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208 pages, 6" x 9", preface, footnotes, index

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Ruminations on Liberal Education

Davis, Michael

At a time when the cost of undergraduate education is soaring, it is worth attempting to gain some clarity about what liberal education is really for. Wonderlust attempts to sneak up on this question by both describing and exemplifying the centrality of wonder in thinking, and so in education. In the day-to-day life of an undergraduate college certain occasions call for reflection on the nature of a liberal-arts education – orientations and graduations, to be sure, but also panel discussions and talks of various sorts. Because events of this kind encourage thought about our lives as wholes, they are especially rich opportunities to make manifest the close connection between philosophy and everyday life. Most of the essays in this book were originally lectures for such occasions, composed by the author over a period of thirty years while teaching at several undergraduate institutions. The essays seek to avoid a double danger: they are both academic and practical. For learning is empty if it sheds no light on the pressing questions of contemporary life, and, at the same time, the day-to-day experience of ordinary life is rich in philosophical implications the importance of which reaches far beyond the day to day. The slightly off humor of a Gary Larson cartoon can teach us something about Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The enormous significance of the execution of Socrates by the city of Athens has echoes in the question of the imposition of speech codes in the contemporary university. This mixture of the day to day and the philosophical in the experience of wonder is the heart of liberal education. Wonderlust is meant to be of help in recognizing when it is present.

Wonderlust consists of three parts. The first is concerned with thinking through several features of day-to-day life – freedom of speech but also reading the comics – with the help of thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Faulkner. The second reverses direction to interpret the works of such thinkers as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Shakespeare, Rousseau, and Saul Bellow in terms of the issues of everyday life. The third considers teaching – Davis’s own and that of the teachers who formed him – understood in terms of the relation between books and experience. Wonderlust is neither an academic nor a popular book. It is meant rather to be about the nature of genuine education as necessarily embodying on the one hand the tension and on the other the intimate connection between the two.

Michael Davis teaches philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College and Fordham University; he translated, with Seth Benardete, Aristotle – On Poetics and is the author of The Poetry of Philosophy (both from St. Augustine’s Press).