It’s fall, and the academic year is about to start again, so it’s time for the annual bout of questioning and self-questioning that we teachers of the humanities engage in all the time, but especially now. What shall we teach our students and how shall we teach it? What texts shall we use? What questions will we ask? What will we hope our students gain from our classes?
I have been teaching humanities-based courses over the past 40 years, in high schools and universities, and I’m persuaded that right now the question it is most important to pose to our students (and also to ourselves) is the question of ideals. I ask (and hope that others will also ask) the students who take our classes where they stand on the question of the great ideals. This isn’t just an intellectually engaging question, though surely it is that. It is also a question about how the students, and their teacher, too, should lead their lives.
By posing the question of ideals, one will inevitably encounter some of the greatest writing we have: some of what Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.” By reflecting on the ideals one can learn a great deal about the tactics of interpretation and the art of writing. But more than that, one can learn to know oneself and begin to think about how to live in the world.
The ancient world offers us three major ideals, which I call (using some shorthand) the ideals of courage, compassion and contemplation. Later in time, great artists have put forward the life of imagination as an ideal, though that ideal is less firmly established than the other three.
Where do you stand on the matter of ideals? To answer that question, you need to develop a sense of what ideals are. I turn to Homer and Virgil to understand the ideal of courage; to Plato to understand the contemplative ideal; and to Jesus, Buddha and Confucius to understand the ideal of compassion. I’m also open to the possibility that my students might want to reject ideals out of hand, or at least carefully modulate their engagement with the ideal (ideals are dangerous). So I expose them to a few writers who have affirmed a worldly but humane and decent way of life: I often use Freud, but George Orwell or Michel de Montaigne could do just as well.
So now we have our syllabus. What happens then? We’ll begin with the heroic ideal, the oldest in the world. We try to learn what exactly it means to be a hero, at least to Homer and Virgil. We reflect on Achilles, who fears nothing and wants to be the greatest warrior who ever lived. We think about the more humane Hector, who is the archetype of the citizen soldier, and who fights to defend his city. We consider Aeneas, the pious warrior who lives for his father, his son and his people -- and who, the story has it, leaves the ashes of the city that Hector has died defending and founds Rome.
We ask questions. Is Achilles really a hero, or is he simply a killing machine? Is Hector being a coward when he flees Achilles, running from him around the walls of Troy? Is Aeneas’s modesty really compatible with being a fierce warrior?
These questions involve careful reading and interpretation. The students write about who they think the heroes are and why they matter -- or do not. But I also ask the students if these heroic archetypes provide them with what the Harvard University philosopher William James called “living options.” How much do they want to emulate these heroes, if at all? What place does courage have in their daily lives and what part would they like it to have? What sort of courage would they want to emulate: that of Achilles, or of Hector, or of Aeneas -- or perhaps of some other figure they have encountered in literature or in life? Would any of them consider committing themselves to a life of martial valor, in which bravery and honor take a central place for them and become their ideal?
We interrogate the ideals. Teaching a liberal arts curriculum is about enquiry, not indoctrination. Is the heroic ideal too often based on vanity and the narcissistic belief that though others may perish we ourselves will never die? I want my students to think about Freud’s critique of honor and heroism, as well as the critique that’s implicit in Shakespeare, and particularly in the King Henry plays. “What is honor?” asks Falstaff -- and he answers himself (and maybe speaks for Shakespeare): honor is a mere word, nothing special. More recent critiques of male violence and male bonding from the feminist perspective also come into play here and allow the students, male and female, to think twice and twice again about the heroic ideal.
Skepticism about ideals -- yes, to be sure: that’s part of the course. But I want to do what James hoped his teaching would do: open up possibilities for life. I also want students to be exposed to the life of compassion through study of Jesus and the Buddha and Confucius and to the life of thought through Plato. I don’t want this to happen uncritically -- even Plato has his detractors, though to be sure all philosophy is a footnote to his work. Yet still, I want my students to be open to the possibility of being influenced by the great ideals -- in small and measured ways, yes. But also in larger ways, too: they should have the chance to consider organizing their lives around the pursuit of an ideal.
