Season 4 - Episode 437
On the 700th anniversary of his death, Dante still resonates, providing timeless insight into the challenges people face and a guide to navigate those trials. In this Baylor Connections, Douglas Henry, Dean of the Honors College, shares why the Honors College is leading the world’s largest Dante reading group, called “100 Days of Dante,” and takes listeners inside the Honors College’s approach to transformative education.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections Conversation Series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and our guest today is Dr. Douglas Henry. Dr. Henry serves as Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. The Honors College brings together four innovative interdisciplinary undergraduate programs, the honors program, university scholars, Baylor interdisciplinary core, and great texts in a shared commitment to transformative Christian education for the university's best and brightest students. Dr. Henry served as associate Dean and interim Dean prior to being named as Honors College Dean in 2020 within the college, he's taught students in all four of the Honors College programs. His scholarship has addressed varied writers from Plato to Walker Percy, and he's co-edited three books on the subject of church-related colleges and universities. This month Baylor's Honors College is leading the world's largest Dante reading group. It's called 100 days of Dante with support from five universities in honor of the 700th anniversary of Dante's death. Well, Dean Henry, thanks so much for joining us. It's great to have you on the program with us and looking forward to learning more about Dante and the Honors College and spending some time together. Thank you so much.
Douglas Henry:It's my pleasure. Thank you, Derek.
Derek Smith:Well, it's great to have you here and let's start off with the significance of the timing. Dante passed away 700 years ago, September 14th, 1321. What is it about his work that even now seven centuries later, still so resonates?
Douglas Henry:Dante's Divine Comedy is by most accounts the greatest single work of literature ever written. So whether 700 years after his death or 7,000 years after his death, this is one of those enduring works that deserves our attention. It's beautiful. Heart-rendingly beautiful at points, Derek. And so there is an elevating and an inspiring quality to it. It's an engaging work. It tells a dramatic story of a man who finds himself lost in a dark wood, we learn in the opening lines of this piece. And in that darkness, he's full of despair. His life has not taken the path that he thought it would. Unbidden help comes to him in the form of friends, a guide who helps him through the difficulties before him. It's a poem that takes him to the depths of hell and the heights of heaven. And as readers, we get to follow along with him, it's a story I'm convinced we can all relate to because sooner or later we're going to, like Dante, find ourselves in darkness, whether it's in the woods or whether it's somewhere else and we're going to need help to get out. And if we're like Dante by God's grace, that help might come to us. So it deserves to be read for all those reasons. It's a great work that shows us how low we can fall and how high we can soar. It's also a poem, I like to remind others, that gives us portraits of people in all sorts of different walks of life from poor widows to mighty emperors, from saints to sinners, lovers and warriors, people who work with their hands and people who work with their heads. And so there's a relatable aspect to it. For all these reasons I tell everybody they should get a copy and read it. Read it now.
Derek Smith:Well, you're going to be doing that together over the next few months, 100 days of Dante. And I want to talk to you about that and also get to know a little more about the Honors College as well, and the interplay between some of the tie-ins between the two. And so what can you tell us about that for maybe people unfamiliar with Honors College? What does a program on Dante communicate about what the Honors College is all about and the ways you strive to pour into students?
Douglas Henry:I encourage all of our listeners to visit the project website 100daysofdante.com. This particular initiative is a wonderful public-facing demonstration of the kinds of commitments typical of Baylor's Honors College. I always start with our university mission, which we recite often and live by daily: Preparing men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community. In the Honors College, we take up that mission in a particular way, by giving attention to what Matthew Arnold once called the best which has been thought and said in the world. That means Dante and Plato. It means Homer and Shakespeare. It means Mary Shelley and Flannery O'Connor. Isaac Newton, John law, Jane Austin, Nietzsche, Aristotle, all of those great authors whose work is perennially important in part because it asks and is oriented around what I call wisdom questions, questions about the deepest things of human life, what we're for, what at our best we are, the ways in which things can unravel and go awry. And these are the sorts of questions that are relevant to everybody. They're important for everybody and they're relevant to everybody. And for any student we happen to have at Baylor pursuing any professional direction for their life, whether they're going to be doctors or lawyers or engineers or teachers or social workers, whatever it is they might do, these are the sort of authors and texts and ideas and questions that they should carry with them for the rest of their lives. So a hundred days of Dante gives people around the world an opportunity to participate in the sort of conversation and in the quality of education that is typical for us, that we're privileged to undertake with great students every day at Baylor. Read supremely important books, revel in the beauty and wisdom of them and learn from each other how to lead more excellent lives in service and leadership to others.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Douglas Henry Dean of the Honors College. And you mentioned you have students going into any number of varied professions and industries and with different disciplines. So how does that work? Do you have students with different majors? And in what ways, what are the threads that tie perhaps a student wanting to go into the medical field with a student looking somewhere very different?
Douglas Henry:Undergraduate population at Baylor is about 15,000. Nice even number. Math works well with it. About 10% of those students, so 1500 undergraduates at Baylor, are connected in some way to the Honors College. And as I've already intimated, and your question indicates as well, they study all sorts of things. Baylor offers over 140 different majors for undergraduates, and any of those majors can be pursued in connection with an honors education. What we hope to do with those students, whatever their academic interests are, whatever their professional aspirations happen to be, is to elevate and enrich the quality of education they're getting. And there are a variety of ways in which that happens. Number of pathway through which students might go in getting to that end result. But we really do want to find and enable students regardless of their academic pursuits, who are interested in exercising a high caliber of stewardship over their lives and their education.
