“The Road Goes Ever On”: An Interview with BCB Alum David Kretz

David Kretz is a BCB alum from the class of 2016 currently completing his Ph.D. in Germanic Studies and Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Early this May, he gave his time to write up insightful and constructive responses to my questions on his academic journey leading up to and since BCB, his current research, projects and opinions relating to a liberal (arts) education, words of advice for current and graduating students, and more. David was in his senior year and editor of Die Bärliner when I was still a dewy-eyed freshman. His passion for the blog and a liberal arts education inspired my own enduring enthusiasm for them, and I believe the BCB community remembers David not only for his dedication to all his endeavours during his time here, but for his humility and respectful openness. One quickly learns that what David has to say is worth listening to and reading. But, don’t take my word for it: let his words rather speak for themselves.

Marga: Starting in the past and working our way towards the present day, I was hoping you could you tell me about your academic journey: How did you end up at the University of Chicago? What were you studying before that, and how did this lead you to U of C?  

David: I started studying, far too long ago, at the University of Vienna in Austria, where I grew up. Philosophy and business administration — theory and practice, I thought, but quickly realized that philosophy is much more my thing. (Studying business was mostly a way of rebelling against my parents, who are musicians.) One thing that attracted me to philosophy was the sheer wealth of subject matter it allows you to study: Art, science, politics, history, society — for each there is a ‘philosophy of …’. Three semesters in, I stumbled upon the idea of liberal arts online. The thought that one does not have to choose one or maximally two subjects for one’s studies came as a shock and revelation. And small seminars where you know the people next to you? A degree so quixotic that it attracted only the truly motivated (or crazy)? Embedded in a tight-knit international community of ca. 80 students? The European College of Liberal Arts (ECLA*) had me hooked immediately, and coming to Berlin in 2012 to start all over was probably the best decision of my life. Seeing the place grow and change around me was a learning experience in itself.

In my third year, I had the chance to do an exchange at Sciences Po in Paris, yet again a very different world, full of professionalism and business, but also a marvellous political theory department. I loved the city and decided to return for a two-year M.A. in philosophy after graduating in 2016 from BCB. As the M.A. came to an end, I applied for Ph.D. positions. Some of the teachers who most impressed me in Berlin, and who became my friends over the years, had done their graduate studies at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, an interdisciplinary, Ph.D. granting programme in the humanities and social sciences. In 2018, I got accepted at the U of C, first to its programme in Germanic Studies and subsequently for a joint degree with Social Thought.

M: Could you tell me a bit about what academic and student life is like at the U of C, and how this stacks up against BCB and the other universities you’ve studied at?

D: Chicago, Bard College, Annandale, and some related institutions like Columbia University, the New School, or St John’s College in Annapolis in some ways share a common intellectual heritage and history, marked by German-Jewish émigré scholars like Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and Jacob Klein, American pragmatists and educational reformers like John Dewey, and the Great Books pedagogy that we associate with Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler (among others and to various degrees). People who taught at ECLA/BCB often came from one of these institutions, and its educational principles and practice (especially the Core) were shaped by a critical reception of these influences.

Chicago and Berlin, at least in the Geisteswissenschaften, share a focus on discussion-oriented seminars, on transdisciplinary humanistic inquiry, on engaging primary sources rather than textbooks. There is a geographic similarity, too. Hyde Park in Chicago, like Pankow in Berlin, is lush in spring, quiet on the whole, still part of the city but also a space of its own. It is a good setup for a contemplative life and it does help foster a sense of community among students, even if the place, being a lot bigger than BCB, does not carry the same sense of intimate connection. Grad school is different from undergrad studies, however. You are much more on your own, which means you have a lot of independence and intellectual freedom but also less guidance and structure. That is something that I knew from Paris already.

M: You have your own webpage hosted by the University of Chicago’s Department of Germanic Studies. There, it says that your “current project is, first, to show that political agency, since the 19th century, has often been conceptualized on the model of poetic creation as the Romantics conceived of it, and, in a second step, to develop an alternative that looks to the translator rather than the poet as paradigm for political action.” There’s a lot contained in this sentence. Could you unpack this while giving us an outline of your Ph.D. research?

D: All the grad students have their little web profiles, yes. The text you cited is my short answer to the ever-recurring question, “What do you work on?” The very short answer is: on the difference between poets and translators and how these figures inform political theory. My best attempt at a long answer can be found here, in an expanded seminar paper. Let me try to give you a medium-length answer then, with a bit of intellectual biography.

