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Happy 2011

January 4, 2011

The fall term 2010 was the “What Makes Life Worth Living?” theme semester in the College of LSA at Michigan. That partly gave me the idea for this blog — that and the fact political theory pretty frequently touches on such questions. Thinking about what makes life worth living is part of my day job, not just a semester-long theme.

(Alas, while I think the winter 2011 theme semester, “Water,” is perhaps even cooler, I lack the imagination to have my theory courses address it directly.)

One of the things students in my intro course in fall 2010 learned is that while political theorists have indeed spent a lot of time thinking about what makes life worth living, some answers aren’t available to them. We now know that many ways of getting at the question are empirical. That is, we have to study the world, people, their relationships and institutions to get a handle on the answers; old texts and purely theoretical considerations aren’t enough. That’s fine — we have a pretty nice division of labor in academia called “disciplinarity” to acknowledge the multiple approaches you can take to answering the same and similar questions. A great benefit of a liberal arts education at a place like Michigan is that students get to explore the richness of that disciplinarity.

That’s why, even though I am a theorist, I was extremely pleased that the Winter Commencement speaker in 2010 was the Nobel Prize winning empirical psychologist Daniel Kahneman. His was pretty much an ideal commencement speech, always a great challenge and probably even greater, given that the Spring Commencement address in 2010 was by the President of the United States. It was on the theme of well-being and what makes life worth living, so it was appropriate for the theme semester. It avoided the usual clichés, it drew from the speaker’s own work, it was funny — and it was succinct.

Unfortunately, the UM TV doesn’t seem to allow embedding videos, which I would do if it did, but here’s a link to Kahneman’s Winter Commencement address. Enjoy!

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