My love for Geoff Lehman’s classes began early on in my time at BCB. It was a brisk but sunny day in the spring semester of 2016, in a Forms of Love seminar on the Symposium taught by Geoff, when my approach to my studies shifted entirely. The Republic, I admit, to my enduring shame, did little to convince me of its worthiness of study, but Beauty — ah! Through dialogue and contemplation, guided by Geoff, I felt myself ascending to the fifth rung of the Ladder of Love [*1] along with a handful of my classmates. It was alchemy; inarticulable. We were on the verge of something important — possibly The Most Important Thing — desiring, but unable to grasp it. Yet, this apparent failure was inconsequential. The pursuit was all that mattered.
In the years to come, as I elected to fulfill my course requirements in the Economics and Politics tracks, and as the core course progressed to modern times, Love and Beauty played increasingly less of a role in my education. It was only in a lecture on the Parthenon and Liberal Education given by Geoff during the recent Liberal Education Student Conference that my interest in these fundamental themes was rekindled. Seemingly spontaneously and already late into the evening, during the Q&A session after the lecture, Geoff claimed that Beauty does not receive nearly enough attention — that discussions of liberal education nowadays tend to focus on the Good more than the Beautiful. Implicit in this was the claim that we ought to be studying the Beautiful because it had something to contribute to our lives. This feels true, but the whys and whats of it are obscure.
As someone who has devoted much of his life to these themes, I was sure Geoff had more to say, but the evening closed without the chance to follow up on this. With the Commencement date drawing close and my curiosity unsatisfied, I decided to approach him under pretense of interview to better understand why he had chosen the path of art history and hear his thoughts on a liberal arts education. What follows is an account of our conversation, centered around education and considering the importance of the Good, the Beautiful, Love and, surprisingly, diversity in its success and for our everyday lives.
Regarding his study choices, Geoff says that, though his childhood experiences certainly shaped who he is now quite profoundly, intuition guided him to a degree in the humanities even though his interests growing up were rather different.
I don’t think there was ever a moment of clear decision; I was kind of following impulses. Or, if I want to put it more positively, following intuition — but not reflectively. When I was in high school my main interests, by far, were math and science, and that was what everyone thought I would study. And towards the end of high school I realised what I enjoyed the most were things like reading poetry, something that really took off in my 12th grade English class. So, when I went to college I started to gravitate towards the humanities. I also went to a college — Yale University — that was very oriented towards the humanities, so the classes that tended to be most interesting to me and what the university seemed to do best were the humanities courses… maybe I was seduced by beautiful things, though it was more than that too. Music, works of art, poetry, philosophy — these were things I wanted to spend time with, even if I didn’t always know why. I’d say more literature than anything else, at that time.
One thing that I’d like to mention is not so much about studying the humanities but more about what I would call a liberal arts orientation, and I think that crystalized for me during one particular seminar that I took on medieval storytelling texts — the Thousand and One Nights, the Decameron, and others – taught by María Rosa Menocal. It was interesting stuff, but for me it was mainly about who was teaching the course and how she was teaching it, as well as who was in the class. It was a discussion seminar, like those we have here… It felt like in that class we were talking about a very direct relationship of literature to life — about questions that matter in our broader lives, even if only implicitly at times. It was just the way these conversations went. When we discussed these texts, it felt like a lot was at stake, much more than just interpretation of one specific literary work, story, or passage. And at the same time the class was doing great interpretation of specific texts.
That class really affected me. It was definitely something I liked more than other classes I had taken, but this [didn’t happen] so consciously — starting to reorient towards not just thinking about things to study that were interesting to me, but also about a certain approach to education, to classroom discussion, to interpretation… where interpretation is much more than an intellectual endeavour, as it engages the whole person. In other words, interpretation involves bringing one’s life experience into dialogue with the work. I felt that class in particular, and a few classes I took afterwards, gave me that new awareness.
The obvious path to Geoff, if he wanted to pursue his interest in education and interpretation, was a PhD in the humanities. He chose to study art history over literature, which was, and remains, a great interest of his. Despite the doubts that cropped up during his studies about taking this particular path, he stayed with it, feeling it was one of very many good directions he could have taken. As a graduate student, he travelled to Europe when he could, particularly Italy and France, to study works of art, and could imagine himself living either in Rome or Paris one day.
