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From the Colloquium

The Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts sponsors two fellowship programs: a Postdoctoral, and a Graduate Fellowship program. Both of these involve the fellows in an ongoing colloquium, for vigorous discussion and debate about issues of vocation and higher learning in a Christian context. Here is a peek into what the current Postdoctoral Fellows are engaging with right now.

The weekly gatherings of the Fall 2016 colloquium have pursued this question: “How might Christian faith and tradition help us to renew and perhaps to reconceive the purposes and practices of liberal education in today’s academic environment?” Are there resources available from these sources that might help to rejuvenate the somewhat distanced sectors of and within liberal and professional learning? Readings have focused on accounting for fragmentation within higher learning, but also on potential means for re-unifying disparate academic sectors.

With Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, the group began considering what it might mean for higher education to proceed toward the telos of character formation in addition to disciplinary knowledge, which Delbanco argues was the way the early American college system worked—with a unity of purpose brought about by the conception that all studies had as their object some aspect of the divine mind. After the shift toward the disciplines, Delbanco suggests, such unity was lost. Thus, the colloquium opened with questions like these: Should we return in some way to the educational project of the earlier academy? If yes, how might we begin to do this, and to what pedagogy ought we to turn? What is the role of the teacher?

James Turner and Mark Noll’s conversation in The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue continued the discussion of specialization and unity. Noting certain differences between Catholic and Protestant institutions and scholars, these two esteemed historians provoked discussion of whether and how diverse Christian colleges and universities can work together to unify the curriculum and maintain their Christian character.

Brad Gregory’s influential book The Unintended Reformation prompted much discussion. In preparation for the LFP’s National Conference at Augsburg College, at which Gregory gave the first plenary address, the fellows considered the controversial claim that the Reformation itself is largely responsible for the secularization of knowledge and accompanying separation of the disciplines. If we follow Gregory, we have to ask what to do now. Facing conflicting truth claims from different sectors of the academy, what can a modern university do to help students sort through them? And where can we find a grounding for the cultivation of character?

“Writing as a Spiritual Discipline,” by Stephanie Paulsell (from Jones and Paulsell’s The Scope of Our Art: The Vocation of the Theological Teacher), suggests that resources might be found in new attention to the practice of writing. Paulsell advises that writing can be spiritually transformative, if practiced as a spiritual discipline—for faculty and for students. What is needed, she says, is to cultivate the student’s desire to pay attention to words, and the desire to offer them to others. Faculty must also think of their own written work as fully integrated with their teaching.

More recently, the discussion has centered on whether and how to appropriate classical versions of practical wisdom (e.g., Aristotle’s phronesis; Aquinas’s prudentia) for use in Christian higher learning. The sort of knowledge at issue goes beyond what some think is most characteristic of the academy’s practices, and includes the practices of Christian life that demonstrate a wisdom that often is left untreated in the academy but that may provide a useful supplement or even corrective. In this context, fellows have engaged with Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues; the exciting new volume Christian Practical Wisdom, by Dorothy C. Bass, Kathleen A. Cahalan, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, James R. Nieman, and Christian B. Scharen; and William Sullivan’s essay on “The Twin Elements of Learning: Knowledge and Judgment.” Many questions have arisen: Is prudence (or, practical wisdom) indeed first among the virtues? What are its prerequisites? How can these be taught? How does this relate to the formation of character? Even: Can a focus on practical wisdom be a means of re-unifying disciplines and professional fields?

Mark Schwehn’s occasional essay on “Christian Practical Wisdom, Liberal Education, and Curricular Integrity” reminded the group of the Weberian—and modern—notion that values should remain separate from university instruction. If there is to be curricular unity brought about through focus on practical wisdom—the sort of knowledge that enables one to live well—how shall we respond to the Weberian view? Moreover, what will the classroom be like after this re-orientation? In addition to raising pedagogy as an issue again, Schwehn helped the group consider what very concrete modifications might be required in things like a course syllabus, assignments, and exam questions.

Finally, the colloquium examined an interesting approach to service that might have resonance in the classroom. Sam Wells, in “Rethinking Service” (a lecture delivered at the 2012 LFP National Conference), distinguishes a “mortality model” from an “isolation model” of service, suggesting that isolation rather than mortality is the central problem of human existence. Charities, universities, and individuals ought to adopt a mode of a service emphasizing being with others rather than doing things for others (which he suggests may not help as planned). The challenge, then, is to learn the isolation model and put it to work, toward the formation of true community—inside and outside of the classroom.

Posted by Joseph Goss

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