What Do Free People Need? Thoughts on a Liberal Education

cropped-20190428_150006.jpgThe word “Liberal” in Liberal Studies is from the Latin “Liberalis” which has a similar root as “Liberty.” In the Ancient Greek and Roman world, a liberal education was reserved for free men – not slaves, not women. Such an education is concerned not only with broadening the mind, but also with strengthening one’s moral compass. For the things one chooses to do – those acts of courage and kindness that are not required – are proof of one’s freedom. The kind of education a free person needs to become an authentic, fully-formed person is an education beyond technical skills and professional training to encompass the experience of the whole person. In short, it is not just preparation for a job but preparation for a life well-lived.

This does not mean that the graduate of a liberal studies program or liberal arts college is not well-prepared for a career. Indeed, one of the markers of being free is having resources – i.e. money – to support oneself. Studies have shown that graduates with degrees in the liberal arts, including English, History, Philosophy, Languages, Music, Art, Theater, Film, and so on, do find employment and are eventually as well-paid as  their peersin business, engineering, marketing, computer science, and other initially more practical choices. A liberal arts degree is just the sort of degree many parents tell their children to avoid in favor of one that will prepare them for a real job; however, students who choose a liberal arts path often find themselves better prepared for the kind of creative approach to work and wealth that is increasingly called for in the twenty-first century.

So, the first thing a free person needs is financial independence. For most people, this will mean developing a skill or crafting a product for which other people will pay a fair compensation. This is not as straight-forward as it might seem. There are all sorts of structural problems in the way different kinds of work are valued and compensated. For example, nutritious food is a crucial commodity but farmers – and especially farm workers – are surely not paid according to the value of the food they produce: without food, most of us would suffer indeed! In history, one can look to the eighteenth century and earlier to find that physicians who theorized about health and disease were more highly regarded and much better compensated than surgeons who set bones and performed surgeries. A liberal education helps a person recognize and think through these kinds of economic peculiarities and the questions they raise.

Which leads me to my list of “Five Things Free People Need”: Informed Optimism, Persistence, Independence, Community, and Caring. I plan to write more about this list, but I’d like to turn attention here to the last term, “Caring.” It admittedly feels a bit fluffy and less serious than the rest, but I could not think of another term that was as satisfying for expressing the importance of being deeply involved in the world – involved with others with a sense that one can make a positive difference.

Historian William Cronon uses the verb “Connect” to say something similar. He writes that the value of a liberal education is that we are “ever more aware of the connections we have with other people and the rest of creation, and so they remind us of the obligations we have to use our knowledge and power responsibly. If I am right that all these qualities are finally about connecting, then we need to confront one further paradox about liberal education. In the act of making us free, it also binds us to the communities that gave us our freedom in the first place; it makes us responsible to those communities in ways that limit our freedom. In the end, it turns out that liberty is not about thinking or saying or doing whatever we want. It is about exercising our freedom in such a way as to make a difference in the world and make a difference for more than just ourselves.” In short, when one develops a deeper understanding of the world, one must also cultivate the ability to care about it.

Returning to my opening question, “What Do Free People Need?,” I think first one must value what it means to be free. A liberal education is one that raises the big questions in life; it is the kind of education that encourages students to consider deeply their own values, stories, and ways they are connected to others. It includes developing experiences, qualities, skills, and ideas that strengthen one’s personal and moral character. It means developing the kind of inner fortitude that makes a person free indeed.

© Dr. Tamara Caulkins, 2020.

Hong Kong: or, History in the Making


As a historian, one often wonders what it would have been like to live through moments that – in hindsight – changed the world in profound ways. Would I have been shocked by the “excesses” of the French Revolution or count them – as Jefferson did – as the price of liberty? Would I have been alert to the disappearances of the disabled in Nazi Germany? Would I have seen the significance of the Civil Rights movement as deeply personal? Will the 2019 demonstrations in Hong Kong prove significant to 21st century America?

