I was initially disappointed by the negative comments concerning the Great Lives Series Lectures found in the Feb. 28 article “Speakers Fail to Appeal to Students.” However, it quickly became evident that the attitudes expressed therein were the result of a basic misunderstanding of the purpose of the Series.
If the purpose were purely entertainment, the criticism might be justifiable, but the Series is, in fact, part of an academic course currently offered as IDIS 300F, Great Lives: Biographical Approaches to History and Culture. The course originated 10 years ago with the goal of investigating major historical and cultural issues by means of examining the lives and times of some of the world’s most influential individuals. Like other courses, this one includes classroom lectures by the instructor, in this case, me, required readings, written assignments and tests.
But the Great Lives course has another distinctive dimension in that it incorporates presentations by a number of guest lecturers from around the country and abroad. They are not just any lecturers. Our guest speakers regularly are among the world’s foremost authorities on their subjects and are usually the authors of recent major works. They have included Pulitzer Prize winners and recipients of other prominent awards. These lectures are open, not just to students who are enrolled for academic credit, but to all Mary Washington students and the local community as well—all free of charge.
The hundreds who attend the lectures throughout the spring semester attest to the success of the enterprise. Average attendance at lectures this year has been approximately 500, sometimes numbering over 800.
The Series is largely funded by private sources, beginning notably with a generous gift from Mr. John Chappell of Philadelphia, who established the Great Lives endowment in memory of his wife, Carmen Culpeper Chappell, a member of the Mary Washington class of 1959. He has continued to support the Series financially, as have numerous local patrons, so our students and the community can have access to the leading scholars of our time on some of history’s most intriguing figures.
Our guest lecturers routinely tell me that the Series is unique in terms of the number and quality of scholars and authors it presents. Such speakers often comment that it is the largest audience to which they have ever spoken.
Unfortunately, they often also comment on the lack of students in the audience and ask why there are so few. It is something of an embarrassment to think that the answer appears to be that they aren’t interested—yet that is what the recent Bullet article implies. It is hard to believe that any “demographic,” and certainly not one comprised of students at an educational institution of Mary Washington’s quality, would not be interested, for example, in a talk by an eminent scholar on the life of Winston Churchill, the man often adjudged to have been nothing less than the most significant world leader of the 20th century.
My point is that, while there is nothing wrong with programs designed mainly to entertain, and the university has its share of those, surely there must be a place in an academic institution for programs that go beyond “social media, pop culture trends and fashions”—or even Steven Colbert, funny though he is. In other words, there must be room for programs that not only entertain but edify.
I hope that during the remainder of the semester, greater numbers of students will take advantage of this truly extraordinary opportunity to attend some of the Great Lives programs, which will focus on such diverse and engaging figures as Queen Elizabeth II, Ernest Hemingway, Rasputin, Abraham Lincoln and Michelangelo. The lectures last approximately 50 minutes, followed by audience Q&A, which provides the opportunity for dialogue with exceptional scholars.
At an institution that endeavors to provide its students with a broad liberal education, this is an opportunity that should not be missed—and certainly not disparaged as being of no value to “today’s demographic.”
I urge you to join us for programs that I believe you will find to be not only informative, their primary purpose, but also quite enjoyable.
Professor Crawley is Professor Emeritus of History and Director of the Chappell Great Lives Series.