn’t mean that I have to feel harmed or have my entire week ruined.’”

By using readings from ancient thinkers like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero to build a foundation for Stoicism—which, at its core, espouses virtue and self-control as a means of overcoming destructive emotions—Zimmerman says the ultimate goal in the 10-week seminar is to promote both theory and practice. During the middle of term, his class of 15 participated in International Live Like a Stoic Week, a project that was launched by philosophy teachers and students at the University of Exeter in England. Through daily journaling and meditation, students were encouraged to approach their interactions more deliberately—a reflection of how the Stoics thought people should and could live happier lives.

Zimmerman is also employing Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Life, with its more modern application of Stoicism to psychotherapy and mindfulness/meditation practices. The tie to Argument and Inquiry—which is meant to introduce freshmen to Carleton’s rigorous academics while still easing them into a free-flowing exchange of ideas and discussion development—felt like the perfect opportunity to teach a wide range of Stoic principles, he says.

“Let’s see if we can create a space for reason to operate in a world that all too often doesn’t operate with reason,” Zimmerman says of the first-time course offering.

“The challenge that we have as professors is that we want our students to be intellectually ginned up and ready to argue. That’s great, right? But while we strive for critical engagement, we also don’t want them to be devastated emotionally. And that can be hard, because in college, we don’t really teach students to find perspective or how to handle what happens next, how to come down from getting so worked up.”

During a recent Monday class, students spent time focusing on argument formation by dissecting one of Seneca’s Consolations. While the topic—the appropriate grieving period for the death of a loved one—could certainly evoke a charged or emotional response, Zimmerman wanted his students to ponder the matter-of-fact logic behind Seneca’s instructions. It echoed one of the big questions meant to guide the course: “Are you suffering needlessly?”

“Success in this class would be for students to have a slightly less volatile emotional experience in their first year because they’ve learned something practical to use in their day-to-day lives. Look, here are some things you can control,” says Zimmerman, whose experience as a parent also influenced course goals.

“Epictetus called it the ‘good flow of life.’ There may be fluctuations in how you feel from hour to hour, but if you have the good flow of life going, ultimately you’ll be happy.”