Life After BU’s Core Curriculum

Through breakups, parenting, a pandemic and depression … how the Core Curriculum sustains its graduates for years to come.

| in Academics, Alumni

By Bethany Gumper

“It’s been a rough few weeks. I’m re-reading all my Jane Austen novels.” I heard that from a friend navigating a breakup recently, and it made perfect sense.

Because some books are like old friends. You come back to them, and they’re waiting there to — in my friend’s case — pick you up and make you smile when dating has knocked you on your ass. And remind you that true love is a force separate from society and one that can conquer even the most difficult of circumstances (looking at you, Darcy and Elizabeth).

Most of the books that have stuck with me are the dozens that I read as part of BU’s Core Curriculum — an integrated sequence of liberal arts courses in the Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences that invites students to engage with enduring texts, art and narratives from all over the world. The program is still going strong — and translating the tradition of great works into important discussions and conversations that meet the challenge of our present moment has never been so vital.

Every time September rolls around, I fondly recall how every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I’d scramble into the Tsai Center — usually a few minutes late, but no worries because my punctual pal Liz always saved me a seat right in the middle. We’d settle in for the 90-minute lecture, ready to listen. Learn. Soak up the knowledge from so many great minds — both the authors of the texts we read and the professors who parsed them with us from the stage — and the peers who became our community of thought in our small group discussions with faculty representing many departments at BU.

As we pulled out our binders (so old school), we had no idea that the notes we scribbled were themes that would sustain us down the road — through tough times, through happy times; through confusing times, even through pandemic times. Here are three things I learned in Core that still ring through 20 years later.

1. I can do hard things.

In Core Curriculum, we started — where else? — with the Oldest. Book. Ever. Presumed to be the oldest written tale on the planet, the Epic of Gilgamesh was originally written on 12 clay tablets in cuneiform script between 2700 B.C. and 600 B.C. in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Our collective journey through time, space, words and thought ended with Crime and Punishment, written by Dostoyevsky in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1866.

No, I didn’t love every single work we read (ahem, St. Augustine). But that’s kind of the point. Because fast-forward 20 years later, and many of the people who were sitting in that auditorium with me now have grown-up jobs that can sometimes be boring. Or terrible bosses. Or kids that whine and want to go back to LegoLand as soon as they get home from LegoLand. Or beloved pets who have just been diagnosed with cancer. Or aging parents. That is to say, we don’t love every single minute of life, and we’re not supposed to. Core taught us to look for the meaning in challenges, and how to find meaning practically anywhere. We had a huge cast of characters who taught us to find value in all these different places that maybe didn’t initially appeal — and who also gave us a deep well of empathy to draw from.

2. Sometimes the best action is non-action.

In one of the first meetings of the Core Alumni Council back in 2021, we kicked things off with a decidedly Core icebreaker: Name the Core book that most exemplifies where you are in life right now. 🤓  The answers moved me to revisit several books, and I found my reunion with the Tao Te Ching — a slim text with 81 short sections in a poetic style — soothing to my addled, anxious brain. When your newsfeed is filled with a series of events so unfortunate they would shock Lemony Snicket, a little detachment goes a long way. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who preached wu wei (non-action, or flowing with the moment), inspired me to log in to my Headspace account. Turns out, meditation is a better way to cope with the shit show around us than doom scrolling social media or the news.

3. Happiness is an activity, not a state.

Since college, I’ve wrestled with depression. When the first episode struck, I barely left my tiny East Village apartment — I was simultaneously numb and bereft, as though my tear ducts had been accidentally turned on, then stuck that way for weeks. When I eventually found a therapist, I asked him what was wrong with me. Mental health, he explained, is a quilt woven of brain chemistry, family history, habits and patterns learned throughout our lives, and more. It didn’t really make sense; I just wanted to feel better and feel happy. I weathered a handful of those bleak periods. The most gutting was after the birth of my second child, the greyness of depression so stark in contrast to the joy I was supposed to feel.

Don Quixote table decor! We were so proud! (Bethany Gumper + Liz Jones-Dilworth)

These days, I’m feeling downright content. In a recent therapy session, a decades-old image popped into my head. My Core Curriculum discussion group was meeting in the basement of the College of Arts and Sciences at 725 Comm Ave., where Dr. C. Allen Speight illuminated Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as we students wrestled with what living a “good life” meant over 2,300 years ago. Professor Speight empowered us to explore the text deeply and share our ideas. And we began to understand that Aristotle thought that virtue, and therefore happiness, could be attained through purposeful practice … happiness wasn’t something bestowed naturally upon people; it’s something to work at. Welp, that hits home.

I liked the parallel that I saw between Aristotle’s view of happiness and my own: Happiness isn’t something that I just have or I don’t — it requires vigilance (plenty of therapy) and perseverance (morning workouts, antidepressants and meditation). And even with all that, there’s no guarantee that I won’t get depressed again. In fact, I probably will. But since happiness is an activity and not a state, I can keep working toward it.

Thank you to the professors and the students I met during the two years I spent in BU’s Core Curriculum — which ultimately helped shape me into the person I am today. The books I read and the things that I learned are deep inside me, 20 years later.

Bethany is one of five founding members of the Core Alumni Council. The mission of the Core Alumni Council is to help realize BU’s Core Curriculum alumni community. Many of us already feel that connection, but we seek to bring it to life and foster connections between alumni and students.

The Core Alumni Council

J.R. Abueg (CAS ’16)
Emily Klauser Bassett (CAS ’99)
Bethany Gumper (CAS ’02)
Liz Jones-Dilworth (CAS ’02)
Peter La Fountain (CAS ’04)

Want to hear more about life after core? Join the BU Core Curriculum’s Alumni Panel, “Life After Core,” on October 3.