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liberal arts

Geoff Lehman presenting a detail from Pieter Breugel the Elder’s Via Crucis. (Credit: Tamar Maare)

It is likely that the words “Liberal Arts Education Panel” have been swimming through  your subconscious as of late. These words were printed onto pretty paper flyers placed around campus within your easy view; they made the difficult but certain journey through cyberspace – presumably from the P98a admin building, in the form of magical stardust – all the way to your inbox. They have now come to rest at the forefront of your mind, treading the unknowable waters of your conscious, where they run the risk of being carried by different streams of thought to the back of your mind unless you hold on tight and follow me in this unexpected and unprecedented Liberal Arts journey.

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This post originally appeared on Public Seminar. Republished with their kind permission. 


Pieter Breugel the Elder, “Via Crucis”. (Credit: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)

Earlier this month, Susan Henking, President of Shimer College (my alma mater), wrote for Public Seminar what she called “my educated hope for Shimer and for liberal education,” a hope “rooted in a criticism of the ways we have been commodified, [forced to] meet our budgets… empowered and disempowered as institutions and individuals by government and economics.” Specifically, Susan finds hope in the way “our” kind of education (at Shimer and other liberal arts colleges, such as Bard College Berlin) cultivates a culture of “engagement with text, with others in the classroom and beyond, and [a] willingness to question everything,” which she believes can be the basis for a liberal education in the next century and beyond that is not merely yet another mechanism of neoliberalism. I hope today to respond to her vision. My goal is to investigate to what extent the three features Susan stresses—(1) engagement with text; (2) engagement with others in the classroom and beyond; and (3) a willingness to question everything—constitute something truly different from “business as usual” in the new global information economy. This “something else” is what I call perspectivalism without relativism.

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From left to right: Michael Weinman, David Hayes, Andy German, Stuart Patterson. Credit: Gaia Bethel-Birch (AY 2016)

I am surprised that it took me this long to figure out just who exactly this “Plato” guy was. Growing up, I heard the names “Plato”, “Socrates”, and “Aristotle” often, usually in relation to one another, but did not understand what these names contributed to Western philosophy and science. Until recently, the mention of one of these three conjured up only imaginings of bearded faces and wise, earnest discourse in my mind. My knowledge went so far as to connect the names to Greek philosophy. Happily, my first semester of a liberal arts education has brought me further in my understanding.

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Occupy Wall Street rallies in New York's Zuccotti Park in support of Greek resistance to austerity. February 18, 2012 (photo by Michael Fleshman)

Occupy Wall Street rallies in New York’s Zuccotti Park in support of Greek resistance to austerity. February 18, 2012 (photo by Michael Fleshman)

Die Bärliner blog launches today a series where Bard College Berlin faculty offer their perspective on much-debated contemporary issues or current hot topics. If you’d like to ask one of our faculty member a question in this category, please send it to blog@berlin.bard.edu.


The Iliad is a tragedy. Since tragedies show that terrible suffering is inevitable, perhaps the Iliad is not the place to look for practical solutions to problems. What tragedy teaches—is to pray that you’re not a character in a tragedy!

But let me try to adopt a more sporting attitude towards the question . . .

You could say that the Iliad begins with a financial crisis. Apollo’s priest, Chryses, comes into the Greek camp in order to exchange “limitless ransom” for his captive daughter. Not only is the priest’s money refused, he’s gratuitously insulted as well. He’s told that he’ll never get his daughter back, and that he should get the hell out of the Greek camp while he still can. This event starts a chain-reaction in which one failed attempt to make up for a loss of value leads to another and another and another. That’s a spiraling financial crisis, of a kind. The most famous of these failed attempts is Achilles’ refusal of Agamemnon’s long list of gifts in Book 9. The most heartrending is the failure of the death and mutilation of Hector to adequately compensate Achilles for the loss of Patroklus.

