by Dr. Steven A. Burr, Liberal Studies Faculty and Director of Program Operations
I didn’t know him; and although I wish I had, I’m certain that I’ve known a few people like him. In each case, these are the individuals who ultimately shape one’s intellectual development, not just in the classroom but also well beyond.
In a recent reflection in Loyola magazine, Michele Wojciechowski (’90) presents a loving tribute to Dr. Charles Hands, Professor Emeritus at Loyola and designer of the Master of Modern Studies program (now the Graduate Program in Liberal Studies). The image Ms. Wojciechowski gives us is that of a man imposing in his intellect and yet affable in his approach to others. Reading her words, even if you had never met Charlie, you can’t help but feel a touch of his warmth or be inspired by his proclamation that “poetry is all around us.” For my part, I also can’t help but think of Wolfgang Walter Fuchs, my first professor as an undergraduate student in philosophy.
What is it about the humanities that allows for the kinds of connections and profound influence that inspire a former student to eulogize a professor so fondly, and after so much time has passed? Certainly this manner of relating is not exclusive to the humanities, but it is equally certain that there is something unique about the humanities that fosters such affectionate respect. ‘Liberal Studies’ seeks to liberate by delivering an intellectual experience that respects a multitude of traditions and perspectives. With this liberation comes uncertainty and fear; or, as Søren Kierkegaard contended, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” As we are compelled to question our own preconceived notions of what constitutes art, or personhood, or truth, we are equally forced to acknowledge that perhaps such things are not definitively knowable. This can be a scary realization, and perhaps it’s not what one would expect to confront from one’s teacher; yet as it turns out, the profound experience of wonder is the greatest gift a teacher can give. Glimpsing the mystery of human existence liberates us from the dogmatic tendencies that preclude us from continuing to question the things that we think we know as well as being capable of living with the questions that we just can’t seem to answer.
One of the more compelling images from Ms. Wojciechowski’s tribute to Charlie Hands is a reference to her final course notes: “Is that all there is? Is there some other possibility?” It is wonderfully appropriate that an examination of a particular work of literature conclude with those words—a question that is, perhaps, unanswerable. What great teachers and Liberal Studies in general can gift to us is the understanding that you don’t always get the full answer with your first attempt to engage any particular question (and sometimes you actually wind up with a rather poor answer), but that you can very often continue to grapple with the question toward more satisfying results; and in any case, there are some questions that are just worth living with until the end, because the constant engagement with these questions will continue to define you and your place in the world.
Recognizing that human existence is defined by mystery can be terrifying. It can also be liberating. The best teachers, individuals like Charlie Hands and Walt Fuchs, situate themselves and their students as equal travelers through the mysteries of existence. It’s okay to confront the questions, lucidly and without fear, because they have; further, it’s okay to linger for a while in uncertainty and wonder, because they’re right there with us. It is thus no coincidence that from this relating-in-mystery that so frequently characterizes a liberal education, an implied sense of understanding, solidarity, and love should arise.