Big Questions

The Big Questions courses are a special feature of the AUC academic programme. You typically take one of the Big Questions courses in your first year, choosing it from the six offered by AUC. These courses approach ‘big questions' in science and society from a variety of different and challenging perspectives, and the aim is to stimulate debate from day one of your programme. You are encouraged to reflect on your own position with respect to these ‘big questions', and how you can personally engage with them. They also help to inspire and prepare you for your choice of theme and major. Find the descriptions of the Big Questions courses below.

Big Books

This course introduces students to a number of important books in the Western tradition and will acquaint them with the historical, cultural, political and economic context of these works. In discussing these works, students will develop a keener appreciation of the various influences that we are subject to when we think about what it means to be human.

The book is one of the strongest and most lasting bearers of intellectual heritage. For centuries, human life, social debate, great ideas and revolutions have been codified in books to be activated by readers both near and far in time and space.

Big Books examines a variety of works of paramount importance in Western history and explores their possible meanings. We will ask questions such as who reads, and has read, big books? What are the effects of these books on art, society or history in general? What do these works tell us about our past and present culture? And why are big books relevant to our future? These texts of major significance from literature, philosophy, the human sciences and politics will all be approached from a cultural and historical perspective.

Big Books World Literature

Big Books World Literature examines works of paramount importance in “non-Western”-Asian, African, Middle-Eastern and pre-Columbia American-history and culture, and explores their possible meanings and significance. All books covered reflect, in one way or another, on “the human condition” – they present an array of literary and philosophical perspectives on love, embodiment, sexuality, revolt, social exclusion, guilt, evil and suffering.

The purpose of the course is to learn how to make sense of those works and thereby get acquainted with the perspectives they offer. It is also to understand in what way the perception of the various aspects of “human condition” is related to the respective historical, social, cultural and intellectual context of each of the discussed works, and, thereby to the evolution of non-Western cultures. The course addresses questions such as: what are the historical, social and cultural conditions in which these works were first produced and received? Where can the influence of these works be traced? And how can they be relevant in the present, or even the future? The wide exploration of the topics reveals their connections with insights from the fields of philosophy, literary studies and the history of non-Western cultures. Next to the issues already mentioned, particular attention is paid to the questions of self-reflexivity, subjectivity, identity and selfhood, and to the ways in which these are given shape in reference to religion, society, gender and sexuality, and language.

Big Data

The defining characteristic of the 21st century might very well be the omnipresence of digital data. The continuous, voluminous and heterogeneous stream of data generated by sensors and people is rapidly transforming how we experience, how we analyse and how we interact with the people and things around us. Citizens, enterprises, governments and scientists are confronted with the potential blessings, as well as challenges, that “Big Data” provides for understanding the world around us.

“Big Data” is a term that is difficult to define, hence the Big Question structure of the course provides a suitable way of approaching this topic that crosses disciplines. This course aims to let students discover for themselves what “Big Data” entails and encourages them to reflect on that experience.

Central to the course is a series of real-life case studies related to key cultural, social and environmental issues in contemporary society. The case studies will lead the students to experience, first-hand, different techniques for data collection and storage, data visualisation and analytics, and hypothesis definition and communication. These steps are grounded in “data-driven knowledge discovery,” also referred to as “abductive reasoning,” which starts with data describing a phenomenon and continues with defining a hypothesis that explains the data. Is “Big Data” an exciting new way to discover new things about ourselves and the world around us, or does it hamper our privacy and lead us to follow invisible patterns that in the end prove to be terribly wrong?

 The course is framed as applied data science, with a focus on tackling societal and scientific problems, from a geographic perspective. Students gain a theoretical and practical understanding of the impact of data in society. They take part in practical use cases and present their group work online.

Big Questions in History

Big Questions in History offers an overview of human history placed within the context of the much longer history of life, the Earth, the solar system and the universe as a whole. This approach to human history is known as Big History.

Special attention will be paid to the last 10.000 years of human history when culture took over as the main adaptive mechanism. This period witnessed the worldwide emergence of agriculture as well as the rise of state societies, while during the past five hundred years, globalisation, science, industrialisation, urbanisation and democratisation have all contributed to deeply transform human societies. During the human history lectures of Big Questions in History, they systematically focus on how humans have been transforming their natural environment. 

Our claim is that by looking at human history from a big history perspective, it becomes possible to understand both yourself and the world around you better in a way no other approach to history offers. Furthermore, by contemplating the grand sweep of history, simple general theoretical principles emerge which would otherwise have remained unnoticed. These guiding principles will help students to better understand how everything has become the way it is now, as well as what the future may bring.

Big Questions in Science

Developments in science and technology have an important impact on the dynamics of our society. This course gives an introduction to the crucial turning points in our scientific view of nature. These turning points will act as nodes in a comprehensive overview of the natural sciences and their interrelationship, along with the crucial experiments and the theoretical paradigm shifts they caused.

This course aims to provide a connection between various natural sciences, such as physics, astrophysics, chemistry and Darwinian and molecular biology. It is an integrated approach in which different perspectives are exploited: the distance scales, the phenomena, the disciplines, the turning points and their impact and also the history of the universe where the whole structural hierarchy of the physical universe - from quarks to humans - was built up. Subjects such as quantum mechanics, astrophysics, evolution and molecular biology are central to the course. In addition, scientific approaches and methodology, the history of science and the philosophy of science will also be discussed.

This course introduces you to exciting ideas at the forefront of scientific research and their deep roots, developing the attitude characteristic of a scientific approach to the world. As the course emphasises the cultural dimensions of the natural sciences, it may also serve as a starting point for a critical dialogue between the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, which is of great importance in our modern highly technological society.

Several site visits are also planned in order to introduce you to state-of-the-art science labs and institutions in and outside the University of Amsterdam and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Big Questions in Future Society

In the course of human history, people have struggled with their natural environment, including other animals (ecological problems), with their fellow humans (social problems of conflict and cooperation), and with their inner nature (psychological problems of civilisation).

The long-term history of humankind suggests that humans have gained increasing levels of control over each of these three domains, mainly by coordinating their actions ever more widely and intricately. However, the price humans pay for these advances seems to be an increase in collective vulnerability. Problems confronting ‘global cities' like Mexico City, Mumbai, New York and Amsterdam are emblematic. Global society is developing into a global risk society. Contemporary societal ‘Big Questions' centre around (a) the ecology; (b) poverty, war and terrorism and migration; and (c) pathologies of individualism.

In social theory, the risks people run and the problems they confront have traditionally been analysed from two separate perspectives. A realist perspective sees risks and problems as objective threats, collective evils affecting large numbers of people and (or) requiring collective action. A constructivist perspective, on the other hand, sees risks and problems as subjective perceptions leading to claims by groups of people referring to putative conditions.

The history of human problems may fruitfully be analysed from an angle integrating both of these perspectives, assuming that objective developments provide general conditions under which political and moral entrepreneurs succeed, or do not succeed, in framing specific complaints and problems, and in bringing about collective action. Outcomes of these actions, often at least partly unintended, create new conditions for the framing of new problems.

Published by  Amsterdam University College

3 August 2018