The River Runs Deep - Donald Marshall

After more than 30 years teaching in large, public, research universities, I came to Pepperdine in 2003 to teach in the Great Books Program. While I don’t have the perspective of those with many years of experience here, coming from a very different environment highlights a number of distinctive features of Pepperdine by contrast. In my view, many things set Pepperdine apart from what I have known. Here, I present four key features that I believe are foundational to Pepperdine’s past and critical to its future.

First, I am struck by Pepperdine’s enduring commitment to the liberal arts. Research universities play a vital role in advancing knowledge and improving lives, but they have largely abandoned the liberal arts for a culture of specialized, advanced research. Throughout my career, my academic and intellectual conscience kept feeling the tug of the liberal arts tradition. Research specializes in order to reduce complex issues to solvable problems. But liberal arts keep a wider context in view, and many questions about the meaning and purpose of our lives and existence can’t be made narrow and solvable. It is the asking of the questions, now and throughout our lives, that is essential to our humanity. Advanced research rightly focuses on the new, but it risks ignoring the fact that as individuals and as a culture, we did not create ourselves and we are not sufficient to ourselves. Our heritage is our greatest resource as we move into the future, a source not just of answers, but of questions and of a perspective nothing else can provide.

Second is the centrality of the Great Books Program to the liberal arts mission of the University. As a senior scholar at a research university, I would have been permitted to develop a Great Books course, but it would have run against the grain of the institution and been merely my idiosyncratic preference. At Pepperdine, liberal arts are at the heart of the University, and Great Books is at the heart of the liberal arts. In our courses, we conduct a shared inquiry into the challenging ideas expressed in major works of the Western tradition—and with the addition of a new course, of the Asian tradition as well. “Shared inquiry” means that the instructor does not approach these texts as an expert offering students authoritative explanations. Instead, the instructor leads a structured discussion in which students working together form interpretations, explore and test ideas, and clarify their thinking. Our teachers—the instructor’s as much as the students’—are Homer, Plato, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Nietzsche, Simone Weil, and their peers. At Pepperdine, the Great Books Program is not my eccentric personal hobby, but rather a gathering of colleagues and students with whom I can share this commitment to liberal study. To be a part of the community of Great Books and through it to contribute to Pepperdine’s mission gives our individual work dignity and significance.

But in fact faith and reason are not opposed; they are deeply allied. Faith seeks understanding, according to Anselm’s still valid formula, and reason is God’s gift to human beings given because it leads them to Him.

Third, Pepperdine puts the right emphasis on teaching. The emphasis on advanced graduate training at research universities entirely fits their mission, but the result is that undergraduates, especially lower-division undergraduates, are left in the lurch. Fitful efforts to redress the balance only underscore the problem. My increasing interest in getting back to undergraduates and especially to the foundational early years of college meshed well with Pepperdine’s emphasis on the student as the center of the educational enterprise. This is not to open a gap between research and teaching. Good teaching leads students toward the most penetrating insights currently available to us, and these insights are the fruit of research and scholarship. A good teacher has to know where educational formation is headed, and cannot really understand that goal without participating actively and continually in the advancement of knowledge.

Finally, but most importantly, Pepperdine is a Christian university. Large, public universities find it difficult, if not impossible, to address religious belief. As young men and women enter college and begin to assume responsibility for their future lives, fundamental questions acquire real urgency. Secular universities have a strong tendency to regard such questions as outside the purview of focused research, leaving undergraduates without support as they face complex matters of deep concern to them. But in fact faith and reason are not opposed; they are deeply allied. Faith seeks understanding, according to Anselm’s still valid formula, and reason is God’s gift to human beings given because it leads them to Him. Torn from faith, reason is a plant without roots or flowers. If it repudiates reason, faith degenerates into impassioned dogmatism. Historically, the liberal arts have their roots in Greek culture, but they survived because they found shelter in the Christian community of faith. Learning cannot flourish unless it is fed and nurtured by a tradition; and a tradition must be sheltered and kept living by a community loyal to it. A Christian community provides the most sustaining matrix for liberal study, and liberal study prepares individuals to cooperate intelligently to make effective in their own lives, and in their world, the purposes of God that their faith reveals to them.

Professor Donald Marshall is Fletcher Jones Chair of Great Books in the Humanities/Teacher Education Division of Seaver College. A graduate of Yale and Harvard, Don has taught for over 30 years in public research institutions.