Open Letter to MAPH 2012-2013 – Service and Humanistic Inquiry

Greetings, MAPHers!

Author Nathaniel Dell (MAPH ’12)

I hope this post finds all of you well. I appreciate that some of you may have time to read this, as much as I appreciate that many more of you may not have such time because you are so immersed in your zealous study of those recondite things we call the humanities. Whatever your passion that has drawn you to MAPH, whether literature, philosophy, music or art history—even classics—I trust that you respect the arduous labor of clarifying your thought as a labor of great importance. Between us, this feeling is mutual. However, in my personal experience with the humanities, the relevance of tarrying with the Platonic dialogues is something I have frequent need of renegotiating for myself. What ought I to do with my now clarified, or, more often, sublimely muddled thought? In MAPH, I was guided and fortified by the notion that my philosophizing should advance some common good. Credit that notion to all of the Socratic fan-fiction I’ve read from Plato; blame the generality of that notion to me. At any rate, Maren has graciously invited me to share how my experience in MAPH challenged me to think of how humanistic inquiry has informed my AmeriCorps service. I would also like to share how MAPH challenged me to re-think the spaces in which humanistic inquiry can flourish.

At the outset of my MAPH year last September, I was confident, though not certain, that I would find myself in a year or two attending some Ph.D. program in philosophy. At the same time, I thought it peculiar that I would have spent the past five years contemplating the common good along with my dead Greek friends, Plato, Socrates, and Marx (pretty much an Aristotelian) but doing little direct service towards forming the community I had been imagining. That said, towards the middle of my MAPH year, I became more confident that I would find myself working in some social service organization, which is just what happened. Through AmeriCorps’ Catholic Volunteer Network, I now work as a caseworker for the Guardian Angel Settlement Association at Hosea House in St. Louis, Missouri. GASA’s social services site, Hosea House, provides emergency assistance for persons and families in crisis who may need food, clothing, utilities or rental assistance. Hosea House also partners with other agencies to offer seasonal, public health, senior and back to school programs.

I spend my time now speaking one-on-one with clients in need of these services, listening to them clarify their situations for themselves, listening to them interpret how best to achieve the Good that they desire. When I’m with my clients, I don’t converse much about the Platonic soul’s ascension to the Good, that’s for sure. Indeed, nobody cares at my particular service site that I tarried with Plato’s Lysis in order, in retrospect, to try making sense of dialogic interactions with folks. (Nota bene: don’t tell people whose electric is about to shut off about Lucretius’ poem, De Rerum Naturae, in which a spectator witnesses from dry land a shipwreck at sea, and feels for the first time the pleasure of his own security.)  So the subject matter of my daily conversations has changed, but the skills and attitudes I cultivated in MAPH are transferrable to the discourse I now have. After all, we MAPHers take up the task of clarifying and responding to problems; we are responsible for making ourselves understood by our peers and professors; we charged with the task of listening to the justifications others offer. We can apply these skills just as well in service to other humans that don’t necessarily employ the linguistic practices that would make them “humanists” in the academic sense.

Most of all, as MAPHers we must offer our time, our minds, and our energies to persons and ideas that seem impossibly esoteric or just wrong, but whom nonetheless we must understand. If in the AfterMAPH you find yourself called to some sort of service, be assured that just as you’ve tried to contort the horizon of your thought to understand Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, so will you be demanded to open yourself to things people say that seem sometimes totally disagreeable. Or, people will invite you to share in a situation with them that just doesn’t make sense, where no tentative solutions seem available. I have shared in many of these moments at Hosea House. And unlike when I tossed aside the coming of age narrative Hegel wrote for Geist, I can’t set aside the heavy narrative that someone has told me as she sits in my office. (I mean, I could set it aside, but it seems irresponsible for me to catapult them from my office.) I must remain patient and attentive as I collaborate with the client, as we venture toward some common understanding of the situation, and locate some plan for further dialogue or other action.

And even though we may have read enough Kant to be certain of the unconditional dignity of human beings, caring for a person doesn’t become any easier because of it. I neither know in advance how to respond to the person before me, nor how to justify my presence before that person. When attending to a person who is homeless, a person uninsured and burdened with medical bills, someone whose power will soon be cut, someone fleeing an abusive domestic situation—even though they are all courageous—I cannot help but sometimes to feel desperate, desperate for them and for me. My time in MAPH then feels like a discarded experiment that should have been conducted while getting a Masters in Social Work. And yet, without the values I’ve shaped and have been shaped by through humanistic inquiry, I may not have the concern that I have now. I like that concern. It keeps me working on building community, not because I know that my time in social service will lead to success, (the measure of which is up for grabs) but because of the faith that I have. I am faithful that uniting service with humanistic inquiry can give way to unexpected pathways of thought through the most aporetic of problems. I’m confident that learning how to listen, how to dialogue, can help us come together to form a flourishing community.

You might note that this is not a rigorous apology for studying the humanities, since it boils down to a faith for which I can offer no justification. However, I did not compose this to convince anyone to serve in a soup kitchen, if that is something that isn’t already desirable to you. I would like, though, to invite you, as MAPH had challenged me, to reflect this year about how humanistic inquiry can better (in)form your own practices with the central subject of the humanities—humanity.


Nathaniel Dell (MAPH ’11)



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