Though the earliest promulgators of the great ideals may be male, they are there to be engaged by men and women and people of all races and origins. (If there is a culture in the world that does not revere bravery and wisdom and courage, I have not come across it.) What is feminism, what is egalitarian thinking, if not a call for equal access to the fruits of the best that has been thought and said?
I think that the enquiry into ideals is of particular importance now. This is because students at present often seem to feel that they are facing two options in life. They can pursue what I call the life of the self: they can try to succeed and prosper and live a measured, humane life. Or they can reject this life as sterile and selfish. Most of my students don’t see any other possibility: they can conform, or they can quit. The life of pragmatic success and the pursuit of middle-class happiness seem all there is, and they can take it or they can leave it.
But there is another kind of life: the life devoted in large measure to the ideal. Those who have followed the ideal path have often lived hard lives and met harsh ends. Think of Socrates; think of the martyred saints; think of the aspiring heroes who have died young. But many men and women have also found that commitment to the ideal fills life with meaning and intensity and even sometimes with joy. Those men and women may be wrong. All the defenders of worldliness and practicality may be right. But students should be allowed to hear both sides of the debate and to decide for themselves.
This is not a chance conversation, says Socrates, but a dialogue about the way we ought to live our lives.
Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home has received critical raves. A musical adaptation has become a Broadway smash. Despite these successes, some students in Duke University’s incoming class refused to read Fun Home when it was placed on their recommended summer reading list. Citing the book’s acceptance of lesbian identity, these students said they believe that exposing themselves to Bechdel’s story will violate their Christian morals.
As a professor who has taught Fun Home in his classes for years, I would advise these students to rethink their positions. Most of my students who have engaged with Fun Home find many connections to Bechdel’s autobiography and are moved by it. Although her story may be unfamiliar, her work has much to offer, both emotionally and educationally.
Fun Home is on the syllabus of a course titled the Common Intellectual Experience (CIE) at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, where I teach. All our first-year students take the course simultaneously, grouped into classes of approximately 16, each group with a different professor. They read the same books at the same time, write papers with the same deadlines and so on. The course provides students the opportunity to explore the human experience from a myriad of perspectives. In their first semester, they read work by authors such as Plato, Galileo and Descartes. Students ponder and discuss the course’s three main questions from the perspectives of these different authors: (1) What does it mean to be human? (2) What is the universe and how do we fit into it? (3) How should we live our lives? The college is rightly proud of this course, as it is a fine example of a liberal arts education, and I am happy to be a participant in it.
Fun Home is the first text of the second semester, a semester that also includes Freud, Marx and the Declaration of Independence. Bechdel’s book focuses on the author’s coming to terms with being a lesbian, dealing with the revelation of her father’s homosexuality and discovering the true nature of their “entwined stories.” It gives the second semester of the course a contemporary start and allows the students to view the CIE questions in fresh ways. The course is discussion based and students are encouraged to debate opposing viewpoints respectfully, to shape reasoned arguments with strong points of view and to learn from diversity of opinion. Fun Home provides excellent material for the students to talk about themes of identity, family, home and growing up.
Fun Home, as a college text, has experienced controversy even before the Duke students’ rejection. Last year, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to cut funding to the College of Charleston because of its plan to place Bechdel’s book on a freshmen recommended reading list. State Representative Garry R. Smith said he believes that the memoir is inappropriate for students because it “graphically shows lesbian acts” and is “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle.”
