Friday, November 7, 2014

Entertaining Angels

Here's my latest contribution to the Sojourners blog, a reflection on a beggar I met in Paris 25 years ago, and on what that might mean for me today.

Here's an excerpt:
You just never know. There’s no way to know, just from looking at the sign. Maybe he was a con man, or maybe he was just my brother, genuinely in need of human contact to maintain his dignity. Or maybe he was even more than that. How does that passage go? “Some of you have entertained angels unawares.” 
You can read the rest of it here.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Camping With My Students: Stargazing in the Badlands

Around two in the morning I awoke to the song of coyotes.  I opened my eyes and looked up just in time to see a green meteor arc across the sky.  I was camping outdoors, with my students, in a remote corner of South Dakota.  Welcome to one of my favorite classrooms.

We set up tents, but we rarely use them.  Much nicer to sleep under the stars.

Each fall I look for an ideal weekend to take my Ancient and Medieval Philosophy students stargazing.  An ideal weekend counts as one where we will have clear skies, a new moon, and reasonably warm weather so we can spend a lot of time outside.

Several times over the last ten years, the weather's been so good that we've been able to go out to a primitive campground (i.e. one where there is no electricity and almost no urban glow) in the Badlands National Park

On such nights, in such places, the sky glistens with stars.  The Milky Way is a bright band across the night, and meteors punctuate our views each hour.

I tell my students that this is an optional trip.  They don't get credit for coming, and they don't lose any credit for staying home.  It's a four-hour drive from our campus, so it's a real commitment of time on their part.  Their only rewards are these: an experience of what the Norwegians call friluftsliv, a beautiful night under the stars in a remote and lovely place, and free pancakes at sunrise, cooked by me.

And yet every time I offer this trip, half a dozen or more students - and sometimes other professors - tag along. 

The stop sign is just a scratching post to this bison.

I've written before about the importance of teaching outdoors and of doing labs in philosophy.  Experientia docet, experience teaches us.  What we learn through lived, full-bodied experience tends to stick with us far better than what we simply hear spoken from a lectern or see on a PowerPoint slide.

We go out there, ostensibly, to see the stars.  This is because I want my students to watch the skies and to imagine what it would have been like for ancient and medieval philosophers like Thales, Plutarch, Ptolemy, Eratosthenes and, even Galileo (on the cusp of the Middle Ages) to gaze at the skies and learn from their movements.

But we are really there for other reasons that are easier to show than to tell. I want them to see that ideas do not grow up in a vacuum, and that the artificial divisions between academic disciplines are really artificial and convenient.  Educated people should care about all the disciplines.  We should not allow them to be compartmentalized, as though philosophy and sociology had nothing to do with accounting, or physics, or poetry.

Aristotle tells us that the love of wisdom begins in wonder.  I will add that experience of new things can be the beginning of wonder.

Many of my students have never heard coyotes sing.  In the Badlands, they trot past our cots and tents and sing to us all night long.  When we wake in the morning, we are often surrounded by small groups of bison, slowly grazing their way along the hillsides.  After breakfast we climb the steep slopes and find ancient fossils. 

I don't know if any of this is a desirable or assessable outcome for a philosophy class.  Also, I don't care.  Because all of these things are, I think, desirable outcomes for life. 

Because I believe that "it is beautiful to do so" is reason enough to sleep under the stars.