By Peter J. Colosi, June 2, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?
Some years ago I was asked to write up a kind of philosophy of the relation between study and travel. I was reminded of it when reading Phil Hamilton’s post “Taking Students to Gettysburg” 3/30, when he said, “I find the more often I visit Gettysburg, the less I discuss strategies and tactics and the more I relate vignettes about particular officers and soldiers.” As a contribution to that discussion, I would like to share an edited segment of my write-up:
For 8 years I taught philosophy at the Gaming, Austria Program of Franciscan University of Steubenville, the campus of which is situated within a beautifully restored 14th century Carthusian monastery. At that program the students experience a multi-dimensional integrated life of study and travel. The good student will become a deeper, wiser, more mature person through this experience.
The best way to express the integration between study and travel is with examples. The idea is that in many cases what is learned in the classroom relates directly to the places they go, giving the students the opportunity to jump from the pages of books into reality, and these two experiences, study and being there, together have an emotional impact which becomes a source of maturing. One such experience, from my Philosophy of the Human Person class, involved the students reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This book expresses excellently, with vivid examples, the meaning of a foundational concept for the course: “self-transcendence.” I chose this book, though, not only for its philosophical content. In it Frankl (b. 1905 – d. 1997), a native of Vienna, talks about experiences of his in Salzburg, Vienna, and Auschwitz - all places the students go after reading the book. During our analysis of the book I tell them to take note of specific points, saying that they will be exactly where he was, albeit not, for example, crammed into a urine drenched train car, but on a comfortable tour bus. One place we visit is Auschwitz/Birkenau and the first class period after our return is for them to talk (with the rule that they have to relate their experience of reading the book to their experience of visiting the camps). Roger Scruton, in his book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture has pointed out the profound importance of “the education of the emotions.” I cannot express the dramatic difference in depth, feeling and maturity expressed in the students’ words after they come back from visiting the camp as compared to having read the book but not yet having been there; however, I also think that they would not have attained that level of depth without having first read and discussed the book.
I suppose the way the education of the emotions works is that standing at “death wall” outside of Maximillian Kolbe’s cell (where the prisoners who were executed could hear him singing and praying the rosary for them) and then by entering “Block 11” and passing the table at which the mock trials occurred, the sleeping quarters and then descending the stairs where we put our fingers around the bars of Kolbe’s cell door and looked inside (seeing also the wreath laid there by Pope John Paul II) and then turning the corner to the spot where he and others were forced to stand erect during the entire night (often for many consecutive nights) in chimney-like devices – all of that makes a student, and indeed anyone, feel emotions that are deep, and in some mysterious way that has the effect of making a person become more mature. Thoughtful reflection on a good book about it before going has the effect of deepening the experience in a way that just showing up and walking around with a tour guide could not achieve; actually going there, in turn, gives a depth of experience that reading the book alone cannot achieve. So, one can begin to see what I mean by integration of dimensions: the education of the emotions to maturity in this context needs, it seems, in order to be complete, both dimensions of study and travel – and they have to be interlocking with each other.
One recurring theme in the class period upon our return is that many of the students are struck by flowers blooming in the camp, or the beauty of the sunny sky; they often say that this had the effect on them of realizing that no matter how cruel and ugly it was, the evil was incapable of overcoming the beauty of nature. Frankl has a related and moving passage in his book,
“One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out into the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’”
One semester, unbeknownst to all of us, a student was present whose grandfather had been a Nazi war criminal in that camp. He told us during that class that after his adoptive grandfather passed away, his mother told him and his siblings the awful truth about his true grandfather. This student told us that he was unable to speak about it since that time, and did not know how the trip or the book would affect him, but decided to read the book and attend the trip. It had a profound and even healing effect on him in some way, and all he could do was tell us and he even thanked us for being with him. It was the first time he had talked about it since he was told the truth.
I know I picked the example of a concentration camp to make my point, but the education of the emotions works with totally positive experiences also; take, for example, Assisi. The students read Francis’ life story and listen to a lecture or course about him, and then go there. To pick one example among many, they read Francis’ Rule for Hermitages. It is precious, even somehow heart-warming, how Francis directed the friars to live at the hermitage, taking turns with some as the “mothers” and others as “brothers.” After understanding that, we go to Assisi and hike up the mountain to the Carceri – some of the students decide to make the trek barefoot, as Francis would! – entering the hermitage, they see and touch Francis’ stone floor bed, exit through the other side into the woods and find Brother Leo’s cave; crawling into it (one at a time, since it is so small) they feel what he felt like because they are in it too, surrounded by the extraordinary peacefulness of those woods – you don’t fully get that from reading the Rule, yet you prepare properly for it by doing so.