What is the relevance of this ancient story to our modern, ongoing financial crisis? I would say that the Iliad is a poem about a permanent human confusion as to what has a price and what doesn’t. In a really serious financial crisis, things that seem to be incommensurate with cash-value, such as one’s own dignity, become part of the crisis. If the current crisis is also one of dignity as well as money—and the accusations and counter-accusations of greed, laziness, and shamelessness indicate that it might be (you can also find these accusations in Book 1 of the Iliad)—then the resolution to this crisis, like the resolution to the Iliad, will have to involve spiritual greatness and generosity. There’s a lesson for you!

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On the 23rd February, the AY and BA1’s regular Thursday seminar session was replaced with a plenary session on modern music and love, which was held in the lecture hall and coordinated by seminar leaders Brendan Boyle and David Hayes.

After we had spent the previous sessions on the Song of Songs and old Hispano-Arabic and Hebrew troubadour poetry, approaching modern love songs seemed to be the legitimate next step on our way to finding out what love might be.

As this session was a new concept, the preparations for it were quite extraordinary as well. Every AY and BA1 student had to find a modern song that represented love best in their opinion, and then send it in to a student who organized these into an anonymous list of songs, which was then passed on to the seminar leaders.

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Forms of Love

Along with the new term came a new core course for AY and BA1 students. Forms of Love: Eros, Agape, and Philia, coordinated by ECLA faculty member David Hayes, engages with various texts on love throughout the centuries, and makes up the core course that students have to take in Winter Term.

Brendan Boyle from the University of North Carolina, Marcela Perett, who we are glad to welcome to ECLA as a postdoctoral Fellow this term, and faculty member Geoff Lehman, make up the rest of the teaching instruction staff for this course, each one leading seminar groups and offering individual lectures.

While the autumn core, Plato’s Republic and Its Interlocutors, – was structured around the reading of various texts that were interspersed with – and usually always referred back to – the ten books of the Republic, this term’s course will be significantly different. Even though Plato— his Symposium – will come up again, there will not be a fixed text at the centre that the other texts will revolve around, but the focus of the reading will continuously change and progress through history.

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Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

On Tuesday night, two days into the week of the Annual Conference, ECLA students, faculty, and visiting lecturers went to a private theater to watch the Sofia Coppola film “Lost in Translation.” The film touched upon issues of translation and disconnection in the relationship between two Americans visiting Japan.

After the screening, faculty member David Hayes led a group discussion of the film. The discussion ranged from consideration of the meaning of the film, the relationship of the two characters, and the problems of translation both between and within cultures. Various theories were presented and critiqued concerning the relevance of the film to the overall 2010 Annual Conference theme of “the translator.”

The discussion permitted a consideration of the problems of translation that exist not only between different languages but between people who share the same language. The discussion was friendly, often humorous, but also not without theoretical heft. The conversation went on so long the group was almost late for dinner.

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Homer: ECLA Poetry Night


Continuing the Berlin Weekend programme, on Friday night we gathered at ECLA faculty member David Hayes’ apartment to share our favourite poems both in translation and in the original. Sitting on chairs or on the floor, we let our poems flow in circles, immersing ourselves in the mysteries of language.

The night was opened by Robyn Mayer, who recited Hendrik Marsman’s poem Herinnering aan Holland / Memory of Holland. The poem represents an emotional description of Robyn’s country, a “limitless low-lying land where the sky hangs low and in grey vapours of colour, the sun is slowly blurred”.

The poem chosen by Luzie Meyer, Hälfte des Lebens / Half of Life by Friedrich Hölderlin, was a celebration of exuberance and spectacular beauty, while Anna Csak introduced us to the despair and lack of hope of Attila József, a poet less known outside Hungary. The poem chosen by Anna is entitled Születésnapomra / For My Birthday and offers a bitter take on Attila József’s troubled life. “Gimcrack knickknack […] The thirty two are gone, and heck, I’ve never earned a monthly check”.

Luisa Tolu decided to present Antoine Cassar, a Maltese poet who explores the way in which words from various languages can be combined in order to create powerful and exotic sounding poems with a fluid rhythm. His background as a translator allows Antoine Cassar to write his mosaic-like poems not only in his mother tongue, but also in English, Spanish, Italian and French. Luisa revealed his special style with the poem Nota Bene:  “The skies are cold and bleak, passo appresso passo mi pento e mi rinvio, nuit d’orage, cri sauvage”.

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