I had never thought even for a second that I’d be in Berlin, so it was a real discovery. To put it in a relatively concise way: By the time I was looking for a job, I was attached enough to Europe that it was my first choice… but not Berlin, a city I didn’t know much about. Finding Berlin (or Berlin finding me) was fortuitous; it was coincidence. The former Co-Dean of ECLA*, Peter Hajnal, was also a student at Columbia and worked with one of the same professors I did. Though he was doing philosophy he knew some people in the art history department. We never talked about it explicitly, but I’m guessing he was the one who decided to send the announcement for a job to my department. ECLA was tiny. There were probably relatively few places that received this announcement. So, I just happened to be in one of the departments where it was sent … I applied and (surprisingly) I got the fellowship, which was for a post-doc. I hadn’t finished [my PhD] yet, but they were more interested in other kinds of things, like pedagogy. The way I teach, the way I approach the humanities. It was just such an obvious fit that it was really clear in my mind this would be a good place for me. And then they hired me. And I stayed. It really was fortuitous in multiple ways: Berlin is wonderful, and well suited to me, I think – at this point, I would definitely choose Berlin over Paris or Rome as a place to live.
An Education for Life
From here our conversation took a turn to a theme that was of interest during LESC 2019 and which David Kretz (BA 2016) also addresses in a recent interview, namely, to considering what constitutes a liberal arts education and why it is important.
Liberal arts has a certain historical tradition of interdisciplinarity. You have these different disciplines, or arts — technē in the Greek sense — that you study together, not separately. This is in Plato’s Republic, Book 7, an important source for this idea. Also, you study them together for certain reasons — the main reason being that you can address larger questions, let’s say philosophical questions, value questions. I think value questions may be a good term for this, although the word “value” sometimes is misunderstood. Questions that potentially matter to all human beings, that no one discipline can address because the disciplines are too specialised. That for me is the core idea of it. I guess the ‘liberal’ in it … is not really the important part, but I guess the liberal refers to ‘free’ in the sense of not oriented towards a job: not instrumentalised.
The goal that some people have who care about liberal arts, which I certainly have, though I don’t know if it’s possible, would be that this kind of free education, which is not just about learning a skill that you need to survive, could be available to everyone (in the best case, it would be free in the economic sense too, supported by public funding). That’s a big challenge. The optimist would say this is what we need to strive for. But that’s the idea, I think, of the liberal. Not just for the few people who are lucky enough not to have to think about work, but potentially for everyone. No matter what you’re going to be doing in life, in addition to the necessary job training you would have also had this opportunity to share an experience with a group of people that involves exploring things that are broader than any job requires … but that are somehow important for everyone… questions like what is good, what is beautiful, what is true…the broadest questions, even (perhaps best) when something very specific is involved: the justice of a particular political situation, the meaning and power of a unique work of art, etc.
In response to a question concerning the practical value and the goal of this sort of education, Geoff responds that the most obvious outcome is an increased understanding of the object you are studying. Moreover, he draws attention to the methodology of seminars, which involve dialogue and risk-taking.
For me, education involves bringing oneself into dialogue with the world in some way. The world being the microcosm you engage with, being the people in the room with you and the shared object of attention (text, work of art). I would say it means being able to open oneself. If you don’t develop this method of engagement — taking risks, being open to the people around you, listening to diverse points of view without necessarily agreeing but considering different things being said (in the best case, with empathy), being receptive to the work you’re discussing and authentic in your response — if you don’t have that method it will block the … deepest understanding of the work, or ideas, or values being discussed. What enables that is partly the method, the method being this kind of approach which can only come from discussion.
