The Exploration of Thought
August 22, 2017 | By Eve Tolpa
As the Graduate Institute at St. John’s turns 50 years old, the college is featuring a series of stories to highlight the history, students—past and present—and other contributors who have made it what it is today.
For William Edelglass, openness to the experience of others leads to empathy.
It’s a worldview that springs from his St. John’s College education and one he shared in an address at the Graduate Institute commencement ceremony August 4 on the Santa Fe campus.
When Edelglass completed his undergraduate degree at that same campus in 1993, he was “thinking I’d spend a decade living in different places” exploring different jobs. To that end, he worked with St. John’s Search and Rescue, taught philosophy in a prison in New York, and spent many years as a wilderness guide, among other things.
A path in academia wasn’t initially in his plans, but Edelglass found himself increasingly drawn to philosophy and enrolled in Emory University’s doctoral program, which, at that time, “was deeply committed to the history of philosophy, a commitment I shared coming from St. John’s.”
His dissertation focused on the self and the suffering of the other, drawing on the work of modern Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and eighth-century Buddhist scholar Śāntideva, a dual focus that allowed him to situate himself within Eastern and Western traditions.
Now a professor of philosophy and director of environmental studies at Marlboro College in Vermont, as well as a regular faculty member at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Edelglass co-edits a journal called Environmental Philosophy. He recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for his project Peoples, Places, and the History of the Written Word in Brattleboro, VT.
“A lot of my professional career is doing academic work and teaching that go along with my personal values,” he says.
He also encourages students to arrive at their own views, an approach rooted in his experiences at St. John’s.
“The practice of reading and exploring through conversation the great books in the Western tradition cultivated a sense of openness for other people’s experience and other accounts of the world,” Edelglass says. As a result, he integrates race, gender, post-colonial and environmental theory into his curricula.
A multiplicity of perspectives, he finds, is crucial to any intellectual endeavor.
“One of my favorite Tibetan proverbs, is ‘Where you find agreement, you find fools.’” He’s now working on a multi-author book and notes that, from a collaborative writing perspective, “someone else’s critical mind helps me refine my own view of things. This is why Plato says that courage is one of the most important virtues of philosophy. Without being vulnerable and saying what we think, we will not be able to find out where we are making problematic claims.”
In his commencement speech, Edelglass referred to an incident from a period he spent teaching Western philosophy to Tibetan monks at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India. An elderly monk had confessed that he viewed the study of Western thought as a distraction at best and harmful at worst.
“I think I laughed out loud, because what this monk said was so similar to a view I had heard from some Western philosophers, who believed that philosophy from India and Tibet, for example, should be taught in a religious studies department, or an area studies program. Somehow they believed both in the universality of reason, and also seemed to think that this universal reason only arises, or is only accessible, in particular locations, or by particular people. The Graduate Institute is a welcome alternative to such parochialism.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Graduate Institute, which offers a master’s degree in Liberal Arts year-round on the college’s Santa Fe and Annapolis campuses. The Eastern Classics program, offered in Santa Fe only, was founded in 1994.
This summer in Santa Fe, the college awarded 17 degrees in Eastern Classics and six master’s degrees in Liberal Arts; Annapolis granted 11 Liberal Arts degrees to GI students.
A dinner for graduating students in Santa Fe was hosted on August 1, and the commencement ceremony three days later featured music by Native American flutist Ronald Roybal, as well as a luncheon. Commencement in Annapolis took place the same day, with tutor William Pastille serving as commencement speaker.
Learn more about the history of the Graduate Institute and upcoming festivities on the GI 50th Anniversary page.