From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Lectures (1)—Knowledge Blooming

Robert André LaFleur
Underkofler Teaching Award Acceptance Remarks

Beloit College
28 April 2011

Thank you Ms. Wink, Mr. Adams, and Dean Davies. This award means a great deal to me, and precisely because it is given at an institution that truly focuses upon the intellectual engagement between teachers and students. I also cannot help but mention here what is perhaps the most significant matter for me since I arrived at Beloit College in 1998. At this very event, ten years and one day ago, I met for the first time a vibrant new member of the college community, Patricia Zody, who had just arrived that February. We went on to become the first marriage to emerge from the original Freeman Grant (an anecdote that the Freemans always liked very much), and she has been my greatest influence as a teacher and as a person.
Looking back over the past decade, I cannot help but think of the enormous role that teaching has played in my development as a scholar. No, you didn’t mishear. It is just that in higher education circles we are so used to thinking about scholarship and teaching as “opposed” realms that (relatively) rarely do we talk about how they are beautifully and synergistically woven into a complex ball of intellectual yarn.  More than occasionally, we will talk about scholarship influencing our teaching—how the article we have just written finds its way into a seminar discussion here or a lecture there. It is a wonderful thing, and a significant part of what we do.

I am speaking of something slightly different, though, and I am delighted to say that I don’t think that it could have happened with quite such positive results in many other places.  By this, I mean that Beloit College has offered me the opportunity to go on what I like to think of as a ten-year reading and writing program meant to bring me from the solid foundation I received in graduate school in historiography, anthropological theory, and Chinese studies to new dimensions of understanding in neurobiology, the philosophy of mind, and social behavior, to name a few.

I have been able to do that as a teacher, and for that I will always be grateful to Beloit College.  I have been free to develop a series of seminars that have had us (students and teacher) hanging on to our objects of inquiry by the thinnest of interpretive threads (or hermeneutic circles…or neural synapses).

It is not every school—not even close to every fine liberal arts college—that has the patience and confidence in itself and its mission to allow year-after-year of terrifying seminars (a book a week, weekly “summary-reviews,” and a 10,000-word seminar paper) on such topics as cognitive science, philosophy of consciousness, and theories of history; the “long-view” history of Western anthropology, starting with Herodotus and thinking it should really have been Homer; or even French social theory from B to Z (Balzac to Zola). And that is not even to mention the “one word” seminars that leave the interpretive path even more open to students—Mountains, Itineraries, or even next semester’s partial word, “—graphy.”  It’s about writin’.
I have always known that there is nothing more important than a deep intellectual curiosity—an academic imagination—in all that we do.  I have sought it in my own academic life, and I have tried to instill it in my students, as well.  I will conclude here with a few thoughts that illustrate how much I believe that imagination and rigor combine to create the kinds of classes in which both students and professors learn deeply. Bear with me (briefly) while I tell you a story of autumnal bloom. 

In order not to take up as much time and room as the long essay that I am writing on this topic these days (check the blog in a few weeks), I shall compress a few parts.

1. First hearing of the Committee on Social Thought (in college)
2. Packing for Taiwan—books, peanut butter, notebooks, and Bloom (Republic)
3. Letter of acceptance from the Committee on Social Thought (March 1987)
4. First reviews of Bloom's Closing  (April 1987)
5. Reviews cooling as the Taipei summer warmed (what to make of this guy?)

So there I was, on a warm Friday afternoon in early October of 1987, at the first of what would be many Committee on Social Thought “sherry hours,” being introduced to Allan Bloom.  “Now which one are you?”, he asked, his whole long face—from the rear of his bald head to his very focused nose—regarding me in a way that told me my answer mattered.   Really, it seemed to matter more than it should.  He must have better things to think about, I mused—colleagues at whom to stare or departmental scores to settle—than the background of a new graduate student. But he wasn’t distracted by the intellectual and collegial tumult in the room. He kept staring at me, waiting.

Bloom, I already knew, took students seriously.  It was in the book—Closing. 