To come back to the first part [of your question] about being practical — it depends what you mean by practical. I want to say liberal arts education is not practical, but on a deeper level I want to say it is… It’s not practical in the sense that it’s not about ‘I know where I want to get to and this is going to be the vehicle that is going to get me there’, but it’s practical in a deeper sense, if by practical you mean the practice of living one’s life — which includes working (a job, a career, etc.) but is not limited to that. It’s practical in the sense that hopefully a class session is not just some intellectual exercise where you think about fascinating things for an hour and a half but then leave it behind because it doesn’t have any connection to the so-called ‘real world’ (a term I don’t like very much, because it’s all real, or should be!). But that’s the point: it should be practical in the sense that you’re putting something into practice. Putting what into practice is not always clear. It could be that you’re putting this risk-taking into practice, as much as putting your ability to do mathematical proofs into practice in another context, or your ability to respond to a work of art and give words to that experience, or the empathy you develop from discussion with a diverse group of people; or something else, like an idea about justice that comes from taking the Republic core, or a very different kind of class, in your practice of political activism.
I want to be a bit challenging on this … when you think of how liberal arts is discussed in pop-culture, you hear claims like ‘well actually critical thinking is the skill that makes for the best entrepreneurs’, and this kind of thing. I really question that. I understand where it’s coming from, but I think this is really a mistake because it’s trying to pretend that the liberal arts (within a capitalist structure, which that discourse is not questioning) is about becoming successful in the economic structure that we’re given. It’s like trying to pretend that this kind of education actually is practical in another, money-making sense. And I don’t think that’s true. If you want to be a good entrepreneur there might be [more focused] things you could study that would be more helpful. I do think you might be a better entrepreneur, or manager, or whatever (since these are the kinds of jobs that appear in this discourse), simply by being a better human being, and ideally I would hope liberal education might contribute something to that. But that’s not quite the same as saying you learn critical thinking skills and therefore you’re going to be better at such-and-such job. That’s trying to make it sound practical in a way that it’s not. The “critical,” or I would say “reflective,” aspect of liberal education might also lead you to question the capitalist values that this discourse assumes in the first place.
With such a strong position on the practical value and worth of a liberal arts education, I asked Geoff whether it is possible to go through four years of the B.A., pass the core and write a thesis paper, and still ‘fail’ at such an education. In response, Geoff highlighted that the college provides “conditions of possibility” for success but that ultimately it requires sustained work to come to care about what is being studied and to draw connections between the seemingly disparate subjects available at BCB. Importantly, he doesn’t put the burden of responsibility solely on the student’s shoulders but emphasises the collaborative effort involved in the education at BCB….
I think the work involved in this kind of education includes more than the aspects we can do on our own (reading, writing essays, etc. – though these are very important). A good classroom discussion, involving the willingness to share half-formed thoughts and a receptivity to others’ contributions, is probably the best example of the kind of collaboration I have in mind. But I feel that ideally there’s a continuity between what happens in the classroom and discussions that take place outside of class – and even potentially a whole range of other activities that are part of one’s life. In that sense, a lot of other people are involved in one’s education, beyond those in this or that specific seminar – other students, faculty, and administration at BCB, as well as other people from one’s daily life. The more that is put into it, probably the better. The work of education doesn’t necessarily mean doing massive amounts of reading. Work could be reflecting on something in a class or a walk with a friend. But also, same thing for the faculty and same thing for the institution itself. The more work that’s put into it, the more likely it is to be a good experience, but I don’t think that means there are any guarantees of “success” (however defined), only possibilities.
Beauty and the Good
Continuing along the vein of why we study what we do here at BCB, specifically in a humanities-focused context, I asked Geoff to elaborate on what he had said during his lecture at LESC, fully aware that the question I posed could never be answered ‘accurately’ but that it was worth asking nonetheless: What is meant by ‘the Beautiful’, and why study it in addition to or over ‘the Good’?
I wouldn’t say over the Good, for sure, but along with it. Is that the question — what is the Beautiful? That’s hard! [laughs] Well, I don’t know. When I said that at LESC, it was something that came very much out of the moment. But very sincere, though. I’ll try and put it into words. I think it has something to do with two different things: Whatever the Beautiful is, it is grounded in sense experience. You might remember at one point in the Symposium, you are supposed to leave the beautiful things behind in pursuit of the Beautiful itself. And although I think the Symposium is one of the most beautiful things ever written, as a text, I may have a rather different [sense of the Beautiful] than the one Diotima (/Socrates) expresses there. For me, beauty is something that is mysterious because it has a transcendent character and yet it is grounded in particular sense experiences at the same time. There’s something of the divine, something that’s beyond our ability to fully understand, that becomes present to sense experience. I think one way Beauty may be different from the Good is that it’s sensory. Like the Good, it’s a value; it’s something that we feel is important. This is shared among human beings, even if we don’t agree on what is beautiful. It definitely leads us beyond ourselves — beyond our limited, finite conditions, but at the same time is totally embedded in those limited, finite conditions of existence.
