Philosophy as a Way of Life Project Launched with $800K Grant

“Philosophy as a Way of Life ” is a new project led by Meghan Sullivan, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Launched with an $806,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the project will collaborate with universities across the United States to “imagine new and higher impact ways” to introduce students to philosophical traditions focused on thinking “more deeply and rigorously about the good life.”

The co-leaders of the project are Stephen Grimm (Fordham University), Steve Angle (Wesleyan University), and Caleb Cohoe (Metropolitan State University of Denver).

The project aims to establish a network of faculty committed to

Developing assignments that help students to connect philosophical arguments with their own day-to-day decision-making; equipping each other to teach texts and traditions from different cultures that offer visions of the good life; building diverse, collaborative learning communities and peer-led discussions around philosophy as a way of life themes; [and] promoting research into philosophical approaches to the good life, especially on topics that are likely to translate to philosophy curricula.

I asked Professor Sullivan how she became interested in the subject and how she developed the project. She writes:

I got going on this project after three events.  First, a few years ago, Notre Dame underwent a core curriculum review. As a Catholic university, we’ve always had philosophy courses as a required part of our gen ed program. But the question was posed to philosophy (and everyone who teaches in the core)—why exactly is a philosophical education something every student should get? Philosophy is indirectly valuable (it teaches you to write clearly!  to reason logically!) but that doesn’t justify a philosophy requirement specifically; lots of disciplines also teach these skills well. Rather the answer we landed on was more direct—students deserve time, space and help in their education to ask the biggest questions concerning the value and aims of their lives. At Notre Dame at least, we have a certain optimism that students can do hard thinking about the major existential questions and come up with provisional answers that will be important to them in their lives going forward. And we all do better if we are aware of theories, arguments and traditions that have helped others with this “soul-making” work in the past.

Another key event for me was getting to know Stephen Grimm at Fordham, Steve Angle at Wesleyan and (a bit later with our NEH Institute) a whole army of other college faculty who were experimenting with new and more rich ways of trying to inspire students to think about these “big” questions of how to live. There is so much innovative teaching happening in philosophy classrooms right now, much of it centered on these questions of human flourishing. It seemed time to get the gang together in a more organized way. That was what spurred us to approach the Mellon Foundation.

Finally it goes without saying perhaps that we live in a period where many of us find it hard to have sustained, wisdom-seeking conversations with one another about morally fraught issues, especially across political and social divisions. Our students want help learning how to ask hard questions of others and how to have better dialogues about foundational questions concerning who we are, how we live, and what we owe to each other. The “way of life” teaching models coming out of these collaborations point a way forward to helping our students develop skills they definitely need in their lives going forward.

Justin Christy, who received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Notre Dame last year and is the program coordinator for the project, adds that the project is “currently inviting letters of interest from philosophy educators at colleges and universities who may want to join the network.” The grant will fund several curricular development workshops, the first of which will take place this summer. There are also plans for a “digital portal for faculty to share curriculum materials and relevant research.”

 More information about the project is here.

Glenn Kaino, “Bridge”

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