||Theory Camp: Professor leads students in analysis of A Secular Age
RELEASED: August 6, 2009
DANVILLE, KY— For the past two weeks, Centre College sociology professor Dr. Beau Weston has been making good on the College's promise of "personal education."
From July 27 through August 6, Weston collaborated with six students during his annual Theory Camp, a challenging two-week event in which selected students study and discuss a specific social theory book. This summer, Harry Chalmers '12, Victoria Crowell '10, Olivia Fitzpatrick '10, Kate Pedersen '10, Scott Meltzer '10, and Stephen Crown-Weber (Princeton '10) joined Weston to critique Charles Taylor's A Secular Age.
Their discussions have been centered on Taylor's thesis, which refutes the idea that society continues to lose concern with God and spirituality as advancements are made in the worlds of modernity, science and democracy.
The book is by no means a light read, which is one of the reasons Weston selected it for this summer's camp.
"One of my goals for the camp each year is to con smart people into talking to me about intensive, difficult books," Weston says.
Weston's idea for the Theory Camp was hatched four years ago when he spent the summer collaborating with a single student, Mark Mallman '07. After several weeks of discussing Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction: The Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Weston and Mallman reached the conclusion that a group setting would have made for a more complete understanding of the theoretically dense book.
"That was the right decision," Weston says. The group setting, he adds, has allowed "the students to teach me as much as I teach them. The connections we make as a group are useful in so many unexpected ways, from my own research to my classes to the future discussions I'll have with these very students about what we discovered this summer."
Debuting in 2007, the Theory Camp holds its meetings each summer in The Hub Coffee House (adjoining The Centre Bookstore), where Weston meets regularly with his students throughout the school year.
"The coffeehouse setting is important," Weston says, and not just for the Theory Camp participants. In fact, Weston believes, one of the greatest benefits of holding their meetings in such an intimate, public setting is that outsiders are often privy to the group's intellectual discussions.
"People keep stopping by the table to ask what we're doing or talking about," Meltzer explains. "One day it was President Roush, other days it's Centre professors or students. It's nice that other people can overhear our discussions about these difficult ideas."
Those overhearing the group's conversations this summer have been exposed to more than just thoughts about sociology or philosophy.
"We're reading a religious and philosophical book," Meltzer says. "But we've pulled in ideas from everything from family life to the current health care reform plan to fashion to Transformers to zombies. I can't just give a two-word description of the book anymore. Even memories we have from when we were kids have new meaning now."
Adds Weston, "You never know what will crop up in our conversations. Transformers has become an unexpected theme for us this summer. I like to say that we're transforming our ideas and beliefs about secularity."
Because the students have had just two weeks to delve into A Secular Age, they've been forced to undergo these transformations very quickly.
"It's been much more rigorous than I'd expected," Crowell says. "So much of our free time is spent reading, especially because we want to stop and truly contemplate what it is we're reading."
Although they admit that the work has been more intense than they imagined it would be, the students have enjoyed the experience a great deal.
"It's lovely to be able to come here and be so focused and truly engaged on one book," Pedersen says. "At Centre, we're involved in so many different things at the same time, but here, it's nice that there's just the one focus."
By focusing on a single work, the students have gained a much greater understanding of the fields of sociology, philosophy and religion.
"During the school year, I'm more focused on the practical sides of sociology, but here, I've learned that theoretical ideas soon become the social imaginary," Fitzpatrick says. "We're getting to throw around ideas that may become the generally accepted ideas a few years from now."
And because the students are sharing the task of critiquing such a demanding, complex book, they've been able to form a much closer relationship with one another than they often do during their regular courses.
"We're working so closely as a group to try to get to the truth,” Chalmers says, explaining how the intimacy of the small group has helped him "take my ideas and be more open about sharing them."
The two weeks of very intense study have, Weston believes, enabled both him and the students to develop "a deeper understanding of the issues involved in thinking about what secularity means and the real problems in imagining a secular society."
As the 2009 Theory Camp comes to a close, each student will use this deeper understanding to compose a short paper on an idea from A Secular Age that resonates strongly with him or her. After sharing their essays on the final day of the camp, the group plans to celebrate with a farewell dinner before leaving to spread their transformed ideas and beliefs with others.
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Consumers Digest ranks Centre No. 1 in educational value among all U.S. liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
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