During spring 2018, the Lilly Postdoctoral Fellows at Valparaiso University have engaged in deep consideration of the purpose and character of liberal education, and how their understanding of these things has been shaped and changed by readings and experiences. Part of the discussion involves determining to what extent we can and should read our texts charitably, versus some other kind of reading. Moreover, how can we lead our students to a similar openness to what they read?
In the classroom, many balances must be achieved. One important balance is between the extent to which the teacher offers a specific, authoritative point of view, and the extent to which the students are allowed to question and put forth alternative (possibly even suspect) interpretations of texts a teacher knows very well. What do we do when the plans we have for a course are derailed by student questions and insights arising from different interests and interpretive frameworks? Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, which details his Bard College course on The Odyssey, and his father’s auditing of that course, has been a good source of reflection along these lines.
Other important questions have arisen from readings that have highlighted how liberal education contributes to alleviating suffering, both of others and oneself. Borrowing from Stephanie Paulsell’s 2009 talk to a group of Lilly Graduate Fellows (“Ulysses’ Mad Flight: Anxiety and the Intellectual Life”), the group considered the challenges, for a Christian teacher, of committing fully to the sort of exploration Dante exhibits in the Divine Comedy. Dante meets Ulysses in the Inferno and ends up drowning him, Paulsell describes, because Ulysses’ never-ending quest seems not to match up with the horizons of Dante’s religious commitments. It’s the question of how porous the boundaries are between Athens and Jerusalem—crucial for understanding what and how we teach students.
Cassandra Nelson’s “Bracing for Impact” approaches liberal education from the perspective of a trauma survivor and considers the usefulness of texts in achieving some kind of healing for oneself. Like Paulsell, Nelson recommends the unfettered pursuit of truth as a way of setting us free—in this case, free from traumatic memories. Thus, we find in liberal education a way forward through difficult emotional terrain, as well as a means of intellectual growth that allows us to understand and care for others more deeply.
The role of history and memory in academic work and reconciliation has been an important element of the discussion. Thomas Albert (“Tal”) Howard’s current work on the history of Bosnia, with its multiple religious traditions, gives insight into some of the conditions for reconciliation. Howard suggests that historians have an important role to play in forging a lasting peace in this region, as people need to be able to narrate and discuss the past in order to work for a future. The group considered an actual course syllabus constructed by Howard for his Valparaiso University course “A Moral History of the 20th Century,” and he led the group in a discussion of how the course was put together, why certain texts were chosen, how he presented the importance of the topic. It was a good opportunity to consider the humanities teacher’s responsibilities and burdens when presenting the complexities of conflict and suffering.
Posted by Joseph Goss