Volume 26, Number 5: March 2008
The Lethbridge Lectures at ECU
Julian Lethbridge, the Thomas W. Rivers Distinguished Professor in International Studies for 2007-08 and a visiting professor in the ECU English Department, provided the university community with a series of philosophical lectures concerning the nature and discipline of higher education in the 21st century. The last lecture in the series, held in Bate 1032 on March 4, addressed "The Function of the Humanities at the Present Time." Introduced by Provost Marilyn Sheerer, the lecture was the capstone of the four-part provocative engagement with the current major issues of the academy. His first lecture "The Place of History among the Disciplines," introduced by the acting English chair Mike Palmer on February 12, helped to differentiate the role of the Natural Sciences from the Humanities. In his subsequent lectures, "The Place of Theology among the Disciplines" introduced by Calvin Mercer on February 19 and "The Place of Literary Criticism among the Disciplines, introduced by Margaret Bauer on February 26, dared to address the embedded moral purposes of knowledge and how the idea of Truth is regarded within the precepts of literary and rhetorical theory. Shunning esoteric jargon, Lethbridge constructed logical attempts to discern the ethical duties of study, pedagogy, and scholarship.
"The lectures were impressive in both scope and depth," observed Jerry Leath Mills. "Broadly conceived, they nonetheless included closely focused and stimulating treatment of issues crucial to our concept of the humanities at a time when proponents of these studies are being called upon to defend and reformulate their place in a modern curriculum. His presentations were clear, elegant and witty, a genuine delight to hear."
Lethbridge, a graduate of Cambridge University, is the editor of Edmund Spenser: A New and Renewed Direction (2005) published by Fairleigh Dickinson P. He comes to the ECU community from the eminent Tuebingen University in Germany, founded in 1477 and scholastic home to some of the most formative thinkers in history -- Johannes Kepler, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Barth, Friedrich Hölderlin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Friedrich Schelling, literary theorist Wolfgang Iser, Hans Geiger, the current Pope Benedict XVI Joseph Ratzinger, and current President of Germany Horst Köhler.
Kerry Gallagher, an ECU student working toward a BA in English, provided this observer's assessment of the lectures:
Perhaps the Humanities won't save your mortal soul, but it will help you better understand your soul. Dr. Julian Lethbridge gave a series of lectures on the disciplines within the Humanities -- not only their role but also their relationships. When the series moved from "The Place of History among the Disciplines" to "The Place of Theology among the Disciplines," Professor Lethbridge tied history, science, and theology into a bizarrely comfortable co-dependency. The Humanities, Lethbridge said, 'answer questions through understanding,' but at the same time, they also allow humans "to develop an awareness of their limits, objects, evidences, values, and contexts."
All of these disciplines, for example, "provide a student with knowledge that does not claim to have absolute power." He observed that historians may recreate social power arrangements that seem stable and secure, but students must instantly become aware of the importance of point of view in human history. It seems the reliability of History is in its point of view. History can only be reliably biased.
Similarly, Lethbridge said, "Theology teaches us to see the world through a specific transformation, and we can learn from the study of theology without completely being convinced, much like we do from science." Ironically, this learning requires us to be completely committed to a kind of certainty based on faith. In a way, Dr. Lethbridge compares being unchristian to being unscholarly. And much like all of the Humanities, "it [Theology] requires us to accept something that is inevitably unclear."
The second half of the lecture series focused on literary criticism and "The Function of the Humanities at the Present Moment." Dr. Lethbridge argued it is not the right or wrong answer that is important, but rather to understand something from all points of view and consider the author's intention. He stated that words themselves are not meaning, rather meaning is completed or given by the speaker. And misinterpretation is as dangerous as mis-hearing or mis-informing. Of the seven aspects of meaning, as Letbridge called them, it is most important that you see each contingent relationship. If nothing logically connects between them, you must submit yourself to, rather than master, the aspect. He insisted that the idea of mastering literature would negate the "necessary quiet courtesy of listening to what is unsaid."
Dr. Lethbridge reminded us that we are, naturally, objects that are freed through knowledge; however, our natural "nature" is always threatening. And so, virtue that would make freedom possible, like all other tools, is part habit and part skill. He also said that we must "not lose sight of the depth and sophistication of experience -- for example, the experience of hearing a symphony in your head versus hearing it in real life determines your understanding." By way of explanation, he pointed out that poets, musicians, painters, and artists show understanding rather than answers, and it is important that teachers in the Humanities do the same. Students must be shown first how to develop questions and then be allowed to come to their own conclusions. Teachers are responsible for knowledge, not information, Lethbridge said. And study in the Humanities "allows us to become self-conscious, which, in turn, provides us with the ability to decide to be free."
Of the lectures, Lethbridge reflected, "Well, I hope it went well -- but one thing I can say is that it generated quite a lot of feedback, both in the hall and then at my house. Not all of it positive (though all of it useful and kind), but all of it surprisingly energetic. Naturally I am delighted with that. It occurs to me that I may have unwittingly touched on some hotly debated topics in the department. Several people, however, have mentioned that they found my emphasis on teaching encouraging -- as a teacher, subject (aren't we all) to discouragement, I am delighted with that, too."
The Lethbridge lectures were organized by John Given of the Classics Department and sponsored by the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English, Program in Great Books, Office of International Affairs, and Office of the Provost.
Copyright © 2008, ECU Department of English.