Congratulations to NEH Enduring Questions Grant Winner

Ashley Thorne

We extend our hearty congratulations to NAS member Bruce Gans, who has recently been awarded a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for his course on the enduring question, “What is Freedom?” Last fall, the NEH announced the launch of its new Enduring Questions grant program for pilot courses; NAS welcomed the news here. Securing this grant is not easy. To qualify, proposed courses: 

  • must give evidence of “pre-disciplinary” character, encouraging reflection on human experience and avoiding extensive specialization;
  • must focus on an explicitly stated question or questions, pursued in a disciplined and deliberate manner;
  • must draw on significant readings from prior to the twentieth century and may draw on later works, with a preference for reading books in their entirety or near entirety;
  • must reflect intellectual pluralism, anticipating more than one plausible or interesting answer to the question(s) at hand; and
  • must be open to all students regardless of major or concentration.  

Bruce Gans, the pioneer of the Great Books movement in community colleges (see our list of Excellent Programs), has met these and other requirements with his proposed course. He describes the questions his students will be challenged to answer as they ponder the meaning of freedom: what degree is freedom a function of the surrounding world—the form of government one lives under, the economic conditions, the values of the society and culture? To what degree is freedom a function of a person’s own spiritual depth, character, and values? Can a universal definition of freedom be formulated or does a person’s definition change throughout the stages of one’s life? Is it possible to live in absolute freedom or is one only relatively free because of the limitations inherent in human nature and in coexisting in any society? Can one live in freedom under a tyranny or slavishly in a democratic republic?

Professor Gans will teach the course in a class largely composed of inner city, minority, and nontraditional students. In his proposal, Professor Gans anticipated the effects of a course like this on these students: “For the first time in their lives many will experience the exhilaration and transformative effects of mediating on central questions while in the process gaining skill in critical thinking, scholarly inquiry and increased cultural literacy.”

“What is Freedom?” will focus on these central questions by looking at great works in philosophy, psychology, political science, religion, and literature. Each set of readings will contain two texts that advocate opposing ideas. For example, The Tempest is read concurrent with Bhagavad Gita. Students will have to wrestle with the contrasting texts and form their own views of freedom by examining the books and engaging in classroom discussion and debate. The course will also include field trips to relevant plays, museums, and historic sites.

The National Association of Scholars is thrilled to see Professor Gans succeed in securing this honor. We are encouraged to see the merits of studying enduring questions and the Great Books nationally recognized, and we encourage other readers who are professors to submit their own proposals to NEH for next year’s grant competition.

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