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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Professors publish book ‘The Good Life Method’ based on popular course

Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame
Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko, authors of “The Good Life Method”

After teaching thousands of students in the God and the Good Life (GGL) class over the course of more than six years, Professors Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko have decided to bring the message of that class to a wider audience. This month, Penguin Press published their book, “The Good Life Method: Reasoning Through The Big Questions of Happiness, Faith, and Meaning.” 

The book seeks to make philosophy more accessible, by posing questions relevant to everyday life — questions that Sullivan and Blaschko believe can be answered by looking to philosophy.

“We ask questions like how much money do I need to earn to be happy? Do I owe my coworker an apology for that mean but honest email I sent her? Those look like ordinary navigating life questions. But in fact, they’re questions about control and freedom and forgiveness and moral responsibility. Having spent some time reflecting on philosophical questions can help you come up with better answers to then you just come up with on your own,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, a professor of philosophy and the director of Notre Dame’s Institute of Advanced Study, recalled answering a phone call in March 2019 while giving a speech at Massachusetts Institute of Technology based on her first book, “Time Biases.”

“I had been noticing that when we started teaching God and the Good Life, it started getting attention as an interesting way of teaching philosophy and I would get all of these invitations to give one-off, GGL-style talks at other universities to adult groups who just realized they wanted to talk about philosophy, but didn’t know where to start,” Sullivan said.

The phone call, from a Penguin editor, urged Sullivan to expand the conversation beyond the Notre Dame undergraduates who could take the class by means of a book.

She pitched the idea to Blaschko, an assistant teaching professor of philosophy, who worked with Sullivan on developing the course when he was a graduate student.  Blaschko signed on, and the two began writing the book together. The process began with hours spent working together at Starbucks before the pandemic and moved to Zoom meetings and outdoor walks on campus during the pandemic.

The book, divided into two parts, resembles the GGL class in many ways. “The structure of [the book] is fairly similar to the structure of the course,” Blaschko said. The first part is called “The Good Life.” 

“We do a basic introduction to virtue ethics, and talk about a couple of particular areas of everyday life that we think readers will be interested in with an eye toward identifying virtues in those areas,” Blaschko said.

The second part is called “God and the Good Life.” “This is where we take on some of the bigger, deeper existential questions about faith, suffering, meaning and death,” Blaschko said.

Writing the book over the course of the past few years has changed the authors’ perspectives towards the GGL method in certain ways. “The way we teach the class is significantly better now,” Sullivan said.

For example, the book doesn’t mention Immanuel Kant except in the introduction while describing exactly the Philosophy 101 approach that represents everything that GGL is not. 

“It seems bad to teach [Introduction to Philosophy] without going into Immanuel Kant. You should know about Immanuel Kant. We realized in the course of writing the book that intellectually Immanuel Kant is an interesting philosopher, but if he just doesn’t speak to the questions we face in our lives, he just doesn’t,” Sullivan said.

This approach led Sullivan and Blaschko to emphasize some voices that might not play a part in a standard introduction to philosophy. 

“Iris Murdoch has awesome ideas about love and trying to become a better person by paying attention to other people. We find her really moving, and we have added more of those kinds of discussions to the class and maybe had a bit more courage to wonder about whether we’ve learned the right way to teach those famous dead philosophers,” Sullivan said. 

In the process of writing the book, Blaschko and Sullivan did the apology assignment they’ve assigned in the class each semester. 

“[We’ve] been giving out the philosophical apology assignment to thousands of students. But we had never made ourselves sit down and write one for our lives, with our families and our moral puzzles. And we did it for the book, which includes sections of each of our apologies. And that was profound,” Sullivan said. “We realized it’s way harder than we thought it was when we were just grading them,” she added.

Blaschko talked about meeting students and readers where they are.

“We see our job as teachers of philosophy as making the most relevant, wisest ideas accessible,” he said, “Oftentimes that conversation is just hidden behind translations and different versions of texts and systems and whatever else.”

Blaschko said he believes that once a person has tools to cut through those distractions, the effect is transformative.

“To read through the chapter on work, for instance, and to see Aristotle, Karl Marx and Josef Pieper have something to say to me about burnout. And the way that actually comes up in my life,” he said.

Both Blaschko and Sullivan see “The Good Life Method” as emerging uniquely at Notre Dame. 

“Part of this is informed by my upbringing as a Catholic and being in a Catholic environment. Philosophy for Catholicism is just like an operating system, right? You’re constantly questioning and trying to figure out what the reasoning is behind beliefs that you have,” Blaschko said.

“This book would look totally different if we tried to write it at a different University,” Sullivan said.

“It would not be nearly as funny,” Sullivan added, referencing a class discussion about whether CrossFit is a religion that appears in the sixth chapter.

“We got to have so many conversations with our students at Notre Dame. And they gave us so many good ideas and insights and options,” Sullivan said. “We’re incredibly grateful that I’ve had these students at Notre Dame and our colleagues here who have been willing to talk about this with us and understand why we cared so much about it.”

“One of the best parts about the class for me is this community. Building this community of dialogue with our students. To be able to open up that community is one of the coolest parts about the book,” Blaschko said.