Judge Steven Bell, PLS '75, re-experiences "the simple joy of learning"

Author: Program of Liberal Studies

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It had been 50 years since I sat in a PLS seminar room. It had been a half century since I last sat around a table with a group of eager students discussing a great book.

I traveled back to campus in June to join the 2023 Program of Liberal Studies Summer Symposium. I was hooked when I learned the title of the Symposium: “Will the World be Saved by Beauty? Aesthetics and the Common Good.”

I graduated from the Program in 1975. After law school, I became an Assistant U.S. Attorney. I was then in private practice for many years before becoming a judge. I am fortunate to have many bright lawyers argue before me every day. I read hundreds of pages of legal briefs and documents every week. I write many opinions and orders each year. It is a gift to remain intellectually challenged.

I have forgotten much about the great books I read so many years ago in the Program. I would be hard-pressed to pass one of the oral exams we used to face at semester’s end. But the lessons learned in the PLS seminar rooms have stayed with me through all this time: I have not forgotten the wonder of learning. I have not forgotten the joy of being able to form and express a coherent opinion. I have never stopped admiring the faculty who have quietly influenced my thinking for all these years. It has never escaped me that I learned as much from my fellow students as from any of the books we studied together.

I walked into the first class of the Symposium on Monday morning and took a seat at the foot of the table. Professor Eric Bugyis began a 4-day exploration of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. A group of strangers collectively followed the personal and moral interactions of Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myschkin (“a believable Christ figure”), with a pageant of less beautiful souls in 19th century St. Petersburg. We talked. We cited text. We discussed what it might mean for someone to be “Christ-like.” We struggled with a hundred Russian names. We disagreed and explained our views. Strangers began to bond in conversation.

Professor Phil Sloan helped us explore beauty as found in the natural world. For several days, we traced theories of the movement of heavenly bodies from Ptolemy to Copernicus to Kepler to Newton. One highlight of Professor Sloan’s class was an evening visit to the Digital Visualization Theater in the (relatively) new Jordan Science Hall. In the DVT, Professor Sloan and an astronomer were able to show and discuss breathtaking high-resolution photos of deep space recently taken by the Webb Space Telescope.

Professor Sloan then turned from the beauty of planetary movement to how beauty might be expressed in the biological world. Readings from Galen, Aristotle, Goethe were considered before we turned our attention to Darwin and then to Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA double helix.

Afternoon sessions featured Professor Steve Fallon reading with us poems by Emily Dickinson. The Dickinson poems came to life during the class discussions. I wondered how many others had ever been so fortunate as to participate in three days of a brilliantly guided discussion of poetry.

Professor Chris Chowrimootoo led a fascinating week-long discussion centered around Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Death in Venice. Philosophical prehistories, including Plato’s Phaedrus and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy were considered before an exploration of Mann’s novella was initiated. On the fourth day of Professor Chowrimootoo’s class, Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film of Death in Venice was viewed and discussed. On the final day of the class, we watched and discussed Benjamin Britten’s remarkable opera Death in Venice. The opportunity to study the original work in some depth, and to then consider the alternative presentations of the story in Visconti’s film and Britten’s opera allowed the participants to explore the ambiguities and challenges presented by Mann’s novella. 

A somewhat “formal” dinner was held in the South Dining Hall on the penultimate evening of the Symposium. The dinner allowed us to reflect on the discussions of the week, and to cement new bonds of friendship.

I was intimidated when I first saw the readings selected for the Symposium. I thought I might have forgotten how to read something other than legal paperwork. I thought I might have forgotten the pleasure of understanding a poem. With the help of the incredible PLS faculty and my fellow students, I came away from the Symposium reminded of the lifelong gift of curiosity and reminded of the simple joy of learning.

Steve Bell
General Program of Liberal Studies, Class of 1975