Questions and Conversations: Past and Present

Yesterday I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Cecilia Miller’s class on European Intellectual History from the Ancient Greeks through the Renaissance. Professor Miller asked me to talk about how I became an intellectual historian myself, and the students (ranging from frosh through senior theses writers) read a few of my essays on history and memory. As I spoke with the students about my scholarly interests, I kept coming back to my own undergraduate Wesleyan education. My first book (Psychoanalysis as History: Negation and Freedom in Freud) was based on my senior thesis here, and my second book (Knowing and History: Appropriations of Hegel in 20th Century France) certainly came out of the work I did at Wesleyan on Hegel. My subsequent research and publications also were linked to the intellectual and political concerns that I began to develop at Wesleyan. My autobiographical reflections as an intellectual historian turned out to be reflections on the education we offer here.

The students in Prof. Miller’s class were awfully impressive. They asked good, probing questions about the links among my works, and about some central concepts I use (but perhaps don’t develop adequately!). I realized that I should have left more time for discussion because these were very able young men and women who had read some of my work with important critical insights. For example, in my introduction to a book called The Ironist’s Cage: Memory, Trauma and the Construction of History, I use the concept of “piety” to describe a vehicle for moving beyond ironic cultural criticism. Although I wrote this essay twenty years ago, I still need to develop that concept further. The students, bless their hearts, pointed this out. Teacher, you must keep learning!

On a very different, but equally impressive, level, this past week I met with a student group against the war in Iraq. Following on a resolution passed last spring by the Wesleyan Student Assembly, they are asking that the University divest from its holdings in two companies that make weapons used in the current conflict. If the university is going to be a socially responsible investor, they argue, it cannot maintain its holdings in these companies. The arguments of the students were thoughtful and well informed. Furthermore, they had gathered significant support from others on campus through a petition drive. As I listened to their presentation, I recalled my own student days when we urged Wesleyan to divest from companies doing business with South Africa. The students today, I thought, are better prepared than I remember being.

Wesleyan has the good fortune to have a Board of Trustees that listens to the views of students and faculty, and this committee will have a chance to make its case. I look forward to a productive conversation about these important matters with students, board members, and faculty. I told the students that I could not predict the conclusion of these conversations, but I could ensure that there would be a reasonable presentation of Wesleyan’s position after all the arguments were heard. Stay tuned.

Whatever one’s position on the war in Iraq, I think the Wesleyan community can be proud that we are offering support for returning veterans. Too often in our history, veterans have been badly neglected by the country they were asked to serve. In recent years few have had the opportunity to benefit from a first-rate liberal arts education. To address this, two of our alumni—Frank Sica ’73 and Jonathan Soros ’92—have generously contributed funds to secure scholarships at Wesleyan for those who have served in some branch of the military. This is an important signal of support for these men and women, and it will add to the real diversity of the Wesleyan campus. You can read about the specifics of this program at:
http://www.wesleyan.edu/cgi-bin/cdf_manager/template_renderer.cgi?item=58325

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1 thought on “Questions and Conversations: Past and Present

  1. I would like to applaud Frank Sica and Jonathan Soros on endowing scholarships for military veterans at Wesleyan. As someone who served in the active military before graduating college (former Sgt. US Army Infantry), coming back to college after military service provides an entirely different world view from that of the traditional undergraduate. I also hope that it provides an opportunity for traditional undergraduates to interact with these students, and realize that those who serve are neither brainwashed nor monolithic in thought. I hope the Wesleyan community will embrace and accept these scholarship recipients for the people they are and will become. In my own experience, I had been told by advisors and mentors in academia to down-play my military service, since it might be held against me, but I have never hid that fact.
    On the other hand I have never been vocal about my past service either so I doubt most of my colleagues here at Wesleyan are aware of it either.

    Bravo on providing an excellent educational opportunity for those who have served in the military.

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