In highschool I used to do a lot of theatre. Other interests took over after my first semester in Berlin, and, in a burst of youthful enthusiasm and inspired by an aside from Tracy Colony, I spent my first winter break translating an essay by Martin Heidegger. How hard can it be, I thought! Quite hard, it turned out, and it remained forever in my drawers. A side effect, however, was a realization that translating felt a lot like taking on a role on a stage, lending your voice to let another speak. I started reading translation theory, particularly George Steiner’s magisterial After Babel on David Hayes’ recommendation. During my third year, in Paris, I read Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope. It is a book on the fate of the Crow nation, a Native American tribe of the Great Plains: it is about how their notions of the good, of virtue, of time, etc. changed when they were forced to give up their nomadic life of buffalo hunting and tribal warfare to settle on a reservation. Lear, a philosophy professor here in Chicago, at one point suggests that what would be needed for a rebirth of Crow culture would be a great Crow poet, in the broadest sense: a creator of new concepts and cultural resources to give meaning to the world. I took it as a nod to Heidegger, for whom the poets are the paradigm of creative, historical agency. Yet, with Steiner’s phenomenology of translation in mind, I thought that, in their last leader Plenty Coups, the Crow did not have anything quite like a Heideggerian poet but rather a great translator of their world.

That was the starting idea for the project. It took some shape first as a B.A. thesis at BCB with David Hayes — whose mentorship has been nothing short of extraordinary — and then grew into an M.A. thesis in Paris. The contrast between poets and translators became more central and I thought more about what it means to inhabit a world and to lose it and whether anything like what I take the Crow to have achieved could be thinkable for modern societies as well. These are the questions that still occupy me. Mostly I think about them with the help of German philosophy (Hegel, Heidegger, their students and critics) but also some renegade analytic philosophers (Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Rorty, Cora Diamond, Jonathan Lear, Richard Bernstein), and, increasingly, anthropologists (Bruno Latour, Carlo Severi, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro).

M: On this same webpage, it declares, almost as an afterthought, that “a persistent side-interest” of yours “has been the theory and history of liberal education”. Having also become enchanted with the idea and having done some research into it, I’ve found there is no unified understanding of what constitutes a “liberal education”: it seems to be subtly but importantly distinct from a liberal arts education. First, could you explain what your understanding of a liberal education is (as opposed to a liberal arts education), and then why this has been such a persistent subject of fascination for you over the years?

D: Subtly but importantly different seems right. I have no fully thought-out answer. Liberal education seems to emphasize a way of learning, aiming at and expressive of human freedom; liberal arts education seems to foreground the historical link to the medieval artes liberales curriculum, an established canon of disciplines spanning what we would today call humanities and sciences. I have a vague sense that, perhaps because of these differences, theorists and philosophers of education speak more often of liberal education, and practitioners and empirical researchers, looking at institutional implementations, talk more about the liberal arts.

My theoretical interest arose from practical engagement. BCB’s precursor institution was founded, in some form, in 1999. The College is still very young and has changed a lot every year, at times even dramatically, until very recently (perhaps it still does). When things are changing quickly you are quite naturally pushed to think about what it is that you are doing. Those questions about liberal education were on everyone’s mind, faculty and students alike. Judging by the European Liberal Education Student Conference you recently organized, it seems they still are!

M: Speaking of conferences, I heard that you recently organised a conference at U of C with some other BCB alumni on Plato, the Parthenon, and Liberal Education. Could you tell me more about what inspired this and what the organising process looked like?

D: Ena M. Gojak (BA 2012, now in German Studies), Xinyue Zhang (BA 2018, now in Social Thought), and I all had heard Michael Weinman and Geoff Lehman present the work that went into their book at various points in Berlin, particularly during the Republic Core Course. That made it a special joy to see their book in print. Chicago, with its above-mentioned intellectual affinities to the Core in particular, seemed just the right place to assemble a group of scholars to discuss their ideas. The faculty here was supportive of the idea and helped us apply for funding from various departments, research institutes, and the administration. We had three panels in the end: one on Plato, one on the Parthenon, and a third on liberal education.

M: Would you consider the conference a success? Tell me about some of the things that were discussed.

D: The philosophers’ panel saw passionate debates, particularly about the question of ‘positive absences’ in the text. Socrates states at one point that he will leave many things out in the argument. Is it a legitimate interpretive move to try and find the places where he does leave things out? Does Plato deliberately charge these lacunae with meaning? That question has long divided Plato scholars and it has important implications for how we read the passage in Book IX where Socrates suggests that the just man’s life is 729 times more pleasant than the life of the tyrant.

The art historians’ panel was a little calmer and brought into view questions about the sculptures on the Parthenon and its place in the religious rites of Ancient Athens, as well as question about harmony in music and architecture. The final panel was more of a roundtable on education and, fittingly, the free discussion that ensued very much embodied the idea of liberal learning under discussion. I could not have been happier.

