The CentreTerm course Radical Lives: Models of Subversion led by Assistant Professor of History Stephen Dove asks students to take an in-depth look at two well-known social revolutionaries whose ideas for creating change, though intrinsically different, were both profoundly impactful.
The lives of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a leading commander in the Cuban Revolution, and Ernesto Cardenal, a revolutionary poet‐priest from Nicaragua, dedicated their lives to very different causes. Dove’s class explores the questions, “Why do some people dedicate their lives completely to a cause? How can two people interpret radical dedication to the same cause so differently? Why is some social protest peaceful and some violent?”
The course examines these questions and others about radicalization, subversion and activism, featuring primary research into the lives of Guevara and Cardenal and first‐hand encounters with contemplative and social situations similar to those that inspired these two revolutionaries.
Che Guevara is one of the best-known figures of the 20th Century, while not as much is known about Ernesto Cardenal, who formed a utopian religious community in Nicaragua and developed part of his religious radicalism while living in Kentucky at Gethsemani Abbey near Bardstown. To gain insight, students in Dove’s class spent three days in silent spiritual retreat at the abbey.
“The three-day silent retreat was a great way to see how much a person sacrifices to dedicate their life to a cause,” says Alex Winkler ’18. “The monks (at the abbey) follow a very regimented schedule and carry it out every day no matter what. In our class discussion, I feel like all of us said, ‘I could never do that,’ at least once.”
Brendan Holly ’18 says the silent retreat allowed him to think deeply about life goals, evaluating what he wants to achieve and why.
“In silence I recognized just how important conversation is for the exploration of my ideas. I have respect for the people who devote their lives to silent contemplation, but I am not revoking my right to speak anytime soon.”
The class also visited the Backside Learning Center (BLC) at Churchill Downs race track in Louisville. The center seeks to enhance the lives of equine workers and their families, who are primarily Hispanic, by providing education, resources and community.
“I have visited the BLC before and was struck by the stark contrasts between the polished, spectator side of Churchill Downs that we see each May during the Kentucky Derby and life on the backside,” Dove says.
“I found the Backside Learning Center very eye-opening,” Winkler continues. “We toured the ‘front side’ of Churchill Downs, which is the glamorous side that everyone knows about. It is an icon of the city. Then, we had the opportunity to tour the backside of the race track. This is where the barns for the horses are and, as you can imagine, is not as glamorous as the front side.”
“Hearing the stories of the workers and their journeys made me appreciate all that I have been blessed with and appreciate the hard work they do,” says Devin Hayes ’18.
For the final project, each student chose a social issue and developed a life plan for how to engage that issue.
“I doubt that any of them will opt for armed revolution like Guevara or for forming a utopian community like Cardenal,” Dove explains, “but I hope that understanding the journeys that led these two men to those radical decisions will inspire the students to think deeply about what is really important and what they should do with that knowledge.
“I want my students to be aware of how complicated the world is, how valuable other people’s perspectives are, and how thoughtful and humble we all need to be when interacting with other people,” Dove adds. “In the context of thinking about social problems, I want them to realize that potential solutions are just as complicated as the problems that they address.”
Learn more about CentreTerm.
by Cindy Long
Photo: Students in Assistant Professor of History Stephen Dove’s Radical Lives: Models of Subversion course visit Gethsemani Abbey in Bardstown, Ky.