Something I think about a lot is embodiment. The word “physical” implies the body in its strictly material sense, but embodiment implies en-souled body, the conscious being that interacts with the world in a body, through a body. And I feel embodiment in that sense is an important part of education. I’m not sure I can quite put into words why. If we’re having what we’re thinking of as an education, a broad education that addresses the whole human being, the embodied experience is a big part of the human being. And if it’s a discussion that’s all on the intellectual level, or it’s all on the level of ideas, it’s not complete. [The intellectual is] certainly a central part [of education], but I feel embodiment is part of it, too… Beauty doesn’t necessarily correspond to embodiment, but Beauty — because it’s sensory — takes us more in the direction of embodiment. And certainly making art, or performance (like dance), takes us fully in that direction. And these are an integral part of the education at BCB too.
The other thing I would say is — I don’t think either the Good or the Beautiful is more important to me in itself. I don’t think it’s one or the other. As far as the Good is concerned — I think about political activism, which I’m more and more interested in these days (but that’s another story). I have tended to be drawn to beautiful things in my life, but I feel like I’m being drawn in different directions as my life goes on. When you think of this idea of education expanding beyond the scope of disciplines that are discussed in a class, one way to expand beyond that context is political activism. Another way is to live a different kind of life in some way. Being an environmentalist, or being a vegetarian, or treating other people differently. This is where you could say it’s ‘the Good’ that is guiding us. What we’re doing is engaging with ethical practices and thinking about what’s the best way to live a human life. But I also feel that if you’re going to think about expanding your education beyond the classroom, a greater sensitivity to Beauty can affect one’s life in a myriad of ways. And vice versa, engaging with things one finds beautiful in class [can] help bring the personal dimension into education. Also, beauty gives pleasure, which is very important too! In any case, I think the Good and the Beautiful are closely connected (so that comes back to Plato).
Diversity in the Classroom
I was reflecting when you were asking about the education being successful or not successful and thinking about the different things that are part of a constellation of factors that make it possible for something good to happen here (even if it cannot guarantee it). I think that, in a way, one of the most important things is this idea of diversity. It feels important to me that we have students from all over the world in our college, from really different regions in the world, and from countries that are in very different situations, and with different cultural traditions and languages. I feel somehow that’s a big part of what makes possible the kind of educational experiences we have at BCB — that we have this diversity. The part I wrestle with, or that I’m thinking about, is what that means. On some level, I feel the kind of diversity that matters the most is more individual. It shouldn’t really matter if the twelve different people in the seminar are from twelve different countries, because they’re all bringing their own unique life experiences to the table. So I do think that individual diversity is part of what matters. Yet I also feel that this [other] kind of diversity matters, too.
Here, Geoff turned the question around and asked me what I thought — does this kind of diversity matter, being a student here? That people are from all different countries?
To this I replied that I think it matters in a personal sense, “that you get to know different people. I think it comes down to seeing very human similarities between people. That we all have very similar experiences of the world, and that we want fulfilment, that we all need love. So it’s more about how, despite diversity, we still have all these similarities. But it’s only through diversity that we can learn that. Through engaging with one object, or text, and sharing personal impressions, that we learn about each other more deeply.”
I definitely agree with that… When I say every individual is different, and that it shouldn’t matter what country you’re from, [that’s] another way of saying what I think you said better — that people are basically the same everywhere. Maybe those are two versions of the same thing. ‘People are the same everywhere’ more or less just means their individuality is not contingent on where they come from. So I agree with you. I think you put it very well. It’s also a way [to] overcome these really absurd national prejudices that are common in the world. Especially given the distressing rise of nationalism, xenophobia, and racism in the politics of so many countries, living as part of a profoundly international community and sharing one’s life experiences – whether seminar discussions or close friendships and love – with people from all over the world may be one of the most important kinds of education one can have. It’s something that our world really needs right now.