ADDED July 6, 2020: A new law imposed by mainland China has changed the situation in Hong Kong overnight. Blank post-it notes speak eloquently to the way the law has silenced protest in this vibrant globally-connected city. Current story here: https://nyti.ms/2NWY3Us

We live in a time when it is possible to chose to follow explosive world events as they are happening with up-to-the minute coverage of current events or to ignore them altogether. Watching the evening news on television is no longer a ritual that ties citizens together in a shared, directed experience of larger current events as it was in the mid-twentieth century. With most people getting their news on the internet, people can choose what news to watch, when to watch it, and when they think they have seen enough. When I ask Americans what they think of the protests in Hong Kong, most do know they are going on. They also mention avoiding the news so that they can sleep at night!

In July, I presented a paper at the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for the Humanities and Medicine. I compared the visual graphics of artist/entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian who traveled to the South America in 1699 with that of philosopher/geologist Alexander von Humboldt who traveled there exactly one hundred years later. I then donned my musician hat and participated in a packed week of academic papers (#IGRC2019), classical guitar concerts, and master classes as part of a multi-faceted international guitar festival and competition. Hong Kong is that kind of cosmopolitan city.

The evening before we left, we headed out to dinner a few blocks from our hotel in Wan Chai. Down the block, we could see part of a demonstration as streams of mostly young people walked by, peaceful but determined. A European ex-pat told us that we should take a look since only later would there be any violence. Indeed, as many news outlets have pointed out, the violence associated with the protests has been largely on the part of anonymous-looking police in riot gear.

During the day, we had seen people of all ages carefully arranging post-it notes on walls in public walkways and kiosks. These messages of support in tidy rows with an occasional drawing or larger sign seemed to me to represent a larger undercurrent of concern, a sea of protest in yellow and pink. There are several things we should remember as we consider the impact of events in Hong Kong.

Post its

First, the independence of Hong Kong and China’s persistent and ongoing efforts to control this modern metropolis has a long and complex history. As journalists have explained, the legislature has been set up such that the popular vote never can control the main governing body and the head of the government is appointed by mainland China.

Furthermore, we were told that one hundred and fifty immigrants from mainland China have been admitted every day into Hong Kong in an apparent attempt to gradually dilute the population of independent-minded Hong Kongers. We passed the Immigration building every day on our way to the guitar festival and it was indeed very busy.

Second, Hong Kongers are meticulous about following rules. We did not see anyone eating on the metro (it is against the rules). No one cuts in line at a food vendor’s stall. I never saw anyone toss trash onto the street (streets are not spotless but I did see a woman vacuuming the area in front of her shop). When an American friend living in Hong Kong wanted to follow her child into the swimming area, she had to go through the shower area like everyone else in spite of being fully clothed and carrying two babies (solution: she was given an umbrella!). Defying authority does not come easily to Hong Kongers. So it is stunning that nearly a quarter of the population of the city would block traffic (“excuse me, pardon me”) and do something as so out-of-character as to march in the streets.

Third, “tear gas” sounds like such an innocuous substance: a non-lethal weapon used to control, not kill. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the CS gas used by riot police in Hong Kong is a chemical weapon, one prohibited in warfare by the Geneva convention. It can cause permanent blindness and even death. The extent of injuries as a result of police actions is not known. Because protestors have been arrested in hospitals, many of the injured have not sought treatment. I saw one ambulance with grates over the windshield and windows either protecting the driver and passengers or effectively making the vehicle a prisoner transport vehicle.

Finally, the protests have been born of a deep desperation. In the first few weeks of the demonstrations, there were five casualties – all of them suicides. These were young people who wanted to make a highly-public statement. I saw a sign among the post-its that declared, “They can’t kill all of us.” The stakes are high. It is not just the extradition of criminals that is at issue. The definition of “criminal” is highly fluid. In 2015, three hundred human-rights attorneys in China were rounded up and imprisoned. Recently, the wife of one of them went to pick up her husband upon his release and he had gone “missing.” Although he was eventually located, the chilling effect of  such an arbitrary legal system cannot be over-emphasized.

