Crash Course: The Good Life Vs. The End of the World
Comparing Two Classes Tackling Big Questions
“It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine),” sang Michael Stipe of R.E.M. on the most danceable apocalyptic post-punk song of the 1980s.
The tune has serenaded students on day one of Professor Micki Lennon’s “The End of the World” class each semester for the past 20 years. “I used to point out that people have been predicting the world since Zoroastrian times, and it hasn’t ended yet, so we’re fine,” Lennon said.
Over the last five years, she has noticed a change in perspectives—a shift in the way she and her students feel about the world’s prospects in the wake of the pandemic, consistent wildfires, and other global catastrophes.
“More pessimism has crept in, so I’ve had to develop some activities to make sure the students are not sinking into the depths of despair,” Lennon said.
In this upper-division religious studies course, Lennon and her students explore depictions of the apocalypse through film, television, literature, and music, which often leads to fascinating discussions.
“One of the things that makes talking about the end of the world interesting is that it makes you make meaning out of your own life,” Lennon said. “One of the overarching themes of the class becomes the social and personal values that are most important to students.”
Those same themes, and the role each individual plays in determining what our lives are like in the present and what they might look like in the future, are also central in Philosophy 104, “The Good Life.” Professor Troy Jollimore notes that some students are surprised to discover that their version of the good life may not be so good for all.
“Some think the good life is a yacht and a lot of money. But when they really think about it, they discover several different ways to think about the good life. A lot of those initial visions of the good life aren’t actually that good, in terms of ethics and real happiness.”
“The End of the World” and “The Good Life” are two smartly-titled GE courses offered by the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. They fulfill numerous graduation requirements and ultimately encourage students to ask some of life’s age-old questions. The answers students come up with are where the real intrigue lies.
For example, Jollimore is leaning on Plato this semester, and in the second week of class, encouraged a debate about human nature by referencing Glaucon’s challenge: “What would you do if you had an invisibility ring and could operate without consequences?”
“Surely, you would use that power for good, right?” Jollimore asked the students, before adding: “And always be suspicious of anyone who begins a sentence with the word surely.”
That’s for sure.