I am proud that Ursinus chose Fun Home as a central text for our common course and that we did not shy away from it because of its controversial history in academia. In my experience, working with the text in the classroom has been educative and productive. The character of Alison, as presented in Bechdel’s witty and distinctive illustrations, starts as naïve and feeling limited. As she matures, she forges her identity, diverges from her parents and makes her mark in the world. Our 18-year-old students grapple with similar issues. They easily relate to Alison in a variety of ways. Many of the students at Ursinus come from small communities in Pennsylvania, just like Alison Bechdel. They read about a young woman whose world is increasingly becoming wider and more varied at just the moment when the same is happening to them. The author’s themes resonate with all the students regardless of their sexuality, religion or cultural background. Bechdel is a canny writer whose specific experiences translate well to a universal audience.
I have prepared myself each semester for student objections. There is a controversial panel in the book which depicts an intimate sexual moment from Bechdel’s college days. Instead of ignoring it, I have met the subject head-on and asked my students, “Do you believe, in context, that this illustration is pornographic?” In the multiple times I have raised this question, not one student has been offended by the image. These are 18-year-olds. Burgeoning sexuality is nothing new to them. Bechdel shares her story from a young person’s perspective and the students easily relate to her personal sexual explorations.
If students in my class were to refuse to read the book altogether, I would urge them to reconsider. Yes, they may find the story alien and opposed to their morality, but, as college students, they should embrace these differing views. Exposure will help them to understand the world better and to strengthen their own opinions. As a college community, we should not shy away from difficult or complex points of view. Ursinus’s CIE students have read sections of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, objectionable by anyone’s standards. Being shielded from offensive or outrageous material does not make it disappear. If students want to navigate the world after graduation, they need to expose themselves to the variety of human experience while in the safety of their college campus.
Objectors to Fun Home are being reductive when they focus solely on the memoir’s frank presentation of sexuality. Fun Home is so much more. In the right atmosphere, this book allows young people to open up about their own lives and to share their struggles. What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? These questions go from the abstract to the relevant when our CIE students discuss Fun Home in the classroom.
Alison Bechdel’s story will resonate with anyone who is grown up or is growing up. It is my sincere hope that the controversies surrounding the book will not stop it from being included on college reading lists. As our Ursinus students know, Bechdel is a wise teacher with much to teach all of us.
Domenick Scudera is professor of theater at Ursinus College.
Among the passengers disembarking from a ship from that reached Philadelphia in the final days of December 1941 was one Mark Zborowski -- a Ukrainian-born intellectual who grew up in Poland. He had lived in Paris for most of the previous decade, studying at the Sorbonne. He was detained by the authorities for a while (the U.S. had declared war on the Axis powers just three weeks earlier, so his visa must have been triple-checked) and then released.
Zborowski's fluency in several languages was a definite asset. By 1944 he was working for the U.S. Army on a Russian-English dictionary; after that that he joined the staff of the Institute for Jewish Research in New York, serving as a librarian. And from there the émigré’s career took off on an impressive if not meteoric course.
He joined the Research in Contemporary Culture Project at Columbia University, launched just after World War II by the prominent anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead with support from the Office of Naval Research. Zborowski oversaw an ethnographic study of Central and Eastern European Jewish culture, based on interviews with refugees. It yielded Life Is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl, a book he co-authored in 1952. Drawing on Zborowski’s childhood memories more than he acknowledged and written in a popularizing style, it sold well and remained in print for decades.
The volume’s reputation has taken some hits over the years -- one scholar dubs it “the book that Jewish historians of the region loathe more than any other” – but Zborowski enjoyed the unusual distinction of influencing a Broadway musical: the song “If I Were a Rich Man” in Fiddler on the Roof was inspired, in part, by a passage in Life Is With People. He later turned to research on cultural differences in how pain is experienced and expressed, culminating in his book People in Pain (1969). Once again his published work got mixed reviews in the professional journals, while the author himself enjoyed a kind of influence that citation statistics do not measure: a generation of medical anthropologists studied with him at the Pain Institute of Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco. He died in 1990.