M: What would you say are the characteristic signs of a “successful” liberal (arts) education? Can one go through a BA in liberal arts and obtain a diploma, but fail to be “liberally educated”?

D: The second question seems easier to answer than the first. Freedom can never just be passively received. It is not a commodity to enjoy, but requires an active engagement from the side of the student with professors, peers, texts, and artworks. It is a joint achievement between equals — if not in years and experience, then in respect and openness to each other, both in the classroom and beyond. But the two questions are really bound-up with each other. The first requires me to zoom in a little more on what I mean by freedom here. Let me attempt a suggestive answer more than a conclusive one.

One thing a liberal education might do is make you a better reader — not just of books, paintings, or films, but of the world at large, of others perhaps, and of yourself. It can teach you ways of listening and looking that will help you find meaning and beauty in many places, often unexpected ones. It can raise questions for you that are worth thinking about for a lifetime and thereby start you on a journey. Neither the journey nor the world made readable are guaranteed to make you happier, but I do think that we may have hope that together they keep a certain boredom away. Boredom, in a deep sense, is a soul-crushing force (in ways easy to underestimate if you have never been caught in routines of deep boredom over a longer time). Knowing how to find meaning and beauty in deserted places can be a protection against some of life’s vicissitudes. Knowing how to search for or create it with others seems to be a kind of freedom.

M: If you had one piece of advice to share with current liberal arts students at BCB, what would it be?

D: Your education will be what you make it to be. That is not not true for many places, not quite the way it is true here anyways, and four years are over quickly.

M: I know a few fellow seniors, myself included, who are not sure what they would like to continue studying, let alone if they would like to continue studying. What advice would you give to students pondering what path to take next? What are some of the challenges you encountered when making this decision, and how did you overcome those?

D: Good answers to the first question cannot be general ones. To the second one, I can say that graduate study in the humanities or social sciences can be difficult and solitary. After my first year in my M.A., I felt a strong need to not see a library for a while. Fortunately, I got a chance to teach summer camps in Romania and Bali and then to travel with some ethnomusicologists in Taiwan. Doing some creative and embodied work with young people and traveling were healthy, and, with some detours, they ultimately led me back to my books, with new eyes and happily.

If you stay on the Ph.D. track, finding a job in academia will become a worry (and not unreasonably). So far, I have tried, as much as possible, to take the six years as a gift of time and money to write a book. I would not want to die before I get to write that book. This focus has kept me sane so far. (Though, if I were to have a family before finishing my book/Ph.D., I would have to reconsider.)

M: Shortly after graduating from BCB, you wrote a beautiful farewell to the student body on how the principle that connects BCB students and staff is “hospitality.” Was this unique to Bard College Berlin, or was the principle also present in other places?

D: I think what I described in that article, and the other one to which it links, was very much unique to BCB.

M: I heard that, while in Berlin, you attempted to break the record for riding through all of Berlin’s S-Bahn stations in the shortest possible time. Did you ever try again? What other hobbies have you picked up since?

D: We never made a third attempt after the second, so the technical minimum of ca. 13 hours is still up for grabs if anyone wants to try! I started playing table tennis again regularly, which I did in Vienna and Paris but not in Berlin. While I really do believe that, at bottom, I am not made for politics, I cannot quite seem to leave it behind, and got involved with our graduate student union here. Sometimes I write short articles for online outlets, including, recently, an interview with Ewa Atanassow.

M: Would you mind sharing one of your fondest memories from your time at BCB?

D: Often the best moments were right after class when some of us would linger and continue a heated or simply intriguing discussion, between ourselves and very often also with the professor. Sometimes these would seamlessly continue into lunch or dinner and beyond. In those moments, no one was there anymore simply to score points in class or because, as teachers, they were paid to be, but just because the matter at hand seemed important to life.

Another great moment was when, during my last year, quite naturally, my own perception of my role in class shifted. In my first year, I would simply speak what was on my mind without much regard for where the discussion was going. By senior year, you start to take some ownership of class discussion. You get a better sense of where the discussion as a whole is moving, of the overall narrative arch of a class, and that helps you to say more with less, to time contributions better, to use them to also help others make points, to connect different contributions in ways that move the debate as a whole further. In some cases, the discussions felt like what I imagine a well-attuned jazz ensemble feels when they improvise. The trust that your professors show you when they share their class in this way, opening up the leadership and recognising you as a genuine partner in the endeavour, is extremely humbling. The possibility of those moments also said something about the kind of community we had.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

— J.R.R. Tolkien
from “Roads Go Ever On”

*ECLA was the name of the college until 2013

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