Western journals’ coverage of these events is bound to be slanted toward the sensational. Violence in the streets and fist-fights in metro stations and airports sells the news story. Future historians, in contrast, will try to figure out in hindsight how the events in Hong Kong influenced the making of the future world. What were defining events? Who were the ordinary and leading actors? What were the long-term consequences?

My sense is that the situation unfolding in Hong Kong will have a fundamental and long-lasting influence on the shape of that future world. It is a story we should all be watching and pondering. We live in close-knit global community, much more intimately connected than we once assumed. It is not just the well-being and self-determination of Hong Kongers that is in jeopardy. Their future is our future; their history will be our history as well.

Visiting England


The strangest part about visiting England was that it felt so familiar. My grandmother had come to Canada when she was a young girl and was teased in school for her English accent (though she had acquired wide American vowels by the time I knew her!).  Although they had been Americans for generations, my husband’s mother and grandmother retained a sense of British propriety that I understood better after reading Jane Austen.

Indeed, many of the formative books I read as a child had been written in England about English children (or magical English creatures) in an English countryside: Alice in Wonderland, The Railway Children (and many others by Edith Nesbit), The Wind in the Willows, The Prydain chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which takes place during World War II.


In Oxford, we came across a grave “To the beautiful memory of Kenneth Grahame,” the author of The Wind in the Willows, a book we read out loud as a family.

WWII is written into the British landscape in ways it never was in America. Our friends who lived just outside London had a bomb shelter in their backyard. They also discovered a beautiful brass bell on a grandparent’s bicycle which had been painted black. A lot of things were blackened to hide them. During “the last war,” windows were papered over at night and cyclists kept their lights turned off so that the entire country would appear completely dark to German bombers.

Even the iconic large chalk horses on Wiltshire hillsides were covered to prevent them from being used by enemy planes as signposts. I was struck by how much cooperation this must have entailed. In 1940, the UK population was 46 million (compared to nearly 67 million today). GPS and other navigation systems make this question obsolete, but I cannot help but wonder if such a large group of people could be convinced to work together in a similar way today.

After the war, it had been so long since there had been bananas in Britain that a whole generation of children didn’t know what they were.

Scholarship as collaboration: Towards a generous rhetoric, by Anthony Paré


This essay I’ve reposted below is geared toward academics, but the points raised are so pertinent to civil discourse in general, I am keen to share it with anyone who writes or discusses ideas or is interested in what counts as knowledge (so, just about anyone, right?!).

IMG_2024 me at paleography wkshop

Photo is of the first translation group, 2014, for the Making and Knowing Project – I loved working with these generous, collegial, and intelligent collaborators (standing in back are Marc Smith, École des chartes, and Pamela H. Smith, Columbia University/Project founder).

Scholarship as collaboration: Towards a generous rhetoric

By Anthony Paré

Anthony Paré is a Professor at the University of British Columbia. He’s also an inspiring researcher who took a lead in researching doctoral writing, with wise articles based on practice as well as data.

Who is the speaker of academic texts? What is their relationship to readers? With what authority and conviction do they speak? Is their task to contest, criticize, and rebuke, or is it to cooperate, assist, and collaborate? In scholarly practice, and in the training of students, is academic discourse regarded as a field of combat, where opponents’ positions are attacked and one’s own arguments advanced triumphantly? Or do we approach academic writing as a fundamentally social act through which understanding and knowing are built collectively?

Since I believe that knowledge-making is a social enterprise that depends on collaborative work, these are questions I’ve frequently considered over many years of teaching and studying writing, and they were the questions I addressed in my presentation at the recent International Academic Identities Conference in Hiroshima, Japan. The Conference theme was The Peaceful University: Aspirations for academic futures – compassion, generosity, imagination, and creation, a powerful and poignant theme in a city that experienced such horrendous violence in August, 1945. In this blog entry, I offer the written version of that talk.

