Great Ideas Curriculum

Areté’s unique cross-disciplinary philosophy program introduces students to important issues in Western and non-Western thought, encouraging the use of historical and contemporary examples to support students’ own emergent philosophical positions.  Each year, Areté high schoolers select a Great Ideas seminar, a sixth required academic course, from an ever-changing list of exciting, inquiry-driven choices.

A Critical Thinking Lab

Great Ideas Seminars crank up critical thinking to “11” as students grapple with problems and ideas at the forefront of human inquiry. Each course combines history, philosophy, and the social sciences to address the perennial questions of existence, demanding deep engagement and meaningful reflection. A highlight of our students’ academic week, these innovative courses provide ample opportunity for all students to build a wide range of academic skills – deconstructing arguments, questioning premises, crafting clear positions, and listening to others – all in a brainy-yet-playful context.

Inspired by their experiences in Great Ideas, students bring the spirit and methodology of philosophical inquiry into every classroom, and Areté teachers craft courses built around big questions in all disciplines.

Crank It Up

Thought-Provoking Questions

course Highlights

Areté offers a new set of Great Ideas courses each year with thought-provoking questions: 
Do we have free will?  What form of government is most aligned with human nature?  Is morality relative?  How can we know right from wrong?  Is scientific knowledge “privileged” over other ways of knowing?What drives religious belief and fervor?  Is true artificial intelligence possible?  

Great Ideas Discussion

This course serves as preparation for other courses in the Great Ideas Program. It provides a foundation in critical thinking and intellectual history, with an emphasis on the vocabulary and tools for doing (rather than just learning about) philosophy. Students learn to identify different types of arguments, evaluate evidence and credibility, recognize faulty reasoning, and understand the psychological and social factors that impede clear reasoning. In addition, the course will provide methods for thinking more deeply about complex problems. Examples will include perennial philosophical issues as well as contemporary problems such as medical ethics, gender inequality, abortion, animal rights, poverty and terrorism.

Every aspect of our lives is affected by technology. The way we eat, the places where we live, the ways in which we work and play are all reliant on technology. And, while our contemporary technology is, in certain ways, more complex and sophisticated than that of earlier ages, humans have always relied on technology to give them a survival advantage over other forms of life that are superior to humans in various ways. For this purpose, we will discuss and evaluate the norms of rational discourse and develop our understanding of what makes a good philosophical argument, how philosophical positions are expressed and defended and what good engagement with fellow interlocutors (both present and in text) looks like.

In this course, we will take a look at the social history of a few time periods in order to get an idea about what these people thought about human beings based on how they acted and how they treated each other. What people think about people is their personal human ontology. After constructing the past theories, we will examine some current theories of human ontology and what the consequences of these might be. Finally, we will each create a personal ontology either defending a view discussed in class or creating and defending a unique one. The final ontology project will also call for gathering cultural examples that support the view culminating in a cross medium example of an ontological view.

Eastern philosophy poses significant challenges to fundamental Western beliefs, including things we take to be common sense. Why can’t happiness be found in material acquisition and consumption? What is the best way to deal with adversity or conflict? How valuable is introspection in relieving mental suffering? Is death really something to fear? In this course we examine fundamental East-West differences through the lenses of three great traditions: Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism, with a concluding unit on Zen. Embracing the intertwining of practice and reflection, the class devotes significant time to developing mind-body discipline. Students are introduced to practices from meditation, Tai Chi, Kung Fu, Jiu Jitsu and Aikido, transcending book learning and experiencing what actually draws practitioners to these arts.

This class is about gaining a general understanding of Critical Theory and its major pieces of scholarship.  Critical Theory is a philosophical approach to culture that seeks to confront the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures that produce and constrain it. At the same time, we’ll be looking at media through the lens of Critical Theory (mass media, news media, social media, visual media, text media, independent media, etc.). We’ll look at ways to frame and take apart what we find, ways to understand the media at play around us, our role in its consumption and prosumption, and how it exerts its force upon our world.

This course will approach the emergence of cognitive systems (minds like ours as well as of non-human animals and artificial systems) from a complex systems perspective. We will ask: What are minds and how could they have come about, given what we know about both physics and evolutionary biology? We will begin by exploring some recent, major developments in science that suggest that chaos is a important feature of all physical systems — that is to say, that future states of such systems are unpredictable over time, even if the system is fully deterministic. Since at least approximate prediction of future states of one’s local environment is crucial to survival, chaos puts selection pressure on organisms to find increasingly powerful ways of tracking the changes in their local environments through the use of information storage and processing, giving rise to the appearance of cognitive capacities within the biological world. We will explore this emergence in detail, looking not just at ourselves but our hominid and primate ancestors as well as marine organisms with minds very different from ours. Living and learning will become intertwined into a positive feedback loop. We will cover the following texts over the course of the year: Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick,  Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey Smith, and Thought in a Hostile World and The Evolved Apprentice, both by Kim Sterelny.

Coined by Renaissance thinker Thomas More, the word utopia was intended as a kind of play on words. Literally meaning “no place” in Greek, it sounds identical to another Greek word eutopia, which translates to “good place.” In his 1516 book Utopia, More plays on this double meaning, conjuring up a seemingly real “good place” all the while knowing that this ideal place is, in fact, “no place.” This oft-discussed double meaning speaks to the simultaneous desire for the ideal society coupled with the very impossibility of its creation. Yet, this hasn’t stopped philosophers, architects, and political theorists from thinking extensively on the concept of utopia in an attempt to construct the ideal. What does a utopia look like? What does it feel like? How might it be both a utopia and eutopia?

Throughout this class we will be examining the concepts of “space” and “place” politically, scientifically, and aesthetically. To that end, we will read from a theoretically and thematically diverse set of texts, from philosophy and political theory to architecture and urban planning, from ecology and geography to science studies and posthumanism. We will weave in and out of cities (both real and imagined), into homes and other intimate spaces, through environments of toxicity and into the cosmos, and very often into thorny intellectual terrain.

What can superheroes, SciFi, and Shaolin teach us about philosophy? How can pop culture influence the way we interpret and understand the world around us? How are our ideas of justice, fairness, and “goodness” influenced by fictional characters? Why should we examine our ideas about heroes, villains, good, and evil, and how they relate to our understanding of human (and non-human) nature? Our class will use the graphic novel Watchmen, the television show Westworld and the albums of the Wu-Tang clan to address these questions while challenging students to perform equally insightful analysis of the pop culture they choose to consume.