       This essay—a meditation on the state of our souls, particularly those of the 
       young, and their education—is written from the perspective of a teacher. Such 
       a perspective, although it has grave limitations and is accompanied by 
       dangerous temptations, is a privileged one. The teacher, particularly the teacher
       dedicated to liberal education, must constantly try to look toward the goal of 
       human completeness and back at the natures of his students here and now, ever
       seeking to understand the former and to assess the capacities of the latter to 
       approach it. Attention to the young, knowing what their hungers are and what they 
       can digest, is the essence of the craft. One must spy out and elicit those hungers. 
       For there is no real education that does not respond to felt need; anything else is 
       trifling display.[1] 

Trifling was the last thing that came to mind when I first spoke with Bloom that day.  Display, however, was another matter.  He was every bit the showman, and he reveled in his booming question and even more so in the line that followed.

“We take these things very seriously, you see.”

Even then, for all of his display, I could see the personification of his words. Real education was about channeling energies, of tapping into human needs and, indeed, longings. This last phrase was one I remembered from both his interpretive essay in The Republic and Closing. I felt an immediate kinship with him. Here was a person who, for three hundred pages seemed utterly clueless about education, yet he had nailed it with the most critical feature of all. He was saying something that only a few people beyond Plato and Confucius bothered to say clearly. Unequivocally.

Over time, it is what Bloom taught me to see in my own life.  Eventually I learned just a little bit about teaching it. It was something I already had—a longing and passion for ideas, as important as eating or sleeping. I had also learned (through painful socialization) that describing one’s passion for knowledge is not something one does indiscriminately.  It can clear a room—or silence it, creating embarrassment for everyone except the speaker, who fails to understand that such things are usually not mentioned in polite company.  Interest, yes. Passion, not so much. Let’s just keep to test scores and not get “all emotional” about learning.  Bloom wanted the emotion. He wanted learning to matter.  I do, too.  It is as simple—and powerful—as that.

I was ready to answer this learned, quirky scholar with the strange new “popular book” about big ideas and passion for learning.

“I am the one who spent the last two years in Taiwan studying classical Chinese.  I am interested in Chinese historiography and political theory.”  I had especially thought that the last phrase would have an impact.  I imagined an immediate segue into a discussion of the parallels between Plato’s Statesman and Confucius's Analects.  Or Rousseau’s and Mencius’s views on the original nature of human beings and the consequences of social degeneration.  This was the very moment, I thought, when it all begins—when my years of longing and study come together; when East meets West, round meets square, and the heavens of China/Japan/Korea meet those of Europe and the Americas.

“Oh…you.”  Before I could respond, Bloom was swept away by another faculty member needing to talk about another matter.  It was over in an instant, but the scene cast a peculiar—and useful—shadow over the first years of my education at the Committee on Social Thought.  For Bloom, I was not exactly the enemy (I could figure this much even in the otherwise deflating context), but I surely was peripheral.  If I had begun with any particular desire to “please” the now famous author—or to join the small group of Committee students who seemed to play the roles of acolytes—it was extinguished in those moments.  This was the best thing that ever could have happened to me.  I was free to begin the long process of figuring out exactly how and where I did “fit” into the Western classics and the liberal arts.  Clearly, I would not be starting from the Bloomian center.  I finished my sherry and returned home to begin crafting my own plan…on my own.

I can say much more about Bloom and his strange “influence/anti-influence” on my career. Check the blog in June. That is not the point here.  It was almost as though the abrupt historical contingency of “oh, you” empowered me toward my own “teaching of longing,” as it were.   Partly because I was on my own, I was able ultimately to benefit from Bloom’s idiosyncratic blend of annoyance and brilliance (from which I would be alternately attracted and repelled in subsequent years).  I had to do it on my own—but not without him—and for both I am grateful and fortunate.
***  ***
Flash forward twenty-four years.  At Beloit College, I have found a place where I have continued what started on that autumn day when I began my studies at the Committee on Social Thought. I can share my perspectives on books and ideas with my colleagues, and expect the kind of engagement that will push me to new perspectives on those texts and my own work.  I have also found a place where I have students who desire to learn in this same kind of inquisitive way—understanding, even respecting, the recent history of academic disciplines, but not being bound by them.  I have found, in short, in my colleagues and students, a place where the longing for meaning and introspection is not just talk.  That Bloomian channeling of intellectual passion takes place here day-after-day and year-after-year.  When we’re at our best, we are a college that changes lives.

This award is for all of us, and I will never forget that. All of us.

[1] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 19.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

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