My concern can be stated bluntly: underlying much academic discourse is a form of rhetorical violence that can diminish, erase, distort, and even destroy members of our own disciplinary communities. It is an aggression that has deep roots in the medieval academy, according to Walter Ong (1981), and the competitive scholarship that was born there. It is a type of rhetoric that pits individuals against each other and ignores the fact that knowledge is made collectively.

I have struggled with a combative style in my own and my students’ writing, and was pleased years ago to find a scholarly critique of rhetorical aggression in a wonderful paper by Jane Tompkins (1984). She was also blunt: “Violence takes place in the conference rooms at scholarly meetings and in the pages of professional journals…. This bloodless kind of violence that takes place in our profession is not committed by other people; it’s practiced at some time or other by virtually everyone” (p. 589). Moreover, the hostility is not reserved for particular scholarly communities: “At the heart of the literary critical enterprise seems to be competition, not collaboration…. the survival of the fittest theory or fittest scholar,” writes Frey (1990, 512); and of another field of inquiry, Fleischman writes this: “Scientific discourse is by nature contestatory: arguments and hypotheses are put forth, demolished, and replaced in the ongoing process of advancing knowledge” (1998, 981). (For a thorough criticism of this “agonism” in academic discourse, I recommend Deborah Tannen’s 2002 article; see also Belcher, 1997.)

There are a number of common ways in which this aggression is manifest. Perhaps the most obvious is our attitude towards other scholars’ statements when citing them; for example:

  • outright attacks: “X foolishly claims…”;
  • dismissals: “X gets this wrong”;
  • implied dismissals: “X would have us believe…”;
  • faint or condescending praise: “X gets this partly right.”

Of course, one of the most violent acts in this regard is the failure to cite a perceived rival, resulting in the complete erasure of that scholar from the conversation. Citations make transparent the complex process of collaborative intellectual effort that underpins all scholarship.

Another strategy that diminishes or marginalizes supposed competitors is labelling them or identifying them with unpopular or discredited positions: “As a positivist (or cognitivist or postmodernist, etc.), X argues…” This technique relies on the profoundly tribal nature of scholarship (Becher & Trowler, 2001), where the failure to adopt currently fashionable theories, or the nerve of approaching an issue from a different perspective, can lead to a form of excommunication.

A third and deeply pernicious form of violence is often referred to as the “straw man argument,” which is the flimsy, partial, or inaccurate account of another scholar’s position in order to dismember it with ease. The purpose is to diminish the other in order to advance one’s own argument. The tactic is tempting, simple, widespread, and insidious.

Another act of intellectual and rhetorical violence is the epistemological sleight of hand that removes knowledge from the knower and presents it as beyond human taint and therefore unassailable. This is most often seen in those constructions that erase the knowing person (e.g., “It is well known that…”; “Data revealed…”; “The inescapable conclusion is…”). Fleischman (1998) says this about the erasure: “the subject is banished, the author disappears, the experiencing self is sealed off from the experienced world…. And this presupposition underwrites the notion that the particularities of any given knower are irrelevant to the report of knowledge, which licenses the eclipse of the producer of that report, the writer” (979).

What practical strategies might we employ in our writing to counter aggressive rhetoric? A general attitude of humility and a recognition that all knowledge is provisional is a good start. Such an attitude would lead us to temper our own declarations – that is, hedge (i.e., soften) our claims rather than boosting (i.e., exaggerating) them (Hyland, 2004) – and to treat others’ claims with greater respect. Disagreement doesn’t require dismissal or personal attack. In fact, by identifying common ground through a simple acknowledgement of those aspects of another’s argument with which we agree, we point to the collaborative nature of knowledge-making. Finally, a statement of positionality – that is, an explanation of one’s stance or attitude towards the topic under consideration – acknowledges the social construction of knowledge and honours multiplicity and difference.

