By Shelby Lauter, Executive Assistant to the President, AJCU
While brainstorming ideas for this year’s topics in Connections, Deanna Howes Spiro and I both thought it would be interesting to dedicate an issue to philosophy at Jesuit institutions. As a former student of philosophy at Xavier University, I quickly became animated discussing my program – Philosophy, Politics and the Public (PPP) – and the professors who have built and shaped it. Hearing my enthusiasm for the program, she instead challenged me to do something a little different: an interview with one of my former professors, Dr. Steven Frankel.
An expert in early modern philosophy, and a scholar of the Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, Dr. Steven Frankel joined the Philosophy Department at Xavier University in 2003, after getting his start at the American University of Paris. He currently teaches the junior block of the PPP program – a multidisciplinary major that combines history, philosophy, economics and political science with experiential learning opportunities.
As a professor in PPP, Frankel has been instrumental in creating immersion trips for students to Israel and Paris. In 2017, his efforts were rewarded when he was chosen by the student body as the Bishop Fenwick Teacher of the Year. More recently, he has worked to develop a philosophy-focused honors program in Xavier’s Williams College of Business, called the Smith Scholar Program, to bring more philosophy curriculum to business students. He teaches Philosophy 100 (Ethics) and 200 (Philosophical Perspectives) as a part of this program.
On the day of our interview, I called his office and was immediately greeted with his familiar voice, characteristically posing a string of questions about my life that would mislead an outsider to believe that I was the interviewee. We soon fell into a comfortable conversation about his career that placed me back in time to his classroom.
[The following conversation has been adapted for length]
Shelby Lauter: Can you tell me a little bit about your scholarly background? How did you first become interested in philosophy, and how did you land at Xavier after teaching in Paris?
Steven Frankel: I started off as a history major, and I was particularly interested in intellectual history, or the history of ideas and the causes of those ideas. This led me to philosophy. I guess I really got interested when I started reading a book called The Closing of the American Mind,* which spoke about liberal education. It became a model of what philosophy could be for me. I called up the author who, at the time, worked at the University of Chicago, and I – also living in Chicago – met with him. He later invited me to study there, and I got my Ph.D. in philosophy by just following my interests and falling into fortunate connections.
I began teaching in California because that’s where my wife was finishing school, and then we moved to Paris. As our kids started getting older, we thought we should move back to the United States. I was again fortunate because Xavier just happened to have an opening and the philosophy chair knew the people who I studied under at the University of Chicago. Once again, I was just very fortunate to have people along the way who helped me find my next step.
SL: I can see the connections between your early inspiration in the history of ideas and the focus of your classes.
SF: Yes, it has always been central to my teaching. In all of my classes, what I try to do is give students a vantage point for thinking about ideas and for seeing things in a deeper way. And by studying the text, I hope my students will not just grasp the main arguments, but will learn how to learn.
SL: As a scholar of Spinoza, you have written several articles and are currently writing a book analyzing Spinoza’s work. Spinoza was perhaps my least favorite philosopher, so I’m curious, what draws you back to him again and again?
SF: Well, he was really the first philosopher to argue that a liberal democracy is the best regime because it allows people to make their own decisions. He also has one of the most profound analyses of the relationship between philosophy and belief in scripture, which modernized the way we conceive of the two. In discussing this relationship, he presents the most serious challenges to faith, and that always appealed to me.
SL: Maybe I just need to give him another try. In addition to your current writing project on Spinoza, you are also focusing on the new Smith Scholars Program, which was launched after I graduated. Can you tell me a little bit about it and how you got involved?
SF: The Smith Scholars Program was started for business majors, and it was students who took my Philosophy 101 class who reached out to me requesting more opportunities to engage with philosophy. A benefactor also approached me, and the idea for a political economy program was born. It borrowed a lot from PPP in structure, like the cohort model in which 25 or so freshmen start the course sequence together. It was intended to be built as a model to connect professional schools to the liberal arts because a lot of programs find that after those core classes, students aren’t always getting the level of liberal arts that they may desire.
SL: Was your involvement in the development of the PPP program similar? Were you approached, or was it more of a general conversation within the philosophy department and an invitation for interested parties to pitch ideas?
SF: Being a part of PPP was proposed when I came for my interview at Xavier. Dr. E. Paul Colella [co-founder and former director of PPP] mentioned the program to me, including his idea for a trip to Paris, and he asked what I would do on such a trip since I was still living there. When I was hired, he gave me the space to develop the program and the Paris trip as I saw fit and, essentially, through trial and error.
My class and the Paris trip started as reactions in the Catholic Church to the French Revolution. Over time, that class evolved into a comparative revolutions course because students asked to learn more about the American Revolution. As that trip evolved, Dr. Colella suggested that we include more of a transnational or post-national identity component, so we added a short trip to Brussels at the end of the Paris trip. The future of the program might take a more economics-focused direction with the inclusion of the Smith Scholars.
SL: How did the Israel trip begin since it wasn’t in the initial plans for the PPP program?
SF: I was in Jerusalem for a conference, and I always knew that the Jesuits had a center there – the Pontifical Biblical Institute – so one day, I just knocked on their door. Fr. Stefano [Bittasi, S.J., our former tour guide and program partner] answered. It was a perfect coincidence because I was thinking up this new program, while Fr. Stefano said that he was praying for a way to attract more American schools to the Institute. Right then, we made a sort of pact to get started on a program together.
And the Israel trip evolved over time too, with student feedback. At first, it was more of a religious pilgrimage, but then we started hearing from the students that they were more interested in the politics of Israel, so we incorporated the political landscape and tried to get speakers from varying religious and political backgrounds. We also started adding more hiking and nature trips as students said that they found a lot of value walking the same paths that Jesus would have walked. We make our own itinerary so that we can be flexible and change it as we discover what works and what doesn’t.
Those experiences are something that you can’t find in a classroom. Travel is truly the best way to learn, and study abroad, especially, challenges you and opens up new questions. By preparing for the trip and knowing the background pre-study abroad, you are able to see what’s going on in a way that is not obvious to a tourist. Travelling also provides new opportunities that you wouldn’t have as a tourist, like hearing from expert speakers or going to private events. It’s a special thing to be able to experience.
SL: If you had to pick just one trip – as many students now must do due to funding – which one would you choose?
SF: Well, I love Paris and I always have – the art, good food, wine. But the Israel trip forces you to ask questions about faith. It has more impact.
SL: I’d agree with you. Israel was such a different kind of experience that you can’t get elsewhere. I think a lot of PPP students have felt the same way and were inspired by that trip.
Right after we got back from Israel, you were named the Bishop Fenwick Teacher of the Year, which is awarded to professors based on student feedback. How did you react when you found out that you’d won? Did this honor change any aspects of your teaching or how you approach your courses?
SF: Well, it was very flattering and surprising. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate my students more and more. When I first started teaching, I was closer in age to my students and I thought that I had to be the expert on everything, but now I realize that we are all students of the texts and that I am still learning every day alongside my students. By putting myself on the same side as them, I have grown to admire and respect them even more.
SL: Dr. Frankel, before we end our conversation with one final question, I just want to thank you for taking the time to sit down with me and for being so enthusiastic. Now I’d love to know, what’s the most fun you’ve had while teaching at Xavier?
SF: The most thrilling days are when I can go to class and just sit back while the class carries the conversation. Seeing the enthusiasm in the students and seeing them start to get the text and be changed by it is just so exciting. That never gets old.
*Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon and Schuster.