If the details just given represented an honest account of Mark Zborowski’s life, he would now be remembered by scarcely anyone except specialists working in his fields of interest. The narrative above is all factually correct, to the best of my knowledge. But it omits an abundance of secrets. Some were revealed during his lifetime, but even they come wrapped in the mystery of his motives.
The fullest account now available is “Mark ‘Etienne’ Zborowski: Portrait of Deception” by Susan Weissman, a two-part study appearing in the journal Critique. Weissman, a professor of politics at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., published the first half in 2011 and expected the second to follow shortly, though in fact it will appear in print only later this year. (Both can be downloaded in PDF from her page at Academia.edu.)
Etienne was the name Zborowski used while infiltrating anti-Stalinist radical circles in France for the GPU and the NKVD (forerunners of the KGB) during the 1930s, and he continued surveillance on opponents of the Soviet Union during his first few years in the United States.
“He is remembered by his students and colleagues as warm, generous and erudite,” writes Weissman. “Personally he neither stole documents nor directly assassinated people, but he informed Stalin’s teams of thugs where to find the documents or the people they sought. Zborowski infiltrated small leftist circles, made friends with its cadres and then reported on them. He always ratted on his ‘supposed’ friends. He saw [one woman] daily for nearly five years, and she helped him in countless ways. What did he give her in return? Only her survival, something not afforded to other Zborowski ‘friends.’ Once his orders switched and he no longer needed to report on her activities (or that of her husband), Zborowski simply stopped calling this constant friend, who defended him, gave him money and helped him with that precious commodity denied to so many, the visa to the United States.”
Weissman chronicles Etienne’s destructive role among the anti-Stalinist revolutionaries in Europe while also showing that his precise degree of culpability in some operations remains difficult to assess. Important missions were sometimes “nearly sabotaged by conflicting aims and lack of coordination between Soviet espionage teams.” And spy craft is not immune to a kind of office politics: reports to “the center” (intelligence headquarters) were not always accurate so much as aspirational or prudent.
Overviews of Zborowski’s covert life have been available for some time – among them, his own testimony to a Senate subcommittee on internal security, which was not especially candid. Weissman’s study draws on earlier treatments but handles them critically, and in the light of a wider range of sources than have been brought to bear on his case until now.
Besides material from Stalin-era archives (consulted when she was in Russia during the 1990s) and the decoded Venona intercepts of Soviet cable communications from the 1940s, Weissman obtained court transcripts from Zborowski’s trials for perjuring himself before Congress. (He received a retrial after appealing his first conviction, but lost and served four years in prison.)
She also used the Freedom of Information Act to request the pertinent files from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There were surveillance reports, of course, and interviews conducted by FBI agents -- with some pages all but entirely blacked out -- but also a piece of evidence about Zborowski that has been hiding in plain sight for 50 years.
The Feb. 28, 1965, issue of the Sunday magazine of The New York Times contained an article called “The Prison ‘Culture’ -- From the Inside.” The author identified himself as an anthropologist (“and as far as I know the first member of my profession to study a prison culture from the inside”) and used the pseudonym “M. Arc.” They seem like pretty clear hints to his identity, but no one seems to have made the connection until Weismann opened the dossier.
“The article is a scholarly, well-written account of life inside,” she notes, “with a critical look at the criminal justice system … and [it] has been widely cited and reprinted in prison sociology texts.”
Part of his hidden curriculum vitae, then. “True to form,” Weismann writes, “Zborowski put the focus entirely on the subject at hand, revealing virtually nothing of himself.”
And that really is the mystery within the mystery here. It’s difficult to square Professor Zborowski (amiable, conscientious, a little bland, perhaps) with the sinister career of Etienne, a man who made himself the closest friend of Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov and quite possibly set him up for murder. (Afterward he tried to wrangle an invitation to the Russian revolutionary’s compound in Mexico, but another assassin got there first.)
