A Personalist Awakening in Education: Reflections from the 2019 Scala Summer Seminar

Scala’s 2019 Summer Seminar, “Rediscovering Integral Humanism”, took place in Portsmouth, Rhode Island from June 23 – July 2. When reflecting on their experiences, students used words like “enriching,” “invigorating,” “life-giving,” refreshing,” “fulfilling,” and “the happiest week of my life.” See a few more extensive reflections below, as students engage some of the seminar readings in light of their own vocations and contexts. These reflections serve as evidence that emphasizing the core mission of education—a human awakening, sparking a search for truth—is a universal message that cuts across today’s divisive rhetoric. The kind of whole-person education Scala models aims to fight back against what philosopher Augusto Del Noce calls the crisis of modernity. Click here to read about the summer seminar, which we plan on hosting again in the summer of 2020. And check out this video explaining what makes the summer seminar so unique.

Nathan Stenberg, PhD Student in Theatre Arts, University of Minnesota:

Teaching at a Big10, R1 University brings its own unique set of joys and challenges. Large, if not at times unwieldy class-sizes (lectures reaching over 200 students at times), the wide variety of disciplines and areas of studies, and the diverse nature of the vast student body all provide for a rewarding, yet demanding teaching and learning experience. It is the concept of love that Elizabeth Corey speaks of that seems to be missing the most in the classrooms I encounter at the university. Students feel the pressure to specialize in their area of study early so that they can have the promise of paying rent, while professors have less and less time to spend interacting and growing with the students.

The question that remains is: how is a teacher supposed to re-introduce this love back into the classroom? It requires intention, vulnerability, and trust on both the part of the educator and the student. It is possible in the smallest of ways to reclaim love in the classroom. This could be illustrated in learning the names of each student; taking the risk to show your own passion towards the materials you teach (whether those are passionate agreements or disagreements!); to simply listening to what a student’s fears or concerns are. Both our readings and our conversations have illustrated that these small gestures make a clear and distinctive impact on the lives and learning of the students we will encounter in classrooms.

Anthony Tokman, PhD Student in Economics, Yale University

Max Scheler’s outline of the five philosophical anthropologies (“Man and History,” in Philosophical Perspectives) provides an immensely helpful framework for analyzing competing visions of human nature and, by extension, the goods (if any) that education, properly understood, aims toward. The first two anthropologies (man as God’s creation and man as a rational animal) rely on some notion of transcendence, whether explicitly theistic (in the case of religious man) or recognizing the existence of an undefinable, but nonetheless transcendent, cosmic order (in the case of rational man). Before the 19th century, nearly all debates over human ends, at least in the West, took place between, and often within, these two anthropologies.

The remaining three anthropologies—man as homo faber, man as failed animal, and man as Übermensch—deny transcendence as understood by both classical thinkers and traditional theists. They are all relatively new, with the oldest (homo faber) probably dating to Hobbes, Bacon, and Hume. And yet it would seem that most foundational academic debates today (and since the collapse of Enlightenment rationalism) have taken place within/between these essentially materialist[1] visions. Religious and rationalist ideas have not disappeared, but in many circles they are considered unsophisticated and stale. This is notably true at elite universities, ever so eager to rid themselves of the deadweight of old thinking as they chase the siren of novelty. And while some academics—who no doubt consider themselves exceptionally clever and “edgy”—still subscribe to the man-as-failed-animal and Übermensch anthropologies, it seems fairly apparent that homo faber reigns supreme in modern academia. So supreme, in fact, that foundational debates in most academic disciplines take place between rival philosophies within the homo faber anthropology.

[1] I hesitate to call them purely materialist because they needn’t (necessarily) reject the notion of a human soul (certainly this is true of the older home faber philosophies, such as in Hume’s work); but the fact of the soul (eternal or not) seems to have little bearing on these philosophies’ understandings of proper ends.

Alonso Octavio Aravena Mendez, PhD Student in Sociology, Baylor University:

All of our readings have resonated and granted me a chance to question the accuracy of many of my own convictions, which I hadn’t dared to acknowledge or test before in my life.  I felt a particular mental and spiritual peace after reading Jacques Maritain’s essay “Freedom in the Modern World”. An extract at the end of chapter that I would quote is:

“The rupture between the Christian order and the established disorder” has to do not only with things in the economic or the political order but with the whole range of culture, with the relation of the spiritual and the temporal orders, and even with the conception we ought to have of the work of man here below and at this moment in the history of the world. (p. 72)

Since my professional training has been highly empirical and scientific, I have wrestled with finding a manner in which empirical and historical knowledge can co-exist with philosophical and Christocentric fundamental notions, along with the multi-layered and fragile existence of individual humans. Maritain teaches us how to be in the world, but not be part of the world, contending with politics and economic issues, while remembering that as Christians our focus should be in an atemporal truth, which I relate with the Eternal quality of God.

A perspective constructed on the points that Maritain emphasizes, will allow me to further a Christ-centric trust and validity upon which to build relationships with other Christian churches and with other humans who are undergoing their own spiritual journeys, based around love. This writing has also allowed me to reconcile Christ’s true revolutionary courage, which did not require of violence on his part, nor on political power.

By studying my difficulties in relating with others, whether Christians or non-Christians, I have been blessed with a chance to better embrace humility, patience, and love in their true deep meaning, in both my intellect and in my heart, which Maritain mentions it is an ineluctable condition should I truly wish to be a co-worker with God.