Swarthmore College

The answer to that question was enthusiastically affirmative. Next question: are we doing that? The answer was usually, “Not so much anymore: we don’t have the time or the venue.” So in addition to its primary outward-facing mission, Aydelotte was tasked with searching for ways to make a venue–and perhaps find the time.

A March 19, 2018 story in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported a similar discussion and resulting initiative at Occidental College. We’ve heard from colleagues at many institutions about similar desires and various institutional or divisional efforts to respond to them. So what did we learn in our first four years or so about this challenge – both from Aydelotte programs and from our observation of other programs with similar goals?

  1. We learned that yes, faculty, staff and students want to talk in non-instrumental, non-deliberative ways about intellectual questions. We didn’t really change anything about how busy Swarthmore community members were–an adjustment to the teaching load was only just beginning in our first few years of operation, but it seems to have had little impact on how many responsibilities are competing for the attention of faculty. Nevertheless, many people turned up for Aydelotte-sponsored events framed in these terms, as being trans-disciplinary, exploratory, meditative, shared, as being about intellectual community. There was proof of concept.
  2. We learned that finding a premise or theme capable of satisfying those desires is very, very difficult. Almost any choice here can end up feeling like disciplinary chauvinism: e.g., one discipline puts forward a scholarly work or idea that it feels ought to be of interest to everyone else but that premise may in fact require conceding a great deal to that discipline in order for the conversation to unfold in a satisfying way. In our first symposium on Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, for example, we quickly found ourselves in a situation where the person who’d selected the book felt the rest of us were being close-minded in our negative reaction to it, while the rest of us started to be frustrated by spending so much energy on a book that we felt was unworthy of the attention.
  3. We learned that the simple desire for local intellectual community, even when widely shared, is not always enough. Underneath many of the suggestions that we should have a shared intellectual community in new (or old?) ways is often a proposition that such community should be playful, that it should involve a delight in conversations where the foundational ideas in circulation can be adopted or pushed aside by any participant, where there is discovery of new ideas and possibilities. But that entire vision of conversation in community may only be shared by some members of that community. It is not, in any event, natural or inevitable as a mode of conversation about scholarship or intellectual questions. Moreover, a call to playfulness can often mask or protect forms of bullying or domineering rhetoric, often but not exclusively from male faculty. One person’s imagination of what seems like a fair-minded critique can sound to many others like an attack meant to wound or intimidate. Philosophy is only one of many disciplines where there recently have been sharp internal divergences about whether the proper work of intellectuals involves an agonistic or oppositional treatment of all propositions or arguments in order to produce a better synthesis. A conversation that lifts all spirits in the room may not be possible–or it may take a great deal of prior attention to how we argue, why we argue, or even whether intellectual life is best understood in terms of argument.
About the Author

Timothy Burke's main field of specialty is modern African history, specifically southern Africa, but he has also worked on U.S. popular culture and on computer games.

More Posts by Timothy Burke
Posts by Timothy Burke