Education as a Way of Life

Professor of English Dan Ritchie says Bethel’s Humanities Program exposes students to art, writing, and music that will shape them for life. That's why he created a scholarship in honor of his parents to support recent program graduates who possess a curiosity and love of ideas.

By Katie Johnson ’19

August 20, 2019 | 3 p.m.

Professor of English Dan Ritchie

Professor of English Dan Ritchie

Professor of English Dan Ritchie rummages through a pile of portfolios in his office, grabs the bottom one, and opens his undergraduate senior thesis to search for a footnote from Plato’s Republic. He reads the quote out loud: “Do you toss in such an argument and have it in mind to go away before teaching us adequately or finding out whether it is so? Or do you suppose you are trying to determine a small matter, and not a course of life on the basis of which each of us would have the most profitable existence?”

Why was this quote so important to him nearly 40 years ago? How does it still influence him now? The quote “bothered me as a senior because it made me think I couldn’t treat academics as a small thing,” Ritchie explains. “What excites me the most is when I see a student who gets bothered in that way. This is something I need to think about for the sake of the life I want to live.”

For Ritchie, who helped create Bethel’s Humanities Program, that’s what the courses are all about. The things students learn studying the humanities become part of their lives rather than information to study for an exam. “I hope we attract a student who has a certain amount of curiosity that way that when they leave the program, they feel that some of the elements of humanities are really part of their lives,” Ritchie says.

In an effort to nurture that kind of student and that kind of life, Ritchie created a scholarship in honor of his parents, who instilled in him a love of words and ideas that he grew to appreciate more and more throughout his life. This scholarship is given to students who have recently completed the Humanities Program and possess a curiosity and love of ideas.

Emmy Inwards ’18, who graduated with degrees in biochemistry and chemistry and a minor in film studies, embodies the type of student Ritchie hopes the Humanities Program benefits. And like Ritchie, she was profoundly affected by what she learned in the humanities. “I remember being really wrecked by postmodernism,” Inwards says. “I really liked the art and how it would fit together with the philosophy that we were learning at the same time.” She went on to take aesthetics with Professor of Philosophy Carrie Peffley, where she deepened her study of art through the lens of philosophy.

Inwards received one of the first scholarships. “Receiving the scholarship meant a lot to me because of how much I love the arts,” she says. Of the various departmental scholarships that she received while at Bethel, this scholarship truly mattered to her. “Humanities meant a lot because it was more about me as a person than about the grades. This is just something I tried really hard at, something I really care about and something I invested in.”

Inwards is currently applying to medical schools across the country, and as she reflects on everything she’s learned at Bethel, she’s incredibly grateful for the classes that complemented her scientific studies as well. “I felt like humanities was perfect because, in the midst of sophomore year, I was taking anatomy, physics, o-chem, and humanities, and humanities was always such a breath of fresh air because we got to read. It was really interesting stuff that we hadn’t learned before that I always wanted to learn. I was always grateful for an excuse to get to read and learn about that stuff.”

The humanities continue to touch many students each year. Humanities Teaching Assistant Chinyere Okafor ’19, a business major, also appreciated how the Humanities Program engaged and connected a variety of her interests. “I love philosophy, art, history, and literature, so humanities gave me a good excuse to do what I love,” she says. “Humanities reminded me that I don't have to get caught in the same single track my whole life. I can pull from different areas of what I love to gain a better understanding of the world and live life more fully alive.”

Through the Humanities program, Okafor has “read great works of literature and vastly influential political texts, seen artworks that have shaped movements and generations, and listened to music that's forged new ground.” She adds, “But I didn't get that information secondhand; I encountered it myself with trusted professors to guide my way.”

Students’ direct engagement with the texts is a key element of the humanities program. “We wanted students to have first-hand experience with great books and great works of art,” Ritchie says. He goes onto qualify what makes a book great: “It’s fundamentally unteachable. Here’s what I mean by that. A book is a great book because it’s meaning is relevant in different ways over time, which is not true of a textbook. A great book is a great book because it suggests questions that even the best teacher cannot anticipate.” He includes great works of art and music with literature as well, and since the humanities program steeps these great works in their historical contexts, students learn how to make big-picture connections that span time and place.

“Humanities doesn't just teach art, then history, then philosophy, but weaves them together to track how we got to where we are today,” Okafor says. “It helped give me context for major world events. It taught me that nothing happens in a vacuum; every movement and action is a reaction to something else.”

Humanities ultimately teaches students how to think and comprehend the world around them. Ritchie hopes that the program also sets an example for how to live—by connecting one’s own experiences with the various layers of art, history, theology, and philosophy, and even to see how people fit into the world and appreciate what has come before them. “I think about that sometimes,” Ritchie says. “There was a time before there was Shakespeare, and people lived very happy lives, but it is hard for me to imagine a life without Shakespeare or Beethoven.”

For Inwards, she can’t imagine a life without the work of the French-American artist Marcel Duchamp, who, among other things, was known for his sculpture Fountain—a urinal that reflected the general mindset of the world amidst World War I. “I feel like there’s all this stuff we wouldn’t know, except for humanities. There are so many things we should know—so much that I know I learned from humanities,” she says. “Imagine living your whole life not knowing who Duchamp was?”

Study the Humanities at Bethel

Bethel’s Humanities Program is one of two general course tracks available at Bethel. Comprised of four courses, the program leads students through lectures and small groups to discuss questions concerning God, the self, and society. The program will allow you to experience the great works of Western civilization first-hand and draw your own conclusions. Our classes visit museums to learn about Greek sculpture, watch Shakespeare at the Guthrie Theatre, and stage a jazz night while learning about the Roaring ’20s.

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