Attending the Aspen Institute 2012: Citizenship in the American and Global Polity
11/30/12 9:50 AM
Contributed by Dr. Constance Cramer, faculty member in the undergraduate Humanities and Arts program and the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program, School of Liberal Arts
The drive to the Maryland Shore last summer seemed overly long. As we passed cow pastures, irrigation ditches and endless groves of trees, I found myself meditating on the promise of the coming week. I was eager to reach the Aspen Institute’s Wye River Center and to meet the other participants in this year’s faculty seminar on “Citizenship in the American and Global Polity.” Designed to facilitate collective exchange and individual reflection across disciplines on the role of the humanities and social sciences in addressing current political and social realities, the program was sure to be energizing and thought provoking. It did not disappoint. We had been provided with a hefty reader containing selections from Plato to Ralph Ellison to Martha Nussbaum to Amartya Sen. Every morning, with coffee in hand, we each summoned patience and acceptance of a multiplicity of viewpoints and jumped in with both feet. Many of us were familiar with the readings and hardwired for a certain interpretation and comfortable angle on how the material fit into our disciplinary silos. Thus, the real challenge was to be open to the experience of re-reading, and listening to others as they, too, were reading with new eyes. (T.S. Eliot’s line kept cropping up for me: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." How true this is if we are to stay awake and invigorated in the world of academia.) “Do these ideas make sense?” “What is the source of their durability?” “Why are we reading these selections and not others?” “What resonates for each of us, and why?” “What seems outdated? impossible? idealistic? dangerous?” We grappled with how to address these questions fruitfully and rigorously in our own teaching, and to guide our students to navigate a most difficult and yet promising historical moment. We found ourselves often returning to the ground of our immediate, local environments—our lived realities with colleagues and respective institutions—as we imagined how to make meaningful the idea of citizenship. It was intense, and intensely stimulating, to participate in such a sustained dialog over seven days—and humbling, too. Thankfully, we were able to shift gears in the afternoon, either seeking private ground or gathering in small groups to pursue an idea. In short, I came away from the seminar inspired by the rich intellectual bandwidth and insights offered by the other participants and their openness to alternative viewpoints. As an Excelsior faculty member, it was particularly instructive to hear a range of responses to the idea of online instruction. The general “problem” of technology was a thematic thread that surfaced in numerous contexts and discussions, yet many of the participants I spoke with had either taught online or were interested in doing so. It was also a great pleasure to spend the week in the company of David Seelow, and to be reminded of how fortunate we all are to be affiliated with an institution like Excelsior College.