Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Trust, playfulness and passion

J. Peter Euben, distinguished political philosopher and master pedagogue, long at UC Santa Barbara and now at Duke, explains why he starts his lecture class on ethics (75 students) with the Book of Job:

A student once asked, “If there is a God why do we need to study ethics at all? The answers are there.” Having taught for 34 years in one of the most secular areas of the country (Northern California) it never occurred to me to take religion that seriously in an ethics class. But as long as I didn’t I could not speak to nor really hear what a number of my students were saying, what drove their moral lives and, often, what brought them to the class. I am still religiously unmusical but their concerns have become mine. Thus, I begin the course with the Book of Job and, beginning last year (because of what students in my previous classes suggested), I include Dostoevski’s The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.

The choice of Job was also the product of a different conversation, one that led to an intense exchange of views. I began with a portrait of a homeless person—seemingly deranged, smelly, dressed in rags, living in a cardboard hut with scabs all over his body, talking in tongues. The portrait was meant to describe Job, and my argument was that ethical life begins with being able to acknowledge, “There but for the grace of God go I.” But a number of students felt they earned what they had achieved and they could not envisage a world where they could be Job. The dialogue was memorable not because it was between me and my students as much as something between my students that I initiated. Many walked out shaken and angry. I consider that healthy.

Such a dialogue encourages as it presumes a context of trust, playfulness, and passion. Trust because an honest discussion of race, for example, requires it; playfulness to take the edge off intense disagreements that are essential to the development of moral imagination, by which I mean that ability to see the world from another’s point of view; passion because the issues matter and because texts like Job or Dostoyevsky’s cannot be understood without it. [...]

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