A civil and generous academic rhetoric doesn’t mean a loss of passion or vigour. Progress in thinking and knowing depends on strenuous discussion, but disagreement needn’t mean disrespect. I leave the final words to Tannen (2002): “I am suggesting that understanding, knowledge, and insight come not only from oppositional debate but also from exploring complexity, culling insight from disparate sources, seeking connections—and that these types of inquiry are discouraged by our agonistic ideology and conventions” (1667).


Becher, T. & Trowler, P. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories: intellectual enquiry and the cultures of disciplines (2nd edition). Buckingham: Open University Press/SRHE.

Belcher, D.D. (1997). An argument for nonadverserial argumentation. Journal of Second Language Writing, 6 (1): 1-21.

Fleischman, S. (1998). Gender, the personal, and the voice of scholarship: a viewpoint. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 23: 976–1016.

Hyland, K. (2004). Disciplinary discourses: Social interactions in academic writing. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Press.

Ong, W. (1981). Fighting for life: Contest, sexuality, and consciousness. Cornell University Press.

Tannen, D. (2002). Agonism in academic discourse. Journal of Pragmatics, 34: 1651-1669.

Tompkins, J. (1988). Fighting words: Unlearning to write the critical essay. Georgia Review, 42: 585-90.

Link to original post is here: https://doctoralwriting.wordpress.com/2019/02/04/scholarship-as-collaboration-towards-a-generous-rhetoric/

Nijinski’s World

Scribbles in the archive. This is sometimes all we have to help us understand historic events that were powerful in their own time and still influential in our own. Take the premiere of Nijinski’s “Rite of Spring” in Paris in  for example. It caused a riot when it was performed and still marks a cataclysmic shift in the expressive possibilities of theatrical dance.

The raw energetic music composed for the ballet by Igor Stravinsky was notated in a score that still exists. Thus, the music for the ballet has been performed by symphonies all over the world ever since. The ballet has also been performed but not nearly as often: the riot-inducing dance movements choreographed by Vaslav Nijinski are not nearly as clearly preserved on paper.

This does not mean there are no traces whatsoever. In fact, Nijinski was trained as a young ballet student how to write down choreographies for dance using the Stephanov notation system. In the summer of 1914, upon the outbreak of WWI, Nijinsky, along with his wife and child, were held on house arrest in Hungary because military officials had received a “tip” concerning some notation that Nijinsky was working on. They were convinced that this notation was some sort of military code.

Nijinsky, inspired by Baroque architecture he had seen earlier in his life, had been working on his own system of dance notation. Experts in music and mathematics were called in and Nijinsky spent several days explaining his system to them before they were convinced that it was indeed dance notation he was working on and not a military plan in code.

A year ago, I had the privilege of attending a workshop with dance scholars, writers, professional dancers, teachers, and enthusiasts gathered by the inimitable Catherine Turocy who brought Milicent Hodgsen to Seattle to explore Nijinsky’s dance notation. In the four days that we gathered we explored Nijinsky’s world through all the different kinds of dance with which he was familiar: Ukrainian folk dances, early twentieth century tango and jazz – oh, and ballet! These kinds of workshops are much recommended for the serendipitious moments that emerge from working in a historical period from many different angles and with creative, dedicated dancers, teachers, amateurs, choreographers, critics, and historians.

On Playing Music and Practicing Writing

Guitar HI trained as a musician first. I’ve played classical guitar now for many more years than not. Last night, as we ran our program of duets for two guitars, there were moments in which the music breathed in a new way, our phrasing opened up and became more fluid and dynamic. It was lovely to hear and quite surprising.

One never knows what will happen during a practice session. Sometimes, we work through our repertoire and it feels like we’ve never seen this music before! We find passages that need re-learning or places that need to be re-fingered, transitions that need more careful coordination. And then sometimes, like last night, the music flows in an entirely new way – the notes had been there but, after the deep familiarity one gains after working through a piece of music over several months, suddenly one hears new possibilities.

