“Do you believe in the human heart?” A worried father asks his ailing daughter’s android companion in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2021 novel, Klara and the Sun — NYU’s common reading for the 2022-2023 academic year. “Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?”
Set in a near future in which genetically enhanced children are provided “unique” Artificial Friends (AFs) to help them ward off loneliness during socially distanced learning, Ishiguro’s novel asks us to reconsider what, if anything, makes us uniquely human and what, if anything, makes each of us unique. The book’s narrator, an AF named Klara, approaches this world as an anthropologist might, through intense observation of the humans she encounters and “deep hanging out” with her human friend/owner. The more Klara observes, the more emotions and feelings become available to her—one could say, the more accultured and even human Klara becomes. At the same time, Klara’s close reading as well as misinterpretation of everyday experiences and events encourages us to rethink many common conventions and assumptions. What do we gain, and lose, through our technological advancements? What are the boundaries between humans, nonhuman animals, and machines? Do nonhumans worship? Can artificial intelligence learn and acquire empathy? Is there something fundamentally distinct about being human? Are you unique?
Literature, philosophy, and the arts; biology and other natural sciences; sociology and other social science; design and engineering… all are or comprise academic disciplines that explore these and related questions about our humanity. But the disciplines discipline us to think in particular ways. For example, I tend to think through the lens of my field, cultural anthropology. Perhaps this is why I saw Klara as an anthropologist trying to make sense of multispecies (human-animal-machine) relationships and human diversity. Other readers may be more attuned to recent developments in artificial intelligence, debates on the ethics of human-android interactions, and the economic and social implications of new technologies. What do we learn by transcending our disciplinary boundaries? Thinking about this book from my perspective as the Core’s new Executive Director has also helped me reflect on the design and purpose of our unique Core curriculum. If the Core asks us to grapple with the above and related questions, does it also inspire us to ask bigger, perhaps better, questions?
Many colleges and universities have a general education requirement or some form of distributive requirements designed to introduce students to a range of disciplines before they focus on their chosen major. Often, students are able to “test out” of these requirements by taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes during high school or through competency exams offered by the College-Level Examination Program or the university. Some schools aim also to introduce students to a multiplicity of world cultures, requiring courses in areas delineated as Western Cultures and Non-Western Cultures, for example. While US colleges have long struggled with questions of inclusion and diversity in their curricula, even diversity requirements such as these still tend to be quite US-centric or based on a binary mode of thinking: us and them. (When I entered college, way back in the 20th century, two popular foundational courses included “Western Civilization” and “Eastern Civilization.” I took “Western Civ” but failed to take “Eastern Civ” due to a study abroad opportunity—in Europe—with the unhappy result that my early exposure to world history, literature, and the arts was quite limited and Eurocentric.)
NYUAD’s Core Curriculum, in contrast, is designed to encourage students and faculty to think across and between disciplines, to pursue big questions from diverse perspectives, and with respect to 21st-century global challenges rather than the 19th- and 20th-century academic genealogies that structure many universities’ curricula. As Bryan Waterman, the former Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Development wrote in last year’s Core Curriculum User Guide, “a good Core course shouldn’t just introduce a field or discipline or survey a body of established knowledge; rather, a good Core course should provide opportunities for self-understanding and transformative learning…. The questions it addresses should be timeless as well as timely.” You cannot “test out” of this curriculum because there is no way to have mastered the complex challenges facing our world today. The pandemic, the climate crisis, human displacement, nuclear proliferation, disruptive technologies… if the past few years have taught us anything it is that the future we imagine today could change dramatically as soon as tomorrow.
Will the coming decades resemble the world that Klara inhabits? While we cannot answer this question with any certainty, we believe that the Core’s emphasis on timely and timeless questions stretches us to see things from a different vantage, a new light. Our Core curriculum offers a wide range of small, multidisciplinary courses that give you maximum flexibility to discover intellectual and methodological approaches that most inspire you or appeal to your curiosity. These courses are also designed to provide more applied, real-world skill sets and competencies than you would receive through most General Education requirements elsewhere. Emotions. Identity. Manus et Machina. Industrial Revolutions and the Future of Work. Autonomous and Social Robots. Faith in Science, Reason in Revelation. Bioinspiration. The Mind. The Future of Medicine. Human Value. These are just a few of the many stimulating Core courses being offered this year in which you can continue the conversations a book like Ishiguro’s raises.
Like Klara, the Artificial Friend who invites us to see the world from an alternate point of view, NYUAD’s Core curriculum encourages us to explore—to clarify—the stakes of what it means to be human. I invite you to regard your Core courses as the very essence of your NYUAD education and as the foundation on which all your future learning can build. Select your courses judiciously, with an eye toward being intellectually stretched, nourished, and recharged. If your major prepares you for employment or a career, your Core, selected and assembled by you, should help guide you to become a global citizen, full of empathy toward diverse others, attuned to the ethics of your endeavors, ready to encounter and rise up to the many challenges that await. It should also encourage you to ask why and how you have come to be where you are. What will you do with your NYUAD education? And what do we do, all of us, with this tremendous privilege?
I am honored and privileged to take on the new role of the Executive Director of the Core Curriculum, building onto and out from what my predecessors, the inimitable Hilary Ballon and Bryan Waterman, have erected already, along with the hundreds of faculty who have created our curriculum course by course. I am deeply grateful to Bryan Waterman and outgoing Program Manager, Kate Nordang, for all their dedicated work to the Core curriculum to date and for their generous support during this transition period. And I am excited to introduce and partner with our new Program Manager Caitlin Newsom.
More than anything, I am thrilled to do all that I can to help you develop your own — dare I say, unique — foundation.
Enjoy and thrive!
|Goffredo Puccetti||Representative from Arts and Humanities|
|Borja García de Soto||Representative from Engineering|
|Andrzej Baranski||Representative from Social Science|
|PJ Henry||Representative from Science|
|Warren Churchill||Member at Large|
||Representative from the Writing Program|
Al Reem Al Hosani
Brandon Shaun Chin Loy