If you want to insult a philosopher, simply agree with her. She favors a probing question to milquetoast acquiescence. So I ask Dr. Churchill to forgive me, because what follows is an encomion to his complex, subtle, and stirring analysis. Thank you, Dr. Churchill, for your remarks.
What I have to offer today is a push – a push to see if Dr. Churchill will be willing to go even further down the line of argument he lays before us – and a push to see if Concordia College is willing to go further with its global education programs, with engaging the local diversity and with radicalizing our understanding of Lutheran liberal arts education.
Let’s begin by contemplating sympathetic imagination. Sympathetic imagination is what I use to better understand others. But it is also what I use to better understand myself. For, to know myself is also to know how others see me. As Dr. Churchill says, “… the best and toughest work comes when disagreement arrives at the point where what one party admits as decisive evidence for some momentous conclusion, the other party deems insufficient, or even irrelevant.” And Dr. Churchill reminds us that this is serious business. It is about “war and peace, justice and exploitation.” His message about how we should approach globalization warns against seeing the world as a smorgasbord. He says, “We are trained to respond to what is pretty, interesting, amazing, and different. We have been taught how to shop.” Now, in order to make better choices, we must learn to see the world anew. We must replace window-shopping with dwelling together.
In a moment I am going to discuss an essay by Dr. Maria Lugones that describes the kind of playful attitude necessary for understanding other people, other cultures and, ultimately, ourselves. But first I would like to call to mind the message President William J. Craft brought to our opening convocation September 1, 2011, in his speech titled, “Play Your Part.” Dr. Craft distinguishes many kinds of play in an attempt to identify those kinds of play and playfulness that typify liberal arts education. He sets aside mere idleness and fakery and also the kind of play “linked … with unscrupulous control of others.” He lifts up a playfulness of mind and spirit that encourages border crossing, trying things, imagining and exploring. He says:
There is in my experience no better place than a liberal arts college to imagine yourself as someone else. … You will meet people here (and in off-campus study programs, and in Fargo-Moorhead) who are in some significant ways not like you. … Get to know them: listen to them; study their culture; take the risk to imagine what it would be like to play their part; you will find your own world is extended. … Imagine your own part changing, perhaps not as you expected when you arrived. …
We can see how well this compliments Dr. Churchill’s claim that “We understand ourselves not at all unless we do so in relation to objects of contrast, objects which, in the dialectical play of such things, can merge, blend, or remain in continuing contrast with what we are.”
In her brilliant essay, “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception,” Dr. Maria Lugones discusses sympathetic imagination. She is a philosopher currently working at SUNY Binghamton, though in 1987 when she published this essay she was an associate professor of philosophy at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota. Dr. Lugones immigrated to the United States from Argentina. Early in the essay she explains that she is at home in hispana culture where she is a playful person. But she is not a playful person in mainstream Anglo culture to which she must travel regularly. Because she values her playfulness and because she believes that traveling to other people’s worlds can be done with a playful attitude under certain conditions, she decides to engage in an analysis of playful world traveling and the loving perception which constitutes its main condition.
World-traveling is an important exercise. If we do it well and playfully we learn about ourselves and others. The kind of double-seeing that we have when we travel to another culture must be paired with a kind of loving perception if it is to be playful. Loving perception allows the other to be herself and allows us to see ourselves as she sees us. It is the opposite of arrogant perception, which views the other according to stereotypes or as a natural resource to be exploited. Dr. Lugones writes:
We are fully dependent on each other for the possibility of being understood and without this understanding we are not intelligible, we do not make sense, we are not solid, visible, integrated, we are lacking. So travelling to each other’s “worlds” would enable us to be through loving each other. (Lugones, p. 8)
Dr. Lugones is playful in hispana worlds and unplayful in mainstream Anglo academia. But her unplayfulness is not caused by a lack of being at ease. Being at ease includes things like being a fluent speaker of the language, knowing the cultural norms, being humanly bonded, having a shared history, knowing one’s way around. She knows her way around. She has tenure. She is published. She is fluent. She concludes: “Lack of playfulness is not symptomatic of lack of ease, but of lack of health. I am not a healthy being in the ‘worlds’ that construct me unplayful.” (Lugones, p. 14) The crucial point is this: Being at ease in a world is different than being playful or healthy in it.
I must ask your patience as I lay out just one more point. For it is from here that I want to have us consider pushing ourselves as we interpret Concordia College’s Lutheran liberal arts mission in a global context. Dr. Lugones directs the following advice to hispanas and others who face oppression:
There are “worlds” we enter at our own risk, “worlds” that have agon, conquest, and arrogance as the main ingredients in their ethos. These are “worlds” that we enter out of necessity and which would be foolish to enter playfully in either the agonistic sense or in my sense. In such “worlds” we are not playful. (Lugones, p. 17)
The difficult questions are these: Is Concordia College a place where Dr. Lugones can playfully travel? And when we travel to other people’s worlds, do we travel playfully?
Let’s take the second question first. At Concordia, we are people of privilege, for the most part. And, being citizens of the most powerful country on earth, we may feel we can travel nearly anywhere we like, playfully or arrogantly. It is not even necessary for us to learn the language or other skills that constitute being at ease. But this is a mistake. We fail to see how others see us if we believe the world is out there for the taking and its people there for the studying or the converting. And in this we harm ourselves as well as harming others. So, let us ask ourselves how can we help our students who study away in the U.S. and abroad learn to spot arrogant perception in themselves and others, to foster loving perception instead and to value the surprise, self-examination, and creativity of playful world traveling. As Drs. Churchill, Craft and Lugones point out, we cannot truly understand ourselves, we cannot fulfill our humanity, we cannot make peace, without nurturing and employing sympathetic imagination in its most playful and creative incarnation. In Dr. Churchill’s words, to know ourselves: “… requires an earnest, laborious comparison and contrast with other ways of thinking and being. It requires intentional cultivation of a range of sensibilities to which the market does not, of itself, point us.”
Now to the first question. How do we make Concordia College a place that constructs Dr. Lugones as playful and healthy? Perhaps we can listen more carefully to what our international students have to say about what would make this a healthier and more playful place for them. How do we make Concordia a healthy place for people who are Queer, Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual? How can we make Concordia a healthy place of employment and study and personal discovery for Native Americans, Bosnians, Sudanese, African Americans, Somali, Kurds, Mexicans, Vietnamese, and the many other diverse peoples living here in our midst? What if we made it our goal to employ 20% of our faculty and staff and recruit 20% of our student body from multi-ethnic backgrounds by 2025? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to embody the global locally? What more can we do to make Concordia a healthier place for people of all faith traditions and for those who are atheist or agnostic? The Forum on Faith and Life is a wonderful start. Let us hope that the work of the Forum on Faith and Life and the miracle that is Dr. Jacqueline Bussie can take root in all of us so that we advance to deep and meaningful living communion with persons of other faiths.
Concordia College has a long tradition of hospitality. We believe in the transformative power of liberal arts education and study away. We can congratulate ourselves for this, and we should, but let us not rest. Let us be more self-searching, more playful, more open to how others see us. Let us really learn to see ourselves through others’ eyes.
- John Churchill. “The Liberal Arts in a Global Age.” address given at the Inauguration Seminar for Dr. William J. Craft, President. Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota. April 28, 2012.
- William J. Craft. “Play Your Part.” Convocation Address delivered at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota. September 1, 2011. http://www.cord.edu/About/president/messages/090111_convocation.php
- Maria Lugones. “Playfulness, “World”-Travelling and Loving Perception.” Hypatia 2.2 (Summer 1987). http://www.jstor.org/stable/3810013