For accomplished ILI fellows, Great Books seminar offers potential for life-changing encounters

Author: Inspired Leadership Initiative

Bj 10Students in Notre Dame's Inspired Leadership Initiative, a one-year program for accomplished individuals discerning the next phase of their lives, took a Great Books seminar with PLS chair Thomas Stapleford.

Students too often conceive of education simply as an information transfer or a means to burnish credentials, but Thomas Stapleford sees a richer model — a life-changing encounter that prompts questioning, reflection, and personal growth. 

That’s what Stapleford, associate professor and chair of the Program of Liberal Studies, witnesses each week when he leads a Great Books seminar for Inspired Leadership Initiative fellows — an experience that allows participants to explore classic texts and grapple with perennial questions. 

Thomas Stapleford

“You see the world in a new way, you’ve got new questions that you might not have thought about before, you might have new answers or new ways of responding to questions that you hadn’t even considered,” Stapleford says. “And that, I think, is fundamentally what this program is about. It’s not about information, it’s not about credentialing, it’s about a kind of transformation that occurs through these encounters. These are encounters in the classroom and with the text, but also with the other ILI fellows.” 

ILI was launched last year for accomplished individuals from all walks of life to come to Notre Dame for a one-year program to study, discern and then launch the next phase of their lives as a renewed and richly prepared force for good in their communities and beyond. 

In the 2018-19 academic year, ILI fellows explored works by Homer and Virgil, delved into Dante, and navigated writings by W.E.B. Du Bois and C.S. Lewis. For three hours each week, they gathered to make sense of the latest text together — and to share the meaning it holds for them as they begin to explore and discern the next chapter of their lives. 

Stapleford says the chosen works help ILI fellows ponder two critical questions — what they want to do with their lives, and how they can act as a force for good in the world.

By tackling texts that stretch them to think differently, and by sharing their insights within the context of a community, they can explore together the answers that make sense for each of them. 

“It’s a very powerful way for the ILI fellows as a group to go through this experience. And there’s something really important about doing this as a community,” Stapleford says. “Many of them could have just taken a year off and sat at home, read a bunch of works, and gone to plays and the opera. But the difference between doing that and having this experience in a community is quite radical. We have this natural urge not just to experience something, but to talk with someone else who’s shared that experience with us and learn from them at the same time. It’s that communal experience that is really critical for the whole process.”