Civilisations

Big Questions (1 CU)


At SMU, we believe our students have come to us not only to learn how to make a living, but to have their horizons expanded with knowledge about the myriad peaks of human inquiry, and to appreciate the full depth and scope of life.

Big Questions will take a theme every year, or a major global challenge broadly defined as a thesis and its (seeming) antithesis. Big Questions will introduce students to the challenging ethical, theoretical, and operational debates that attend to these themes.

Students in any given year will be able to choose from a menu of sub-themes, each using a different disciplinary lens and focusing on different aspects of the theme, while also sharing a canon of readings and attending public lectures dedicated to the year’s theme for a shared intellectual experience. The themes may include Happiness and Suffering, Global and Local, Robots and Humans, Wealth and Poverty, War and Peace, amongst others.

ANNUAL THEME OVERVIEW

Happiness Suffering
COURSE OVERVIEW

Attaining to happiness and avoiding suffering are amongst the most fundamental and universal human experiences. On the one hand, we instinctively seek happiness (or pleasure, or desire satisfaction, or fulfilment), are persuaded to acquire various alleged passports to happiness, and are encouraged to share our happiness with and to promote it in others. On the other hand, we also instinctively avoid suffering, or we try to. Yet despite unprecedented prosperity in the modern world and a plethora of lifestyle choices before us, happiness sometimes appears fleeting and elusive, while suffering appears unavoidable.

Using philosophical, religious, humanistic psychological, and scientific perspectives on the nature, significance, expression, causes and consequences of happiness and suffering individual and collective, this course will take students on a multi-disciplinary and integrated journey of exploration that will begin to unravel this foundational duality of the human experience.

COURSE LEARNING OUTCOMES

At the end of the course, students should be able to:

Disciplinary and Multidisciplinary Knowledge

  • Explicate different accounts of happiness and suffering from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

Intellectual and Creative Skills

  • Pivot agilely across disciplinary perspectives; be able to synthesize, draw parallels and contrast these perspectives as they are deployed to critically assess the degree to which a variety of human activities facilitate happiness or suffering.

Personal Mastery

  • By using the theories and lessons learned in this course, demonstrate critical self-awareness of their own efforts at promoting happiness and suffering, and to be able to articulate new steps they can take to supplement or enhance these efforts.
Global and Local
COURSE OVERVIEW

Most humans seek a combination of the familiar and the novel in our lives. For most of us, the familiar is a reflection of the environments in which we live, the people that we interact with, and the things that we see, hear, taste and touch on a regular basis. Our initial knowledge of the world, and our understanding of our place in it, is often, therefore, grounded in the local. The local is usually known, safe, and intuitive, whilst the global is often foreign, unfamiliar and unintuitive. What is the value of each domain, and how do they contribute to human flourishing? Moreover, why do some people and places accord with these distinctions, whilst others do not? And how may the tensions embedded within and between the global and the local lead to the construction of identity, belonging, power, justice and their antitheses in the world?

Through critical engagement with a variety of disciplines and empirical contexts, we will consider how the interplay between the global and local reveals itself in theory and praxis. By the end of the course, students will have an expansive understanding of how these two phenomena come together in ways that structure and define their everyday lives.

COURSE LEARNING OUTCOMES

At the end of the course, students should be able to:

Disciplinary and Multidisciplinary Knowledge

  • Become conversant with the various disciplinary discussions and debates concerning the many locals in a globalized world.

Intellectual and Creative Skills

  • Move fluidly and critically between perspectives, synthesizing and drawing comparisons/contrasts between them as they refine their perspectives about the intersections between the global and local.

Global Citizenship

  • Problematize their responsibilities as local and/or global citizens and formulate and defend their own composite identity.
War and Peace
COURSE OVERVIEW

War punctuates human history. It marks change, and leads to conquest, persecution and the ongoing expression of, and resistance to, power. As much as the spectacle of war defines it as an event, so too does it have more subtle and enduring qualities that structure our understandings of ourselves and others. These qualities cause acts of war to be inescapable, pervasive, and an integral part of social life. Yet, whilst war might be understood as defining aspect of what it means to be human, so too do some people try and avoid it. Peace, however, is not just the absence of war; it is an interlocutor that is increasingly desired, but persistently evasive. Accordingly, the big question that this course engages with is how can we make peace in, and with, a world at war?

We will explore various interpretations of this question throughout the course. Through critical engagement with a variety of academic perspectives and empirical contexts, we will consider how the interplay between war and peace reveals itself in theory and praxis. By the end of the course, you will have an expansive understanding of how these two forces come together to structure and define your everyday life.

COURSE LEARNING OUTCOMES

At the end of the course, students should be able to:

Disciplinary and Multidisciplinary Knowledge

  • Become conversant with the various disciplinary discussions and debates concerning different conceptions of war and peace.

Intellectual and Creative Skills

  • Move fluidly and critically between perspectives, synthesizing and drawing comparisons/contrasts between them  as they refine their perspectives about the intersections between war and peace.

Global Citizenship

  • Problematize their value systems with regard to war-making and peace-making and, thereby, reformulate and defend their new worldviews.
Wealth and Poverty
COURSE OVERVIEW

The pursuit of wealth in its various forms has been prominent throughout recorded history. The desire to accumulate resources is found across civilisations. Yet, should wealth be simply measured in economic and financial terms? Should poverty be only measured through the same lens? Many cultures promote the virtues of prudence and fortitude, peppered with ideals of justice and equality in its various guises. Wealth and poverty are often seen as diametric. Despite this, several traditions point to the need for thinking through forms of wealth (and poverty) beyond the conventional lens of economics, and to consider the pursuit of wealth of time, happiness, peace, relationships, and other elements that enrich the human experience. It is little wonder that in our contemporary age, several scholars have pointed towards the reprioritisation of wealth accumulation towards one that places happiness, health and other non-monetary goals as the ideal. In this course, we will be exploring substantially several forms of wealth (beyond the conventional), and to consider carefully the causes and strategies to address the challenges related to wealth and poverty in our contemporary world. 

Through critical engagement with a variety of disciplines and empirical contexts, we will consider the intertwined phenomena of wealth and poverty in theory and practice. The course explores the value systems we attach to each, why, and with what consequences for ourselves and others. We investigate how our notions of wealth and poverty contribute directly to the construction of our identity as well as ideas about inequality, power, justice, progress, and more. In so doing, we look into the ways people, their customs, laws and culture respond to their perceptions and experiences of wealth and poverty; reflect on how they debate the purposes and outcomes of wealth and poverty; and discuss how they compete and cooperate for limited resources in our contemporary world. Also, we will study how our knowledge and conception of wealth and poverty may continually change over time. By the end of the course, students will have an expansive understanding of how these two phenomena come together in ways that structure and define their everyday lives.

COURSE LEARNING OUTCOMES

At the end of the course, students should be able to:

Disciplinary and Multidisciplinary Knowledge

  • Become conversant with the various disciplinary discussions and debates concerning different conceptions of wealth and poverty.

Intellectual and Creative Skills

  • Move fluidly and critically between perspectives, synthesizing and drawing comparisons/contrasts between them as they refine their perspectives about the intersections between wealth and poverty.

Global Citizenship

  • Problematize their value systems with regard to the accumulation of wealth and the disdain for poverty and, thereby, reformulate and defend their new worldviews.