In a conversation with Weissman by phone, I mentioned being both fascinated by her research (mention Trotsky in something and I’ll probably read it) and left puzzled by the figure she portrayed. And puzzled in a troubling way, with no sense of his intentions -- of how he had understood his own actions, whether while carrying them out or across the long years he had to reflect on them.
“While in prison,” she told me, “he kept insisting to the FBI that he was good citizen. He never expressed remorse. There’s nothing in his papers about his politics, nothing about his own beliefs.” The reader perplexed by Weissman's “portrait of deception” is in the same position as the scholar who investigated him: “He’s a puzzle I couldn’t solve.”
Submitted by Anonymous on August 17, 2015 - 3:00am
I teach at a member institution of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. I also happen to be gay. A friend’s early morning text alerted me to announcements from Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College, both CCCU and Mennonite colleges, that they will add sexual orientation and gender identity to their nondiscrimination hiring statements.
EMU’s nondiscrimination policy will now state: “Eastern Mennonite University does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any legally protected status. As a religious institution, EMU expressly reserves its rights, its understandings of and its commitments to the historic Anabaptist identity and the teachings of Mennonite Church USA, and reserves the legal right to hire and employ individuals who support the values of the university.” The announcement adds that faculty members who are married to same-sex spouses will be hired. A similar announcement was issued by Goshen College.
The announcements surprised me. I had been aware of the vote at the recent Mennonite Church USA conference not to sanction same-sex marriages, so I had anticipated that Mennonite schools would keep the status quo. I was stunned to read about the changes.
Two days before the Supreme Court announced its decision, a group gathered at a Washington restaurant for dinner. Some of us at the dinner currently teach or have taught at CCCU institutions and one was an administrator. Gay alumni of religiously affiliated institutions also attended. We are members of different Christian denominations, and some of us were active in the evangelical organizations, Young Life and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, in former lives. Some have migrated out of conservative Christian churches into faith communities that welcome and affirm LGBTQ persons. We all have different stories but were united that evening in our hope for a good outcome from the court, and, in fact, toasted the court. Imagine ….
The contrast among CCCU institutions regarding human sexuality issues comes at a time when some Christian institutions are mounting a rearguard action regarding the teaching of evolution. At Northwest Nazarene University a professor lost his job because he affirmed that the Christian faith and evolution are compatible. Bryan College “‘clarified’ its statement of faith in ways many faculty members said made the historicity of Adam and Eve so narrow that they could no longer agree with it.” At Bethel College (Ind.) a statement was adopted that states that “Adam was created by an immediate act of God and not by process of evolution.” Faculty may teach other viewpoints, but “are not to advocate for, nor hold leadership positions” in professional organizations that have a different view.
Conservative Christian higher education views on evolution and human sexuality are not unrelated; they are of a piece because these views turn on a literal hermeneutic to interpret the Bible. Christian ethicist David Gushee, in his book Changing Our Mind, has pointed out that fashioning a Christian position on same-sex relations is a “faith/science integration issue.” New evidence emerged about the earth’s origins; new evidence is now emerging about human sexuality that now must be taken into consideration with biblical texts.
Christian higher education has accepted Copernicus and Galileo, however, Darwin remains iffy. Fortunately, institutions don’t burn people at the stake anymore, but they do fire them if they do not interpret Genesis 1 and 2 in a literal way. It is perplexing that some Christian colleges that implicitly accept evolution in their STEM programs deploy a different hermeneutic when it comes to interpreting the Bible regarding sexual ethics. Whereas Genesis 1 and 2 are interpreted as a metaphorical account of how the world came into being, these same biblical texts are interpreted literally regarding human sexuality. As Gushee suggests, the creation accounts should not be taken as “scientific self-descriptions.”
Old Testament scholar Peter Enns, in his book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins, writes, “The most faithful, Christian reading of sacred Scripture is one the recognizes Scripture as a product of times in which it was written and/or the events that took place -- not merely so, but unalterably so …. Unless one simply rejects scientific evidence (as some continue to do), adjustments to the biblical story are always necessary. The only question is what sorts of adjustments best account for the data.” It is not, as some insist, a matter of biblical authority; it is a matter of the interpretive principle one uses -- a literal/historical one or a metaphorical/symbolic one.
