The Colgate Scene
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Big questions, profound responses
A college in conversation about
|by Rebecca Costello|
Students posed questions upon which Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel based his inaugural lecture.
A bold initiative has emerged from traditional Colgate strengths.|
The Center for Ethics and World Societies, introduced this fall, has created a new forum for meaningful, interdisciplinary conversation about important issues that are significant on campus and beyond. Made possible when a substantial gift was anonymously given at the close of Campaign Colgate, the center's program, which this year alone is punctuated by the appearance of three Nobel Prize winners, underscores Colgate's deeply rooted traditions of connecting education to ethical concerns and a focus on international issues.
"Colgate has from its inception been a place locally grounded in an idyllic landscape, but also, it has been international in its perspective," said Jane Pinchin, provost and dean of the faculty. "Its first two students, Jonathan Wade and Eugenio Kincaid, were missionaries who went to Burma and were also language scholars whose scholarship held on an international stage. That international outlook has seen itself lived out in fine international relations and peace studies programs and also in study groups led by our own faculty that are an extraordinary Colgate signature and strength."
According to Pinchin, the tradition of tackling ethical issues emerges from the Core program, through which the Colgate faculty have always expected students to ask big questions.
"It's tremendously important that the values of the center are absolutely congruent with the values of an academic institution. We want to ask all of us to engage in inquiry with a sense of the fact that there are not prescribed right answers, but that an intellectual community is responsible to be an examining agent," she stressed. "The Center for Ethics and World Societies begins to ask our students to consider seriously life-defining ethical ideas and to consider them within the context of being responsible citizens of the world."
The center's programming, which will focus on a new topic each year, includes visits by internationally renowned scholars, historians, playwrights, theologians, novelists, filmmakers and musicians, as well as other events. The center also draws from the expertise of Colgate's faculty and staff. Twenty-one faculty members and administrators serve on the board, and a different faculty member will serve as director each year. A year-end conference will coincide with Reunion Weekend, and a document of conference proceedings will be published.
The center becomes a locus for combining substantive yet dispersed campus resources in programs already devoted to exploring topics related to ethics and world societies, including the liberal arts core curriculum, off-campus study, peace studies, international relations, interdisciplinary programs such as Asian studies and Africana and Latin American studies, Jewish studies, environmental studies, the ALANA Cultural Center, Women's Studies Center, Chapel House, and individual departments such as English, art and art history, philosophy and religion, sociology and anthropology, history, political science and geography.
"Because the center is devoted to ethical issues and international domains, `Art Out of Atrocity' really dovetails beautifully with the deepest and broadest concerns of the center," said 1998-99 director, Peter Balakian. "We've been interested in bringing writers and artists to campus who have created significant works of art and literature in the wake of enormous human and political catastrophe." Balakian, professor of English, is author of a memoir, Black Dog of Fate, that explores his family's experience in the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
The message that comes through "Art out of Atrocity" is that survival of genocide is helped by giving expression to it, and in turn, "giving expression to it gives it a kind of moral voice," said Steven Kepnes, director of Jewish Studies and associate professor of religion. That is, works of art can be a call to other people to be involved in stopping genocides as they occur in the world. "We're saying that genocide is a major ethical and moral issue that all educated human beings need to know about. Therefore, Colgate as a leading educational institution needs to have this in its curriculum."
Africa's first Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Wole Soyinka
A year in the making|
The "Disturbing History: Art out of Atrocity" programming includes events about the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide as well as histories and cultures in Africa and Asia.
Over the summer, every incoming first-year student was sent a copy of Night by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, in anticipation of the author's inaugural lecture in September. Wiesel holds the 1998-99 Finard Chair in Jewish Studies, and will return twice this spring, to speak again as well as to participate in the final conference.
Vahakn Dadrian, the world's leading authority on the Armenian Genocide, discussed German responsibility in that event of history.
Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who is in exile for criticizing his country's military regime, spoke on the topic "Arms and the Arts: A Continent's Unequal Dialogue."
"Soyinka was brought to Colgate through the efforts of many," said Pinchin, "but principally by art historian Carol Ann Lorenz, whose exhibition `Soul of Africa,' now traveling across North America, Soyinka attended with others from Colgate." Students will attend Soyinka's play Death and the King's Horsemen, which is being mounted at Syracuse Stage this spring, and the actors and directors may come to campus to engage in dialogue with students. Soyinka's daughter, Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, is currently a visiting professor of political science.
The Ugandan musician Samite, a 1982 political refugee, gave a performance arranged through the energies of anthropology professor Mary Moran. In addition, there was a September screening of Song of the Refugee, a documentary filmed by producer Glenn Ivers '73, who traveled with Samite last summer, visiting with refugees from Liberia, Rwanda and Uganda at various locations in Africa.
And in late November, a four-day symposium that came together through an amazing set of coincidences became what will be remembered by many as one of the most profound programs Colgate has ever offered.
Last spring, Balakian was invited to do a reading at the Holocaust Museum of Houston by Michael '68 and Linda Eisemann, parents of Jeremy '01 and members of the museum's board. There, Balakian met one of the foremost Holocaust artists in the world, the painter Alice Lok Cahana, a concentration camp survivor.
"I went to her studio and saw her paintings and was very moved by them." Balakian discovered that Cahana and his own friend and colleague, an installation artist named Robert Barsamian whose work deals with the Armenian Genocide, had already done an exhibition together.
Balakian returned to Houston later in the summer with Dewey Mosby, director of the Picker Art Gallery, to choose a body of Cahana's works for exhibition at the Picker as part of the 1998-99 programming for the center. Additionally, Barsamian was invited to bring his installation "Ashfall" to campus to be exhibited in the Art and Art History Gallery.
