Reflections on Scholarship and Teaching in the Humanities

By Bacon, Nora | Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Reflections on Scholarship and Teaching in the Humanities


Bacon, Nora, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning


Learning in the Plural: Essays on the Humanities and Public Life

David D. Cooper East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2014

David Cooper's Learning in the Plural is a collection of essays written over a twenty-year period from 1993 to 2013. Each essay makes an argument, and Cooper expresses strong opinions--and yet, he inhabits the essayist tradition of Montaigne, often mulling over and complicating a topic rather than wrapping it up. The essays are, as Cooper writes, "excursions in active and improvisational thinking in which the questions I raise and the uncertainties I probe are more important than answers arrived at or ground defended" (p. xx). The central question, the concern that keeps circling back in Cooper's thinking over the years, is one familiar to service-learning educators: how does our work as academics intersect with our responsibilities as members of a community? More specifically, how can teaching and scholarship in the humanities contribute to the ongoing struggle to sustain an active participatory democracy?

Cooper is an integrative thinker, sometimes ascending to high altitudes for a broad view of American life and sometimes dropping down for a closer view of particular communities, classrooms, or individuals. Nevertheless, Learning in the Plural reads as a unified whole. Its basic structure is chronological--the essays are arranged in order of their publication dates--and a thematic trajectory emerges as Cooper's ideas evolve. What remains constant is his commitment to moral wholeness, for students and for himself. What shifts is Cooper's relationship to his professional milieu as he rejects the ethos of over-professionalized exclusionary academic culture to embrace teaching and learning in active partnership with others--other teachers, community partners, and students.

Recurring Themes

Students 'Moral Dei' elopment

The first essay in the collection, "Believing in Difference: The Ethics of Civic Literacy," sets out Cooper's principal concern. College students, he suggests, suffer from a "moral self-enclosure" that disables them from appreciating human diversity and engaging in the struggle for full equality for all Americans. He quotes Benjamin DeMott: "... [T]he first step toward achieving the spirit of liberty is the development of a capacity to believe in difference and to register it, to imagine one's way deeply into the moment-to-moment feelings and attitudes of people placed differently from oneself" (p. 2). Trapped in the pervasive ideology of individualism, students see themselves as autonomous units, competing with others for jobs, money, and short-term gratification, attending college with the single goal of landing good-paying jobs. No matter how many courses they take to meet Gen Ed diversity requirements, they are unable to imagine their way into the feelings of others because they lack a genuine sense of connection to a larger community. Cooper acknowledges that his generalization does not apply to all students, and he stresses that "students are not to blame for the crisis of self-enclosure. They are its victims" (p. 10). But, sounding a note that can be heard throughout the first half of the book, he laments students' self-absorption and careerism.

The alternative to moral self-enclosure is idealism, a hopeful vision of a more just society in the future and a personal commitment to making it real. Drawing on the work of Erik Erikson, Robert Coles, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Carol Gilligan, Cooper explains the role of idealism in moral development. It is, he writes, "a crucial component in a young person's necessary, natural, and humane conflict with the status quo ...central to identity formation and indispensable to negotiating succeeding stages of the life cycle" (pp. 6-7). Of the goals a university might aspire to, he suggests, none is more important than students' moral maturation, which entails recognizing their own power and responsibility to make the world a better place. …

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