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From the Colloquium, November 2015

Since 2006, the Lilly Fellows Program Director has published a “From the Colloquium” column about four times per year. The idea behind this column is to share some of the common readings from the colloquia of the Lilly Postdoctoral Fellows Program and the Lilly Graduate Fellows Program.

This fall, the weekly colloquium of the residential Lilly Postdoctoral Fellows, led by Founding Director Mark Schwehn, is addressing the question, “How might practices and perspectives from Christian faith and tradition contribute to teaching and scholarship in the contemporary academy?” To start, the colloquium discussed Robert Frost’s poem, “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” which explores themes of vocation, avocation, and justice. The colloquium has subsequently read and discussed texts that address the assumptions, practices, and institutions that shape professional training for academic disciplines. In addition, we have examined works that interrogate those practices and assumptions from Christian or other points of view. The foundation for this conversation is, as it has been for a number of years, Max Weber’s classic “Science as Vocation.” In this 1918 lecture/1919 publication, Weber saw the same processes of rationalization (including a division of labor), secularization, and especially disenchantment at work in universities that he identified more generally in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1906) where, in Germany, universities were transitioning from an older model that privileged “character formation” to a newer one that privileged the mastery and production of knowledge. This essay, in elevating dispassionate research as the sine qua non of the academic vocation, revealed the rationale for the ethos of the modern university and specific expressions of that ethos such as academic freedom, the structure of academic departments, benchmarks for promotion and tenure, etc. The goal of the our conversation about this seminal text is to identify the historical and intellectual context of these assumptions and practices that shape who we are as academics, identifying what we see as positive or necessary but also assessing–as Weber himself did–the costs of these developments. Along this same vein, the colloquium read portions of Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas to assess the continuities from Weber to the present. One line of critique comes from the work of Paul Griffiths on the classic Christian distinction between the vice curiositas—a mastery of knowledge—and the virtue studiositas, a participation in knowledge as a steward of God’s truth.  The colloquium studied Griffith’s essay, “From Curiosity to Studiousness: Catechizing the Appetite for Learning,” in Teaching and Christian Practices, edited by David I. Smith and James K.A. Smith, which summarizes his extended argument along this line in Intellectual Appetite. Finally, the colloquium considered two works that closely examine the idea of “naming,” which, in Genesis 2, has both humanistic and theological importance.  The first is Amy and Leon Kass’s article, “What’s Your Name,” which appeared in First Things in November, 1995.  The Kasses here think through the names we take and give in the collegiate classroom setting and in marriage as a window into identity, work, and power.  The colloquium explored similar themes in portions of Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement.  As in most years, we also read the classic works by Simone Weil (“The Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Waiting for God), and Stephanie Paulsell’s (Lilly Fellow ’93-’95) (“Writing as a Spiritual Discipline” in The Scope of our Art, L. Gregory Jones and Paulsell, eds.).  In January, I will discuss the readings in the colloquium in November and December, which include works by James Elkins, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Christian Wiman.

By Joe Creech

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