01/11/2013 03:51 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

A Chain of Memory

Liberal education is enriched by conversations we have with folks as disparate as Plato and Durkheim, Audre Lorde and Sigmund Freud, Lavoisier, Frederick Douglas, and Virginia Woolf.

What do these thinkers have in common?

They are dead.

Liberal education is, thus, entry into a relationship with the living dead. Not vampires. Not zombies. Neither gods nor ghosts. We meet these particular living dead through the power of what they have written -- and the many ways that subsequent generations have interacted with their work. Of course, our community with the dead is rooted in a community of the living as well, a community of inquiry, criticism, generosity and hope.

Here's what Parker Palmer, a thinker whose focus has often been on the nature of teaching within community, says in The Courage to Teach about a teacher who profoundly influenced

Through this teacher and his lectures, some of us joined a powerful form of community marked by the ability to talk with the dead. This is not a mark of madness but of an educated person. Learning to speak and listen in that invisible community of history and thought makes one's world immeasurably larger and forever changes one's life.

(Palmer, The Courage to Teach, p. 137)

Palmer's reflection, of course, is not the only worthwhile way to think through the relation of living thought -- and living thinkers -- to the dead. There is, for example, Simon Critchley's relatively recent The Book of Dead Philosophers, which builds up, through accretion, a philosophical approach to life by looking at the deaths of philosophers. Truly not a morbid book, all cultural repression of death to the contrary notwithstanding.

Of course, one need not look only to such places for a reminder of the importance of speaking to, about and with the dead. Popular culture abounds in related work. In Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead, and in his work more generally, there is a tension between life and death, between xenocide and redemption, between truth and its consequences. In the novel, Card imagines a form of non-theistic "religion" in which one calls for someone to investigate the truth of someone's life -- not merely what happened, but why, and for what reasons, focusing perhaps upon the gaps between intention and actuality. As imagined by Card, the practice of speaking for the dead is not about eulogies in the form of avoidance or hagiography or euphemism, but the recognizing of deaths (and thus lives) as meaningful. The notion that the dead go on living is re-imagined, beyond views of resurrection, reincarnation and the like. Here the telling of lives and deaths is also about active meaning making. It is, in some sense what many in liberal education believe we ought pursue together -- something dialogical. Card's work is often categorized as science fiction or fantasy; often such genre fiction is dismissed. And, yet, perhaps its historical legacy will be longer than we imagine. (Dickens, for example, was paid by the word, and other classics were the popular writing of their eras.)

Speaking for the dead, is perhaps, though, different from speaking with the dead.

In thinking about conversation with, we are, of course, considering how we speak -- and listen -- across the limits of radical otherness. So too is Card, who addresses this topic not through the lens of re-readings of Edward Said, but through the metaphor of alien species. As he does so, he asks what it truly means to encounter ideas and lives that are dissimilar from our own. He asks how we might do so without obliterating that difference, or even obliterating others quite literally, while also avoiding the creation of a morally (or cognitively) relativistic world. Card asks what it means to build fences and to encounter -- or create -- openness. As he does so, he takes up the pain of encounter, the risks of openness. Across histories or cultures or lives that differ, how we speak and listen becomes of central importance. (Whether Card fully agrees to the implications of his own argument strikes me as problematic, though it may be notable that he teaches now at a small liberal arts college, within the LDS tradition. Why doubtful? His controversial, often homophobic, views of LGBTQ matters may speak against his work as a model of openness. For more on this, try here.) 

Here, then, is our question: is the idea that we can reach across generations to enable a conversation between those long dead and living thinkers fiction, too? Is it fantasy? Some thinkers have labeled religion a fantasy, others a chain of memory. In my view, this is what education might be at its best as well: a chain of memory and a making of the future through conversations with and amongst the dead, in the context of an imagined future.