Thursday, August 4, 2011


Transylvania University
It's been a soberingly long time since we've been back from vacation, and this needs to be mercifully short as we enter the melancholy, going to furtive, going to panicked, transitional time before school begins again.  My mind is on many returns, most notably the one from France a year ago this week.  Every step new again, every memory vivid, every event strange in its familiarity. I miss France and Brittany and Josselin and that walk and that turn and that view so much.  As you can see, I am in the melancholy phase.  Furtive escapes here about mundane points should follow, then the final flurry before that breathless moment when students pull their chairs up and I dim the lights for the first image of the course.  This fall it's a First Year Seminar on Jerusalem (can't wait to write about that), and that old chestnut, Gothic Art (1200-1500).  But to the title of this post.

Mercy was a concept that I would not allow myself to articulate to my colleagues at a seminar on "The Liberal Arts Education: A Contested Concept," that I attended at Transylvania University over the week-end.  It seemed too sentimental, too tiny in the face of the grand pronouncements being made about what education might do.  There were two basic schools of thought: 1) education should elevate the mind (and soul) by exposing both only to texts of intrinsic value, and all else (all good) will follow; 2) education should expose its students to the world in all of its relativism, as that is the only way that society will be transformed for the better.  The first school produces thinkers of beauty and truth, the second of critique and politics.  We had all been chosen, we decided over what was for many of us our first glasses of truly fine bourbon ever, much like the cast of a reality TV show: with purposefully oppositional views.  There were a few die-hards (mostly in the beauty and truth camp), but the truth is that most of us want beauty and critique, truth and politics.  These should not be oppositional terms. Dewey is the big educational thinker that promoted the idea that a free and just society had to be an educated one (and his ideals of just how many people should be fully educated remain radical - everyone), and that it was not anathema to teach Accounting alongside Aristotle.  If we want our NGOs whose beautiful principles are nurtured by truths of human dignity to not flounder and fail, then maybe their members should take an accounting class. Pragmatism does not tarnish the liberal arts.

You can start to see why "mercy"as a motivation for teaching seemed out of place in the midst of this debate. And truth be told, it is not a pedagogical ideology that I would ever elaborate upon in public. But out here, whispering in the reeds as I can, mercy seems like one of those fundamental ideas that, if I stop and think, keeps me going. Perhaps it's being a medievalist, or perhaps it's having accumulated just enough experiences, but I cannot escape the idea that the human condition is fraught.  That there is no perfect state, no equilibrium, no stasis.  There is great joy and happiness, but it is the contingencies and fragilities of that joy that I have come to appreciate and treasure, not just the blazing happiness itself.   And so yes, to me, education is merciful, education offers mercy to aching questions and deep desires - sometimes by shifting the horizon line (by altering your perspective), other times by distracting you (by showing you something, anything, else).  Embedded in its definition and operation are the ideas of compassion and thankfulness, and my aren't those good things to include in an education?

Ruins of a portico of an antebellum house
"Mercy" is also something that Southern women say when it is unbelievably hot and they wish to signal their gracious coping with said heat.  I absolutely love the way that "Mercy" is used as an expression in the South: most of the time, it would have to be short for "Give me mercy," which is always a humble thing to ask for.  But it can also be a sharp rebuke, as in "God have mercy on your soul for whatever horrid thing you've done that I'm sitting here rebuking."  Would you be surprised to learn that "mercy" first comes into usage in the Old French of the 13th century? Goodness, no.


  1. I'm tickled to hear that you were in my old hometown, and kind of wish I had known beforehand, to steer you in the direction of a few old haunts and favorites. But I'm glad to know you found the good bourbon.

    I don't think I've ever thought of it as "mercy," but I've long seen the liberal arts education as a source of solace and of reassurance, I think in the face of the same things that you see requiring mercy. For all the (very good) arguments in favor of liberal education as the cornerstone of a healthy and prosperous society, I think it's important to assert that it is also the bedrock of a healthy soul. It's no small matter, and it isn't one that has to be abandoned as we come to accept that there are thousands of different ways of conceiving of the soul. I think the unpopularity of that ideal has been a bane of the Truth and Beauty camp, but the Relativists were wrong to use it as a cudgel against them. It should be acknowledged more widely as you do here.

  2. Hi Ben - wow! you grew up in Lexington! We stayed mostly within the poetic confines of Gratz Park (ok, exclusively within its poetic confines) - a good place to contemplate all of this, don't you think? I love the phrase "bedrock of a healthy soul" because it becomes fascinating to think of what constitutes the bedrock, and, of course, of what a healthy soul might be - indeed, as you point out, of the exciting and multiple variations of the healthy soul. My resistance to the truth and beauty is really directed at nostalgia, I realize: that there was a time when education was more pure somehow. You hear the Middle Ages get trotted out quite a bit for this argument (the monastic endeavor, Abelard's apt pupils, etc.). But, as one participant pointed out, that education existed to produce more teachers (some of the soul, some of dogma). All this to say: it's best when the camps meet over bourbon. :-) I do sincerely think, and here is where I find Jeffrey Cohen's work so inspiring, that beauty (in a stone found by the shore, in a work of medieval art looked at anew) can be _brought forward_ (as opposed to just exist) and in that bringing forward make statements, some of them even political, about the world right here.

  3. Wow, what a nice comment about my work: thanks! You may enjoy Tony Morrison's latest, A Mercy: a short and harrowing book about how best intentions sometimes backfire, about the cruelties of a worsening world ... but also about how small kindnesses also do carry forward, bringing hope to the most desolate spaces.

  4. Wow - just found your comment about the Morrison book - it's been too long since I've read her words - thank you!