On why we teach.

Swidler 1Leonard Swidler has been a teacher for over 50 years. He is a religion scholar, one of the founders of the very field of interreligious dialogue — but whatever he’s done, from the day he stepped into graduate school and until this day, he has taught in a classroom. Sometimes, out of it. Usually, both.

Some of you know that I’ve spent the past 14 months writing a book about Len Swidler. There Must Be YOU is now complete, and we’re into the publishing effort, but one of the thoughts that’s occurred to me as I was writing about Len’s rather winding path is this: up or down, swamp or desert, there’s been one constant cover underfoot. He’s always been a teacher. He is 85 now and gallivants around the world for the big deals of Dialogue, but come Tuesday or Thursday semester-time, he’s still at it. In a classroom.

I was writing my book and wondering about that.

It is not uncommon for the humanities scholars to be teachers; in fact, teaching is what most of us do for a living. We tend to think this is because few professions are tailored to a humanities degree. What is “applied philosophy,” “applied religious studies,” “applied art history”? There are occupations of notable exceptions—museum curators, think tank members, ethics consultants—but those add up to scarce demand. Humanities is not a trade, it’s a field, a profession in its own right, and so, overwhelmingly and fittingly, we explore and profess. In a kind of loop of circularity, too, we often have little idea what else to do with ourselves: as we mature, any humanities scholar we ever meet is our teacher, our fellow student, or somebody else’s teacher.

It sounds somehow inadequate, I know, and I often think it is. Limited. Narrow-minded. I often think there should be more humanities scholars engaged in policy-making and legislature, in entrepreneurship, in every kind and on every level of mass media. But the very reason I wish there were more of us there might be the reason there are not: the humanities, at its very heart, is the exploration of the human condition, the pursuit of being most fully human, and so ultimately a self-gazing science.

All sciences look for truth, but our truth is meaning. Our goal is the meaning of life. Our tool is the question, “Why?”

HumanitiesThe humanities are a field of discussion, of back-and-forth, and it’s been slow to adapt to the age of online education because the height of our experience is a raging debate. We garner few big grants, we are not very good for the “big business” university model. Because our triumphs are not nearly as noticeable as those of natural sciences, cybernetics, or engineering, and our everyday presence is not nearly as felt as that of the trades like medicine, law, or carpentry.

All sciences, all trades have triumphs and failures, but our only triumph is in the courage to ask, “Why?” and to know there may be no answers, only greater understanding. Maybe. Possibly. Possibly not. And our only failure is in the lack of the courage to ask.

This is why, I think, humanities scholars teach. When all is said and done, human sciences are teaching sciences. They are about self-knowledge, about becoming and being human, about being human in Reality and human among humans. In many ways, humanities are meta-sciences: in epistemology, we learn about learning; in linguistics, we talk about talking; in ontology, we try to realize what’s real; in logic, we think about the rules of thinking. And in religious studies, we, creatures held together by beliefs of grand and tiny sorts, try to step out of our comfortable frameworks and to fathom our own and others’ beliefs about faith.

Sometimes, when I am done pouting about the quality of yet another movie-maker or moral bankruptcy of yet another business executive, when I am done wishing our legislators were better educated, I return to this recurring realization: it is exactly the job of the humanities scholars to educate. Educate those who will become movie-makers, executives, and legislators, doctors, lawyers, and carpenters while they are training for their jobs in every other course. Because the deepest level of education is asking, “Why?” and looking for meaning, with courage, when the answers are uncertain, unflattering, or unforthcoming.



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    • Terry Wasinger on March 26, 2014 at 17:35
    • Reply

    Congratulations on the completion of writing your book on the life and teaching of Len Swidler! I am intrigued by the title: There must be YOU. And I really like what you have shared about scholars of the humanities, and how very important it is that we all keep asking the question”why”!

  1. This should be the standard Welcoming and Graduation speech delivered to every university class! Thanks! Len

    • Bruce Gipson on May 22, 2014 at 17:56
    • Reply

    Excellent writing and analysis. I was captivated with your abilty to pull me into your stream of reason so quickly. Now Dr. Swidler is an inigma. I always felt outmustered by his work ethic. He will visit five countries, wait 11:00 hours in an airport, write and post a thirty-five page essay and be back from a Spring or Fall Break on Tuesday Morning. Dr. Swidler is my favorite debater, I mean he is Mr. Dialogue. We would go toe to toe about a point until I would quote him, hold up one if his texts and say, “I read you Dr. Swidler,” and he would just smile and realize he could not argue his own words. In Islam there is the term Sunna and learning through the living experience. Dr. Swidler has taught me a sunna of an amazing work ethic along with a Sufi’s ability to control his lower passions and never hold a grudge. He is worh writing about. Much success in your book.

    1. Thank you, Bruce, very much. Yes, Len seems inexhaustible sometimes, and his story is fascinating. I hope you enjoy reading the book once it comes out.

    2. Bruce, You practice what I preach, namely, to raise questions about what I say or write. In that interchange, clarity grows! Shucran! Len

  2. I believe that questioning is to learning what friction is to movement. Through history, only few people had the courage to ask “why”, and they were crazy enough to think about an answer. Professor Leonard is one of these crazy people, who stepped in and wrote his name in the history of human kind. He asks profound questions, and influences other people – who are trying to be little close to his craziness. Thank you Professor.

    Thank you Maria Catherine for your interrogating article, and I will be waiting for your great book.

    Peace and Love!

    Ramzi Merhej.

    1. Thank you Ramzi, and I agree with you. We will certainly keep everyone updated on when the book will be available — here on the website, through our newsletter (you can sign up here on the site), on our Facebook page, and via Prof. Swidler’s listservs.
      Cheers and blessings!
      River Adams

    • Sandy Mayer on August 16, 2016 at 09:29
    • Reply

    What you write about Len is also within you. This is clear from your writing.

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