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Ask the Right Question

From James Bratt

Last night I received a teaching award at my college--most surprisingly and not a little discomfiting, as the remarks below indicate. But an occasion to celebrate a worthy common project in our Reformed endeavor, nonetheless. Here, then, my acceptance speech.

When President LeRoy called me up with news of this prize, I immediately replied no, no, you can’t mean it. I was afraid that the awards committee was going to visit my next class, observe for five minutes, then quickly meet to revoke its decision. I started a mental list of four or five people just in my department who are better teachers than I. So, first denial, then anxiety, then bargaining—why was I responding to such good news by recapitulating the five stages of grief? I decided to drop that line and go for gratitude instead. Here then my simple, heartfelt thanks for this wonderful tribute. I accept it, as my predecessors in this prize all have, as a tribute to all Calvin College faculty­­ for the unrelenting commitment it takes to sustain good teaching day by day over the long run. Most of all, I accept it as a tribute to our common project of Christian liberal arts education.

Some of my best moments in that project came in teaching the students on our honors floor last year. Every Monday night from September to May we met to discuss a great book, in this case Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I chose this title not because De Tocqueville, much less America, got everything right, but because of the penetrating questions this French aristocrat asked of a strange new democracy 180 years ago. I wanted us to be provoked by his observations to better understand this country and other countries today, and also to demonstrate how various disciplines can converge to enrich our comprehension of a subject.

Our conversations in that class were spritely, wide-ranging and very revealing—especially to me as a teacher.

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