The Liberal Arts as “Breaking Bread with the Dead”

This week in our Intro to History class, my students and I read through the first half of Alan Jacobs’ Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind. He has at least four other books I’d rather teach — I spent a good ten minutes on Wednesday just reading aloud from his book about reading and I mentioned several illustrations from his study of Christian humanism during World War II — but I thought this one would provide students a useful pause before the rushed end of the semester, letting us circle back again to the recurring question of what it means to attend to the past. (All the better because Jacobs is a literature scholar, not a historian.)

In short, Jacobs argues that spending time reading “old books” helps us to push back against “presentist forces — information overload, social acceleration, pervasive algorithmic marketing, a historical awareness that celebrates progress and escape” and so expand what Thomas Pynchon called “temporal bandwidth… the width of your present, your now…”

While there are discipline-specific ways of doing this, they come together for Jacobs in W.H. Auden’s notion of “breaking bread with the dead” – or, as Jacobs puts it, “sitting at table with our ancestors and learning to know them in their difference from, as well as our likeness to, us.”

So to wrap up our week with Jacobs, this morning I talked students through an exercise:

First, I had them think back over the past academic year as a kind of dinner party to which they had invited a few guests (just 3-5; we’re still in a pandemic): dead people whom students had encountered in readings, research, discussions, lectures, etc. from various classes. At least one guest had to be someone they basically found admirable, even inspiring. But at least one other person at table had to be someone whose life or ideas they found troubling, even offensive.

(Of course, my list started with Charles and Anne Lindbergh. The other three: Simon Wiesenthal — whose meditation on evil and forgiveness, The Sunflower, I was thinking about yesterday as we wrapped up a week on the Holocaust in my World War II class; John Locke, whose Second Treatise on Government I was teaching this week in our Western Civ course; and Hildegard of Bingen, the medieval mystic who features prominently in my favorite book I’ve read this month.)

Their party gathered at table, I had students then imagine an initial conversation with the admirable guest. This evokes ch. 4 in Jacobs’ book, in which he summarizes how Plutarch, Machiavelli, G.K. Chesterton, et al. urge us to learn from the dead whom they regarded as being especially virtuous. Now, Jacobs also warns against treating the dead with too much reverence, or only listening to those who are most like us. So I next asked students to imagine turning to the most troubling guest…

How would we respond to someone from the past who started articulating ideas we found offensive? (For that matter… how would we determine what’s offensive? Should historians judge people by the standards of their own time, or ours? Or not at all?) Would we ask the guest to leave, or would it be better to continue to extend intellectual hospitality, but either argue with the guest ourselves or make sure that the rest of the list includes people who can rebut them?

This is part of what Jacobs deals with in ch. 3 of Breaking Bread with the Dead. While he has no simple answer to these questions, he underlines the importance of “encounters with un-likeness.

The real challenge, but also the real opportunity, of breaking bread with the dead comes when the dead say something that freaks us out—freaks us out to the point that we are strongly tempted to turn away in disgust and horror. But those may be just the moments when we need to steel ourselves to keep giving the blood of our attention.

So he’s reluctant to, shall we say, “cancel” invitations to those from the past who offend present-day sensibilities. “Reading old books,” he concludes — and studying history, he might let me add — “is an education in reckoning with otherness; its hope is to make the other not identical with me but rather, in a sense, my neighbor.”

This connects to all sorts of debates that I hope students will continue to have as they progress in their studies of history at a place like Bethel. But it also makes me think of the larger project of the liberal arts, as any reader of my many posts on that subject will recognize.

In fact, I wonder if my dinner party exercise can help us understand what is — and isn’t — a liberal arts education.

My students had absolutely no problem coming up with a handful of guests; the hard part for them was keeping the list that short. That’s what you would expect from a class primarily composed of History majors… but HIS290 also enrolls History minors and even several first-year students who have taken little more this year than preliminary gen ed courses. And they could still come up with people from the past to whom they’ve paid significant attention this year — in and out of History courses.

That’s entirely as it should be, right? I mean, I walked into my office this morning, and found these remnants of late night studying by the variety of students (not just History majors) who use our department’s commons area.

So let me put it this way: could you call it a “liberal arts college” if its students weren’t able to do the dinner party exercise?

If students of all majors aren’t regularly “breaking bread with the dead” — in history courses, but also literature, philosophy, theology, and even arts and science — I don’t think that’s a liberal arts education, so much as a doomed attempt to meet the demands of a socially accelerated present and to outguess an unknowable future.