The literal interpretation of Scripture and the lack of attention to new evidence about human sexuality have led some Christian universities and colleges to tie themselves into knots when it comes to forming policies on LGBTQ issues. The casuistry is stunning. Take, for example, Hope College, not a CCCU institution, but a college affiliated with the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, Hope announced that it would extend benefits to same-sex couples. Many, including myself, rejoiced, however, Hope soon clarified (or made things murkier, depending on one’s point of view) -- no same-sex couple can be married in the Hope chapel because the RCA position is that marriage is to be between a man and a woman (Genesis again). Also, a 2011 Hope statement both affirms that RCA position and states that there will not be a student club that “promote[s] homosexuality.” It is not clear that Hope would hire an openly gay, married person. If that is the case, then benefits will never have to be offered.
One’s eyes begin to cross when trying to make sense of the situations at Baylor and Pepperdine, both affiliates of the CCCU. At Baylor, the phrase “homosexual acts” has been taken out of a student sexual misconduct statement, and the new policy states that “physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity,” but to know what “marital fidelity” means, one is referred to a 1963 Baptist position paper that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
Pepperdine’s law and business schools have officially recognized LGBTQ student groups, which are limited to discussion of LGBTQ issues, networking and professional opportunities. But in 2011, Pepperdine denied official recognition for a LGBTQ undergraduate group that was perceived as an “identity group” rather than a professional networking group. The former did not fit with the Christian mission; professional networking does. I leave it to the reader to decipher the reasons why.
To navigate the tortured terrain of LGBTQ policies at Christian colleges, one must know the difference between sanctioned and unsanctioned student clubs, the difference between support and advocacy (when does a support group for LGBTQ students morph into an unacceptable advocacy group?), and whether a student handbook rule is referenced in a faculty handbook, therefore making the student rule applicable to faculty. What is crystal clear is that some CCCU institutions accept the tuition dollars of LGBTQ students, tell them that they are loved, provide small groups and support groups for them, train RAs to be more sensitive to LGBTQ issues, but will not hire them should they want to work at their alma mater. On commencement day, LGBTQ students are celebrated; the day after they will not be hired because they are openly gay and/or want to have a life partner. No longer at Eastern Mennonite and Goshen.
Christian colleges face a foreboding future. The most obvious challenge is one shared by any private institution -- namely, cost. Gordon College, a CCCU member institution, for example, is facing a $3.8 million budget deficit due to low enrollment. But if Christian higher education is perceived as dyspeptic and anachronistic, then younger millennials, fewer of whom are identifying as religious, will go elsewhere. If conservative boards of trustees, parents, donors and presidents are more concerned about the “brand,” “the optics,” then perhaps lines in the sand will be drawn and some Christian colleges will survive only because they become fortresses against the world.
At that point they will cease to be institutions of free inquiry, no longer universities. The changes at Eastern Mennonite and Goshen give me hope that more Christian colleges will be courageous, grapple with new evidence, hold on to a hermeneutic that is life giving and not life denying, and be prophetic in positions they take. I was moved to tears when I read that the student government at one Christian college passed a resolution asking that sexual orientation be included in the university’s nondiscrimination hiring policy.
Nancy Heisey, professor of biblical studies at Eastern Mennonite, stated of her university's willingness to hire gay and lesbian people in same-sex marriages, “We have a strong commitment to Christian principles, including that justice is central to the Scripture's teaching.” I am reminded of jazz great Sam Cooke’s song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” May other CCCU institutions recognize that to be Christ centered is to be justice centered and decide to be more inclusive and change, as Eastern Mennonite and Goshen have.
The author asked to be anonymous to avoid endangering employment at the college where the author teaches.