NAS Cheers "Enduring Questions"

Ashley Thorne

Some of our newer readers may not be aware that in addition to making hobo sticks and writing a variety of quirky and serious articles for our website, NAS also publishes a spirited quarterly journal called Academic Questions. We have, in fact, been publishing Academic Questions for twenty-one years, ever since our founding (look for our next issue, vol. 21, no. 3, coming soon).

In the inside cover of the journal, we explain our editorial purpose:

Academic Questions seeks to restore the intellectual conditions in which these questions can be seriously asked, and their answers seriously weighed on their merits. We believe we can best advance the traditions of humanism and intellectual freedom by remaining open to good argument wherever it may be found.

“These” academic questions include, “Can higher education revitalize the disciplined pursuit of knowledge?” and “How do we re-center liberal education on the enduring questions of the human condition and once again prepare students for civilized living and civic responsibility?”

Perhaps we may have an answer: more questions

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has just unveiled its new grant program, called “Enduring Questions.” Its purpose:

to encourage faculty and students at the undergraduate level to grapple with the most fundamental concerns of the humanities, and to join together in deep, sustained programs of reading in order to encounter influential thinkers over the centuries and into the present day.

Enduring Questions will offer pilot course grants of up to $25,000 for 18- or 24-month periods, beginning in July 2009. To qualify for Enduring Questions, a course:

  

  • 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.

 

The program details more options and stipulations for grant courses, but we thought these were a couple of the most important: “Enduring Questions grants may not be used for projects that seek to promote a particular political, philosophical, religious, or ideological point of view; or projects that advocate a particular program of social action.”

With such standards, it's easy to wonder whether Enduring Questions has unrealistic expectations. But these ideals are what NAS has been working toward for twenty-one years, and we take encouragement at the sight of someone else doing it too. We are excited to see which courses emerge under Enduring Questions, which questions they center on, and how the instructors manage to keep activist bluster out of the classroom.

NEH offers some examples of enduring questions to illustrate what it hopes to stir up:

  • What is the good life?
  • What is justice? Mercy?
  • What is freedom? Happiness?
  • What is friendship?
  • What is dignity?
  • Is there a human nature, and, if so, what is it?
  • What are the limits of scientific understanding?
  • What is the relationship between humans and the natural world?
  • Is there such a thing as right and wrong? Good and evil?
  • What is good government?
  • What are the origins of the modern world?
  • What is liberal education?

In the world of academia, questions have largely been replaced by ready-made answers. Instead of struggling over the core issues of the human condition—debating, weighing evidence, and conversing with others—scholars have adopted politically correct prescriptions of what is true about the world.

  Against this backdrop, then, NAS will continue to contend that the university is true to its purpose only when it provides sound, reasoned education in the context of free inquiry and open debate. We laud the Enduring Questions program and hope to see these questions actually endure.

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