The important part is showing up. As I’m learning to write a dissertation, I think back to those many hours in a practice room struggling to get a good sound, listening hard for a clear, distinct notes and perfectly timed rhythms. It took nearly a decade before I could hear myself start to play with clarity and confidence, before the music came alive with nuance and energy.

Writing, like playing music, requires showing up. Daily. So far, the days when my text comes together in clear, strong sentences that say what I mean are few. But I keep showing up. And keep writing.

I’m heartened by two quotes on the wall directly above my laptop:Laptop

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Lao Tzu


“But it was you who incited these words to shimmer and mutate and reconfigure even further – and what they now are saying may well be much more acute and more crucial than what you had thought you wanted to say.” Gary Lutz

Post-Election Power

This is a guest post by the director of Seattle Historical Arts for Kids, Shulamit Kleinerman:

I’m certainly experiencing the horror, panic, and rage that I think is entirely appropriate to tomorrow’s event. It seems abundantly clear that bad things that we can’t even imagine yet are going to happen — both to us, and to others in our names, which may be even worse. I’m not an optimist by nature. At the same time, to my own surprise, for the last few days I’ve been feeling almost physically buoyed, elated, by a sense of our capacity to survive and take care of each other.

medieval-musiciansI love that Saturday’s marches are women’s marches, because these two months for me have been all about reconnecting with my amazing women friends, one of whom is on a plane right now to visit. I love that the students in my city are walking out, and I am filled with hope by the young people I know, by their intelligence and their total lack of bullshit. I’m thrilled to think that some of the young people around us are feeling radicalized in a way that I haven’t seen in my lifetime (not even when my middle school friends and I used to protest the Gulf War every Saturday morning of that winter, which now seems so innocent a time, when there was such a thing commonly understood as “the news,” the era of Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, when the teachers could roll the TV cart into the common area at a middle school to track what was happening and there was probably a more or less apolitical choice of network channels). I love that we are learning where we had fallen short of our democratic ideals and that we can aim higher because we get it more now. American democracy has only ever been partial, in both senses of the word.

I spend most of my time working with beautiful art from pre-Enlightenment Europe, and it gives me some thoughts about this. Many centuries of people have put up with vile behavior from those who govern. The ones who didn’t die early and brutally, who couldn’t save the ones who did, kept living. They kept practicing their crafts and making babies and making art, and that’s why we’re here. This is still true today in, oh, most of the world, right? We are not so special. Maybe the peasants could have revolted sooner than they did, but we understand that they were weighing their options and chances and responsibilities individually every day. Like them, we are subject to history. Some things (the global scope of destructive superpower, the vicious and irreversible reach of certain weaponries and industries) seem very much worse now. Other things seem better, maybe, at least for many of us. I am keenly aware of the richness of my life, professionally and personally. I’ve never enjoyed it so much as I’m enjoying it all right now. “Enjoy” seems like almost a sacrilegious word, but I am loving it. I think our past heroes may have said a few things about how the strength to resist comes from these places.

Also, we get to have new heroes. Even in the last few days now, for every awful thing happening, there is someone speaking out whose story we discover for maybe the first time. Every horror can be matched by another right action. We can watch those actions and we can do them too. In one way our powers are being viciously curtailed, but in another way, the context makes our actions more meaningful than they were before, which is another kind of power to embrace. That’s my hope, anyway. Bring it on.

Eloge and a New Year’s Resolution

This post has been a difficult onesusan-cropped for me to write. My dear friend Susan Tara Brown Talley died at age 55 on December 8, 2016. Susan and I met at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington where we presented our culminating undergraduate recitals together. She played flute at our wedding a year later. Just three years ago, I attended Susan’s wedding. Her marriage to her lifelong love, Mark Talley, filled her with deep joy. Her death leaves those she loved with a great sense of loss. It has also silenced the voice of an accomplished soprano, flutist, pianist, and musicologist.