Prior to our discussion, I had been reading Letters to a Young Poet, which I had received as a thoughtful gift a few weeks earlier. A passage that chilled me and which I thought Geoff might have strong feelings about, and which I hoped could synthesise the discussion up to that moment, goes as follows: “Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and there is nothing that reaches them as inadequately as criticism. Only love can properly grasp them, maintain them, and treat them fairly.” Realising that the discussion had gone quite far from where I thought it would end up, I hoped it wasn’t too much of a jump in topic to ask for his opinion on the quote.
I like that a lot. But it’s funny, because we haven’t talked about love yet at all, in this interview… Maybe that’s putting in a stronger and more concise way some of the things we were talking about before — like bringing your whole soul to the work of art, that the relationship to art is more than just an intellectual endeavor. But love really gets to the point.
I would share a story about this … perhaps not such an exciting story. There are two times the topic of love has come up recently for me at liberal arts conferences. At the student conference that we hosted this spring (LESC), a few of us were hanging around after the Parthenon lecture. We were talking about various things – education, writing, etc. –and I found myself saying: ‘what is most important to me is love’. It just came out. Then I thought that might sound kind of weird, because we were talking about aspects of my professional life, my work, so why would I say that? In my personal life I wouldn’t hesitate to say that love is what is most important to me. But why would I say that about my work?
… I think it relates to something you were saying before. [What we’re doing here involves] love in this broad sense — more than love of knowledge, though that’s part of it. It’s something like … the encounter with the other. And the other always has more hidden depths than you can ever know. And that’s certainly always true with another person. Real love involves that: acknowledging the otherness [of] someone who is distinct from you in the best sense, being aware of difference but also feeling closely connected – that is, when there is real intimacy … you don’t project onto the other person what you want her or him to be… I think that’s part of the basis for love. And I even think about that in terms of how people relate to one another in a class, whatever the limitations of that kind of relationship may be. Also in relating to the work of art. I do think that’s the deepest relation. Not necessarily interpretation, though I do love interpretation. But this sense of encountering something that is other to you, that is worth knowing, that you strive to know. But it is not just about knowing, rather that you strive for a deeper connection in some way. And also that you can be receptive to [the artwork you are encountering], emotionally as well as intellectually, that it can reach you, that you’re open to it. In that sense I think I deeply agree with what Rilke is saying.
The other thing that happened recently was at a workshop in Chicago based on the book that Michael Weinman and I wrote together. We were having an unusually stimulating and lively roundtable discussion on liberal arts education and David Kretz, one of the organizers of the workshop, was asking a question — rhetorically, because he believes in liberal arts: ‘Can you convince me why I should be studying math if I’m not going to be an engineer? What am I going to use this for? If I wanted to be an engineer, shouldn’t I obtain that expertise in a much more efficient, competent way’? And this was another instance where something came out that I didn’t expect. I said, ‘well, I think it’s about love…’. When I said it, before I had a chance to explain, I thought that might not make a lot of sense, but from the look on his face it seemed David responded very well to that, that he agreed, although we didn’t have time to discuss it. Again, I had in mind something more than the love of knowledge per se: a deeper relationship with the things that we’re studying that’s valuable even if it’s not clear that it’s going to lead to x, y, and z. Perhaps it was something in the way he asked the question, even his tone of voice, that prompted me to respond this way – that seemed to be asking for more than a well-reasoned defense of the liberal arts, but rather for a reflection on how we choose to live our lives. Education and/or work are just one part of that, of course, though a significant part.
It’s a nice coincidence that you would end with that quotation, because that happens to be something that’s been on my mind after these two recent incidents when this word “love” came out without my consciously intending it, because it seems rather strange to say education’s about love. I know the quotation by Rilke you read to me is more about how understanding a work of art requires love, but I want to say maybe that also can be true of education more broadly. Maybe that’s the point, because it’s kind of all about love, right? Whatever aspect of life you’re talking about. If it involves love – whether that be passion, empathy, affection, or whatever – then you’re probably going in the right direction. If there’s no love involved… maybe you have to reconsider.
[*1] The lover is drawn towards ‘the beauty of knowledge’. See this handy simplification by ThoughtCo.
*ECLA was the historical name of our college until 2013