On Monday evening, University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan invited a small group of students, faculty, staff and community members into her home at Carr’s Hill to discuss what it means it to live “the good life.”
The 90-minute discussion was one of this semester’s student-organized Flash Seminars – small, informal mini-classes that seek to bring members of the University and local community together for a one-time conversation on a certain topic.
Sullivan and Michael Suarez, an English professor in the College of Arts & Sciences and the director of the Rare Book School, led the same seminar on “What is the Good Life?” last year in Pavilion V. This fall, Sullivan wanted to continue the conversation and asked Suarez if he would join her in leading the seminar again, Suarez said.
“They really work well together as a pair,” said third-year Annie Ungrady, the seminar’s student organizer. Suarez provides a humanities perspective, while Sullivan’s background is in social sciences, making the discussion more interdisciplinary.
The idea for the seminar stemmed from Suarez and Sullivan’s involvement in the Day of Dialogue, where they discussed values and how a community can embody those values. In the flash seminar, Suarez said that they continue to ponder this subject, attempting to answer, “What is the good life?” and what the good life means individually and communally.
A lottery system selected the seminar’s 25 participants – mostly undergraduates – from among the 130 people who sought entry via email.
The seminar began with the participants writing down their answers to questions that formed the basis of the discussion: “What is the good life, and how would you define it?” and “How would you know if you are living the good life?”
Sullivan and Suarez then posed more questions to the group to encourage thoughtful participation and discussion. Together, the group explored the definition of happiness, the role of suffering and failure, duties within a community and different ideas of “the good life.”
“These are fundamental, seminal questions for students and for anyone,” Suarez said. “Asking these questions helps us to aim our lives more purposely and to decide how to use our time and talents. And isn’t this the time, at university, for students to wrestle with these questions?”
“It is important coming from a student’s perspective to take a step back and reevaluate ‘What am I doing, why am I here, and am I happy with that?,’” Ungrady said. “It’s kind of therapeutic to have discussions like this and regain perspective.”
Third-year global development major Kathryne Appleby said that she came away with a better sense of how to answer a question this broad and encompassing, especially one that she focuses on in her studies. “The discussion was incredibly thought-provoking and made me think about my life,” she said.
“I think people went away with more questions than answers, which pedagogically, is more important,” Suarez said. “Both President Sullivan and I came away very impressed by everyone’s candor, quality of introspection and intellect.”
Through the course of the discussion, the participants found that “the good life” remains indefinable for a whole community, except in very broad terms, Ungrady said. “It‘s really a very individualistic and personal definition,” she said.
However, the question of “What is the good life?” matters to everybody, Suarez said. “This is not just a question to ponder by ourselves, looking up at the stars,” he said. “It is a great question to ask in a community because we make our lives in community.”