Susan studied voice and vocal pedagogy with Ruth Dobson and piano with Margaret Saunders Ott, and performed in choirs with the English early music specialist Andrew Parrott, Roger Wagner, the Oregon Symphony, and the world renowned Estonian State Choir.

After earning her B.A. at Whitworth, Susan completed a Masters in music at Portland State University and a Ph.D. in musicology at Claremont Graduate University. Susan continued her research through post-doctoral fellowships at the Huntington Library, UCLA, and Yale. Among her many teaching and performing posts, Susan taught singing and music history at Fullerton College, maintained a private studio, and worked as church musician in Santa Ana, California. She also worked for a year in Vilnius, Lithuania, teaching “Tin Pan Alley Song: Eastern Europe and America Intersect,” at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre as a Fulbright Scholar.

In 2008, Susan published Singing and the Imagination of Devotion: Vocal Aesthetics in Early English Protestant Culture with Paternoster Press in England. Susan’s book crosses genres. Her frank inclusion of devotional material will appeal to readers inspired by the intense faith of the early modern Christian writers she draws on. Readers looking for rigorous academic research will also find much to enlighten them in Susan’s study of music and religious practices in seventeenth-century England.

A soprano with a clear, ringing voice, Susan had a special affinity for early music. Her work on the aesthetics of the voice in seventeenth-century England reveals a wealth of material in the archives supporting her assertion that singing served as an important devotional practice for early modern English Protestants, both Puritan and Anglican.

The daily and weekly practices of the pious in the seventeenth century included activities such as prayer, going to church, and reading the bible, but their interests extended well beyond these practices. Devotional treatises of the period also addressed areas that we don’t think of as specifically religious in our own highly compartmentalized lives: the study of subjects such as ancient history, politics, the natural sciences, and what might now be considered psychology were also considered part of religious life and thought. These early moderns drew on ancient Platonic and Pythagorean concepts of celestial harmony to argue for the importance of singing for all Christians. Singing at church, in the home with family and friends, and as private meditation figured prominently as a means of cultivating a rich inner life.

So my New Year’s resolution, in honor of Susan and the beautiful and gracious person she was, is to sing something every day. I am grateful to be alive, to be pursuing interesting work, and to be making music. In Susan’s chapter on “Sacred Sensualitie” (p. 115), there is a quote from Bishop Joseph Hall’s Occasional Meditations (1633): “What a shame is it for me, that see before me so liberal provisions of my God and find myself set warm under my own roof, yet am ready to droop under a distrustful and unthankful dullness!” Indeed, let us not droop!

Susan’s life and writing evokes the richness of the world in which we live, a world that can be celebrated and created through song. Imitating the early modern devotional writers she studied, we can notice, “like a heavenly alchemist,” that there is something of God in “a Spider…or Toad…or the Heavens, Sun, Moon and Stars” (Edmund Calamy, The Art of Divine Meditation, 1680). When I think of Susan’s passing at Christmastide, I think of that ancient church chant, Hodie Christus Natus Est (Today Christ is Born). Singing Hodie – cherishing Today, this all-too-fleeting day – reminds me of her and of the great wonder it is to be alive and singing.

Body – Mind Connections


Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), hiked up this hill daily to his office (hidden in the trees to the left). In winter, he lived in Paris, but in summer, Buffon returned to his estate in the country.

There’s something wonderful about summer: so much of it can be spent outdoors. This is due in part to the cultural construct of “summer vacation.” The expectation that we will take some vacation time is tied to the academic calendar which ironically originated in the need to work in the harvest! But the harvest, of course, also means being outdoors, even in an age of John Deere combines such as the one I rode in when I was working on a ranch in eastern Oregon many years ago: feeling the grit of dirt in my teeth, clambering through mounds of wheat to even the load, and picking out the grasshoppers that infested Sherman county that summer.

