Description of Assignment:
This assignment is given out in the second week of a first-year
course, and involves a number of stages. Ultimately students
are to write a 5-page autobiography and a 3-page biography
based on personal reflection, philosophical reading, interviews,
and library research.
Each student forms a conversation partnership with a senior
citizen. They each ask questions about each other's history.
Each student is encouraged to think creatively about philosophical
readings in relation to their own life and in relation to
the life of their conversation partner. They are also encouraged
to learn more, through library research, about topics which
arise-they may find themselves, for example, investigating
the Bay of Pigs, if their conversation partner was part of
An excerpt from the assignment follows:
Both the autobiography and the biography you will write should
be centered around this question: Can the creation and development
of a human life be compared to the creation and development
of a work of art? Can a person's actions and choices be seen
as steps in a creative process towards balance and beauty?
If the artwork results from the interaction of the artist's
will and the resistance of the materials to which that will
is applied, it may be compared to the application of a person's
will to his or her specific circumstances. This is the central
question that will be explored in this course by means of
a survey of Western literature devoted to the issue. Beginning
with Plato, who considers art suspect of spreading illusion
and falsehood, the course culminates with Thoreau and Dewey,
for whom the whole of human experience can be precisely equated
The question, of course, is very controversial, and no easy
answer can satisfactorily address its complexity. Nevertheless,
its exploration opens up a series of interesting questions
that lend themselves to a fruitful process of reflection,
"Who am I?"
"How did I get here?"
"What would I like to become?"
These questions are meant to emphasize the interpretation
of the human being as a process rather than as a given essence.
Humans, in this view, are impulses, forces, trends, which
flow from a past that can be traced back for generations into
a future that extends forward as desires and longings already
present in this present. You will ask these questions of your
own life, and also of the life of your conversation partner.
The result of this reflection will be a 5-page
autobiography and a 3-page biography recording important
features such as genealogy, geographical and cultural origins,
present situation and hopes.
Both you and your conversation partner may want to reflect
on significant life choices you have made. You may also want
to amplify your understanding of topics of interest through
interviews with family or friends, or through library research.
Reference librarians can be enormously helpful in tracking
down unusual sources, including genealogical materials.
As in the readings and discussions in our course, the
concept of eudaimonia (reflections on what constitutes
true happiness in life) is the thematic key to both essays.
Do you agree or disagree with the formula that equates the
construction of a life with the construction of a work of
art. What similarities do you see between the terms? What
differences between the terms make the comparison untenable?