Engaging students and faculty in discussion about life’s hardest questions

A debate over faith and its relevance in education sparked common ground at the Student Union last Thursday night. Secular UAA philosophy professor John Mouracade and Francis Su, Christian mathematician and professor at Harvey Mudd College, discussed their faiths and how it helped them succeed.

“Achievement is an idol. We opt for image over substance,” Su said. “Your achievements are not the basis of your dignity. Dignity for me comes from being loved by God.”

Mouracade discussed the importance to reaching a deeper meaning through the lens of his philosophical background.

“The value in your life is not something you get by chasing flashy things,” Mouracade said. A full life is exploring the deeper things in life. You need to discover within yourself the desire to know.”

Su started the discussion by asking the audience “the big questions” — questions like, “Why am I here? What is my purpose? Did ‘The Hobbit’ really need to be three separate movies?” The two scholars discussed their views on absolute truth, humans’ purpose on earth and other puzzling questions many have pondered at some point in time.

Music student Matthew Faubion said he didn’t know what to expect of the event, but found the discussion stimulating.

“I thought it was going to be pushing more toward religion and faith,” Faubion said. “I didn’t expect it to be so enlightening and inspiring on an academic level.”

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Students weren’t the only ones who didn’t know what to expect. Moderator Kristin Helweg Hanson, who is also a faculty member of the UAA Department of Philosophy, was among them.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Helweg Hanson said. “Personally I would have enjoyed a sharper debate, but I think it went well.”

Su began the forum discussing how he fell into his faith and how it contributed to his education and time in school.

“Being made in God’s image and loved by God, you have a fundamental dignity you don’t have to earn,” Su said.

When an audience member asked what the purpose of life is, Su cited religion.

“Before Christianity, that question seemed unanswerable,” he said. “I believe it’s revealed in God’s purpose for my life. Yes, life has meaning.”

Contrary to Su, Mouracade introduced a secular and philosophical stand on the matter with a metaphor. He described universities and institutions for learning as a sort of hospital intensive care unit for the terminally ignorant.

“You will always be ignorant, I will always be ignorant — that’s just something we all need to understand,” Mouracade said.

He said the university relieves the symptoms of ignorance and provides answers and guidance “to help you get out there in the world.” But despite these things, each person should decide what achievement means for him- or herself.

“You decide what achievement is,” he said. “Society tries to define what achievement is. Authentic achievement is a worthwhile goal.”

The debate, intended to focus on faith in education, then shifted into a discussion on the value of achievement and what that means.

“Achievement-oriented culture is the biggest detriment to a passionate pursuit of education,” Su said in agreement. “Find your dignity in something meaningful, for me this is God’s understanding in you. We all have clues around us to the things that really matter.”

Mouracade said in his closing statement that “we have been conditioned by our culture to be intellectual cowards. We have to find the courage in our minds to take on the life of the mind. Wake up from your intellectual slumber and make life truly meaningful.”

Despite the change in topical direction, international studies student Christian Taylor said the forum inspired him to ask new questions.

“I was inspired by professor Su’s redefinition of the word achievement and what it means to be successful,” Taylor said. “This is something Dr. Mouracade touched on as well. It’s not an achievement if it’s defined by someone else, and it certainly doesn’t lead to happiness. I do feel more free knowing it’s OK to do what I deem successful.”

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