As I write, the harvest is in. Whether one’s summer was spent pulling in crops or hiking and camping…or perhaps in a library, the outdoors beckons less urgently. As we settle into more sedentary pursuits appropriate for the colder months, I’m thinking about how to keep getting outside. Moving the whole body is good for thinking!

I’m thinking a lot about “The Age of Enlightenment,” also known as the Age of Reason – of ideas, of thinking things through. This refers to an intellectual movement in history, (the long eighteenth century and mostly French history) in which emphasized rationality over tradition. We are children of that age, or so we are often told. But while people in the Enlightenment lived much of their lives outside, we twenty-first century people sit indoors saturated with texts, images, graphs and numbers – mere representations of the world outside. In fact, we can be so tied to our screens that we literally don’t move for hours at a time.

In the Enlightenment, people moved a lot – they walked, they rode, they danced. And they thought – and wrote – deep thoughts. The essays of people like Voltaire, Kant, Goethe, Diderot, and Buffon (of course Buffon!) are still read and discussed because their ideas are still compelling. Buffon, well-known in the eighteenth century for his vibrant writing of natural history, was especially known for his “active lifestyle.” He made the 170 mile journey to Paris from his home in Montbard every year over rough roads. He chopped wood to test its tensile strength. He built an iron foundry to conduct experiments with iron balls to estimate the age of the earth. And he hiked up a hill every day to go to his writing office!

There’s a connection between the body and the brain that we graduate students can easily miss. As I am spending long hours writing a dissertation on movement in the eighteenth century, I am wondering in what ways I can keep my body moving. I cannot help but see the irony in how much I’m sitting here at a computer, writing about movement but moving only my fingertips!

Living History with Solar Microscopes


A giant image of a flea projected using an eighteenth-century solar microscope.

What insights that can be gained through reenactments using historic instruments? One example can be found in Peter Heering’s use of solar microscopes. These sun-lit microscopes were built to see small objects magnified by projecting images of specimens on a wall. This pastime fascinated eighteenth century elites. Heering wondered why these solar microscopes were so popular during the 18th century yet dismissed in the 19th century as mere “toys.” If they were so inferior, why were they so popular with the most educated social class. Were they really that inferior? Heering found that when he actually used an original eighteenth-century solar microscope, lent by the Deutsches Museum in Munich, to project images of specimens, he was astonished by the brilliance of the sunlit image. The solar microscope images were much brighter than images illuminated by modern artificial light!

So why had 19th century scientists distained these simple but effective instruments as producing only shadowy, blurry images? Heering had the opportunity to try solar microscopes by several different makers and found that the image quality and ease of use varied considerably. He found that to exhibit these properly, one needed both a well-constructed instrument and a perceptive, skilled demonstrator (to adjust the light as the sun moved, for example). So, it is not enough to look at history through the study of “residual material traces such as books, images or instruments in showcases.” Embodied skills – such as setting up a solar microscope – can also inform our historical understandings.

This experiment with the solar microscope display tells us something about the development of laboratory science in the 19th century. Laboratories tend to exclude the casual observer. An ordinary person might have an inexpensive solar microscope but not the more “modern” lab instrument. The expensive equipment in the lab may not necessarily do a better job, but it does make the work of science more special and exclusive. In what other ways has the development of science as a profession excluded the observations of ordinary people? The solar microscope is one example of how being historically informed can change our perception of what science is and how it might be done.

One way that the scientific community has become more inclusive is through the recruitment of citizen scientists. Projects from counting birds to studying cancer ask volunteers to get out in the field or identify patterns to contribute to scientific understanding. The solar microscope is an early example of non-specialists being involved in science, delighting in wonder at the natural world.

[1] Peter Heering, “The Enlightened Microscope: Re-Enactment and Analysis of Projections with Eighteenth-Century Solar Microscopes,”  British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Sep., 2008), 358.