Along the way, it was discovered that Cahana is a featured figure in Steven Spielberg's film The Last Days, a documentary of first-hand accounts of five Holocaust survivors, which is not to be released until February 1999. Cahana suggested that Michael Berenbaum, president of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which produced The Last Days, be invited to campus. At that point, with Berenbaum agreeing to join Cahana and Barsamian in a panel discussion, "we felt we had a good shot at getting the film to campus." October Films consented, and aside from people who attended a fundraiser in Hollywood, the Colgate community was the first group privileged to see Spielberg's latest project, with a word-of-mouth, two-night 35mm screening in the Chapel.
"You could hear a pin drop after it was over as students and adults slowly gathered themselves and just milled out, in a mood of serious reflection," remarked Balakian.
At the opening of the Cahana exhibition the next evening, scores of viewers lined up at the Picker Gallery, and Cahana had to repeat her talk several times to accommodate the crowds.
Barsamian and Cahana also participated in several class meetings, including studio art classes and the Core distinction course Modern Genocide and Holocaust: History, Witness and Denial, which is team taught by Balakian and Kepnes.
Artists Alice Lok Cahana and Robert Barsamian in class
Tie-ins to curriculum|
The interconnectedness that has emerged through the center's activities will continue to evolve and grow; this year's enterprises can serve as models.
As an example, "part of the energy for the fall programming has been inextricable from the Modern Genocide course," said Balakian. Most of the figures of the fall visited the class, and the students attended the lectures and exhibitions and presented questions at the panel discussion in November.
"To have these people come here and speak to us and really touch us, touch our lives, and make things very clear and real to us," said Karen Prenske, a junior who took Modern Genocide, "has been an amazing experience."
Interdisciplinarity has a lot to do with carrying the impact of these messages for students beyond campus and out into the greater world.
"The Center for Ethics and World Societies can also say to Colgate students that education is not only about getting skills for a career," remarked Kepnes, "but about confronting the most important issues of the day," for which one must be educated broadly in more than one discipline. To understand the Holocaust, for example, one must know about history, politics, religion and art. "All these come together to both produce genocide, and to provide antidotes to it. In order to address issues like genocide it takes an entire curriculum. Utilizing interdisciplinary study, we've created a new language that sensitizes people to abuses of human rights."
As director of off-campus study, Kenneth Lewandoski, who is coordinator of programming for the Center for Ethics and World Societies, stresses that the center's activities and other university programs like off campus study will by their nature be mutually enhancing for students. "If we send students off to Germany or France, Santa Fe, New Mexico or Israel, it seems those students, by virtue of the program, will have a deeper and more meaningful experience."
Prenske, for example, will study history in London this spring, and says she is now more sensitive to the fact that in other countries, subjects such as World War II may be viewed and presented differently. "That's something I'll focus on and think about. And if I can go over to Europe and visit a concentration camp I will do that, because that now is something that has a lot of meaning for me."
No Names, an acrylic on canvas by Alice Lok Cahana
"I am overwhelmed by the response to these events," said Balakian. "What's gratifying and moving is that the response is coming not only from students and faculty but citizens of our town and region."
And that, according to Pinchin, is another goal for the center, to have an entire intellectual community engage in conversation with one another. "As we've heard it, those conversations have been taken back into the dormitories and other living circumstances."
"I'm getting phone calls from people who are not connected to Colgate saying, `Thank you. This has changed my life'," said Balakian. "They are overwhelmed that here at Colgate we are able to connect to a wider human and cultural arena."
Of her visit to Colgate, Cahana expressed it as a growing and energizing experience. "What I saw and felt here was a beautiful exchange of not just academic questions, but life-altering questions. Sometimes you rush through life so quickly that you forget to ask these questions."
As an artist, Barsamian found the experience as "a shared thing," for him and the students. "It enters the realm of being personal expression and a teaching tool. I would hope that their bearing witness to this experience will make them realize that every person can make a difference," said Barsamian.
Johnna D'Aurora, a junior, affirms Barsamian's hope when discussing the center's events. "I think an important aspect of survivor or witness testimony is that they're bringing it to us. The phrase that keeps ringing in my ears is `over there', which implies that it's not tangible. People's next-door neighbors were taken in the middle of the night. We didn't experience that, but Elie Wiesel brought that feeling and the human aspect of it to us."
"I would say we're some of the most privileged students in school right now," said junior Kirk Kardashian. "We're meeting people who are history -- a huge, important part of history."
"Even aside from the comments I've heard," said Lewandoski, "there's a silent testament to the success of what we've done so far, if only we count heads." Nearly 3,000 heard Wiesel speak; approximately 1,400 saw the Spielberg film. Students and faculty packed the aisles when Soyinka spoke. "We've created a great deal of interest, enthusiasm and discussion on these subjects."
The conversations continue with the spring schedule, which includes Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking; writer Leslie Marmon Silko, who will provide a Native American perspective; New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges '79, who will discuss journalism and the war in Bosnia; and Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott, who will spend a week on campus in April in public presentations and classroom forums.
Conference June 4 - 6
"It brings together all the dimensions of Colgate when you think about the fact that you can program some of the leading intellectuals of the world in a serious symposium environment as alumni return to campus," said Balakian. "It's a true vision of what education can be, both in the present curriculum and with at least a momentary notion of continuing the educational process for alumni."
Sustaining the momentum
The anonymous gift, to be expended over a five-year period, "gave us the wherewithal to begin with a bang and not a whisper," said Pinchin, "but for the center to continue we need it to be an important part of the fabric of Colgate. The center can become an enormous source of pride for the institution.
"This is such an exciting cam-pus and when people are thinking not in isolation, but in discussion with one another, it is at its very best."
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