Shimer education – perhaps all excellent liberal education – is enriched by conversations we have with folks as disparate as Plato and Durkheim, Audre Lorde and Sigmund Freud, Lavoisier, Darwin, Frederick Douglas, and Virginia Woolf, Franz Fanon and . . . .
What do these thinkers have in common?
They are dead.
Liberal education is , thus, entry into a relationship with the living dead. Not vampires. Not zombies. Neither gods nor ghosts. We meet these particular living dead through the power of what they have written – and the many ways that subsequent generations have interacted with their work. Of course, our community with the dead is rooted in a community of the living as well, a community of inquiry, of criticism, of generosity and hope.
Here’s what Parker Palmer, a thinker whose focus has often been on the nature of teaching within community, says in his book, The Courage to Teach in describing a teacher who profoundly influenced him:
Through this teacher and his lectures, some of us joined a powerful form of community marked by the ability to talk with the dead. This is not a mark of madness but of an educated person. Learning to speak and listen in that invisible community of history and thought makes one’s world immeasurably larger and forever changes one’s life. (Palmer, The Courage to Teach, p. 137)
Parker Palmer’s reflection, of course, is not the only worthwhile way to think through the relation of living thought – and living thinkers – to the dead. There is, for example, Simon Critchley’s relatively recent publication, The Book of Dead Philosophers, which builds up, through accretion of multiple tales, a philosophical approach to life by looking at how the deaths of philosophers. A fun book, truly, not a morbid book, all cultural repression of death to the contrary notwithstanding. (See here for more on Parker Palmer.)
But one need not look only to such places for a reminder of the importance of speaking to, about and with the dead. An author who is popular amongst some Shimerians -- and more broadly across American culture -- is Orson Scott Card. In his book, Speaker for the Dead, and in his work more generally, there is a tension between life and death, between xenocide and redemption, between truth and its consequences, and more. In the novel, there is imagined a form of “religion” which is non-theistic, in which one calls for someone to investigate the truth of someone’s life – not merely what happened, but why, and for what reasons, focusing perhaps upon the gaps between intention and actuality. As imagined by Card, the practice of speaking for the dead is not about eulogies in the form of avoidance or hagiography or euphemism, but the recognizing of deaths (and thus lives) as meaningful. The notion that the dead go on living is re-imagined, beyond the views of the religions we all know, filled as they are with resurrection, reincarnation and the like. Here the telling of lives and deaths is also about active meaning making. It is, in some sense that Shimerians might recognize, dialogical. Card’s work is often categorized as science fiction or fantasy; too often such genre fiction is dismissed as unimportant. And, yet, perhaps its historical legacy will be longer than we imagine. (We must not forget that Dickens was paid by the word, and other classics, too, were the popular writing of their era.)
Speaking for the dead, is perhaps, though, different from speaking with the dead.
In thinking about the latter form of conversation with, we are, of course, considering how we speak – and listen – across the limits of radical otherness. So too is Card, who addresses this topic not through the lens of re-readings of Edward Said, but through the metaphor of alien species. As he does so, he asks what it truly means to encounter ideas – and lives – that are dissimilar from our own. He asks how we might do so without obliterating that difference – or even obliterating others quite literally – while also avoiding the creation of a morally (or cognitively) relativistic world. Card asks what it means to build fences and to encounter – or create – openness. As he does so, he takes up the pain of encounter, the risks of openness. Across histories or cultures or lives that differ, how we speak and listen becomes of central importance. (Whether Card fully agrees to this or not, it may be notable that he teaches now at a small liberal arts college, within the LDS tradition. And, his controversial, often homphobic, views of LGBTQ matters may speak against his work as a model of openness. For more on this, try here.)
Here, then, is our question: is the idea that we can meet Freud, or encounter Sappho, or reach across generations to enable a conversation between those long dead and living thinkers like Sandra Harding (for her faculty site try here) or Carol Gilligan (for her faculty site try here) -- or dare we say, ourselves? -- fiction too? Is it fantasy? Some thinkers have labeled religion a fantasy, others a chain of memory. Perhaps that is what education might be at its best as well – a chain of memory and a making of the future through conversations with and amongst the dead, in the context of an imagined future.
Do you speak with the dead?
For a different version of this published elsewhere, click here.