Derek Smith:You mentioned the word stewardship. What does that mean to you? As it relates to your students, and as it relates to students' approach to their time here at Baylor?
Douglas Henry:Those of us associated with Baylor have a great stewardship in response to those who came before us, who dreamed of a university that would serve people in the nation of Texas, in those days. We aspire to serve students from around the world today. So there's a stewardship of the first order to our predecessors, to our forebears, to those who laid the foundations of the university. We have a stewardship to various publics now. Those who support us philanthropically, those who advocate for us near and far. We have a particular stewardship also to our students. And that's a stewardship that we share with them. So often in visiting with prospective students, we'll point out to them to whom much has been given, much more is required. It's a line from scripture. If they are looking at Baylor University, if they're looking at an honors education at Baylor University, they have been given much. So there is a high order of stewardship they're invited to lead over their lives. A stewardship that takes stock of all those gifts and blessing they have received. Natural talent and the painstaking investment of teachers. Certainly the lifelong love and support of family members, moms, and dads, brothers, and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all of these people who have poured into their lives, "What are you going to do now with these resources that have been placed before you?" The Honors College is an opportunity for them to exercise a stewardship over those gifts and blessings. And by enabling us to share that stewardship with them, our hope is that they will fulfill this very bold mission that we articulate at Baylor.
Derek Smith:Obviously a lot of them they're being trained to be excellent practitioners of whatever it is that they do. But as they think about some of these wisdom questions and read great texts and think through things at a higher level, what are some of the things that you hope that that embues in them professionally too someday, as they're in their chosen field, in their calling?
Douglas Henry:We all need to exercise wise, thoughtful, prudent judgment. One of the things that I think in professional work sometimes we suppose, is that a list of professional principles or a set of ethical guidelines, and professions are commonly now in possession of these sorts of things, is sufficient. It turns out it's not. Those things can too often be extraneous to the character, to the inner life, to the promptings within. One of the things that I think is important is for students who are going to be these professionals in time, to have inhabited the imaginative space, if I can put it in that somewhat flowery way, inhabit the imaginative space of people who have aspired to great things, but sometimes fallen gravely short through character flaws, or through all sorts of interventions unwelcome, undesired by them, and to learn from their mistakes. To incorporate those lessons into their lives so that character accrues, so that there is a preparedness, not only to know what is good and right, but to act upon it when the moment comes. And so that's the sort of education I think that Baylor aspires to ultimately, one that is holistic in scope, tending to the intellectual and moral and spiritual formation of students.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Douglas Henry, Dean of the Honors College at Baylor. And I want to ask you, I mentioned that you assumed the role of Dean in 2020, so a little over a year, but you've been stewarding that role before that. And been at the Honors College well before that. What's meaningful to you about that chance for leadership here at Honors College at this specific time in its history?
Douglas Henry:Derek, I love what I do. I'm alongside in the company of any number of great leaders who care about Baylor and care about the aspirations that we have embraced together. My predecessor as Dean of the Honors College, Tom Hibbs sets a really high bar for me and for us. There is leadership. We've built a very capable faculty and have a tremendous track record of success, in part because of his work, and the contributions of plenty of others along the way. We're on the cusp of some breakthrough moments in the life of the Honors College. And for that reason, this is an exciting time to have the responsibilities that I have. We're attracting new kinds of donor interest around endowed chairs that will enable us to identify and attract and retain a distinguished faculty that we need in order to do our work well. We've also, through the vision and the generosity of our board of Regents, got a timeline in place now for renovation and expansion of our Honors Residential College. And this is something we have long hoped for. Two fairly old halls at Baylor Memorial and Alexander make up the Honors Residential College. And so we're excited about what this will do for students' experience there outside the classroom. We're also making some incredible gains in student recruitment, literally hundreds of applications now annually from students who were in the top 1% of high school seniors bound for college. And that means we have the opportunity to shepherd them through this formative, critically important season of life, as they are moving from young adulthood toward professional responsibility. So many things that Baylor can offer to them. So with all those things in mind, I am confident that within a few years, we're going to be able credibly to make the case that Baylor's Honors College is the preeminent Honors College in all of American higher education.
Derek Smith:Well, that's very exciting, a lot to look forward to and look forward to watching that growth take place in the months and years ahead. Visiting with Dr. Douglas Henry here on Baylor Connections and let's shift back to 100 days of Dante. You painted a picture for us at the top of the program, but as we dive in, what are some of your hopes for this? Again, you're bringing people together, the world's largest Dante reading group to dive into Divine Comedy together. What are some of your hopes for this?
Douglas Henry:We've got a very straightforward motto for the project: Let's Read Together. So at one level that is our hope. We want to read this great work together, to benefit from it both personally and corporately. And in saying that I want to underscore that reading together is anticipatory of a learning together, of a dreaming together of the ways in which our lives and the world around us might be better than presently we find our lives and that world. There are all sorts of things, both near and far, that it's not difficult to look at and think, "That's not the way things should be. We ought not to suffer indefinitely in a world ravaged by pandemics. We ought not to live in a world in which racial tensions flare into conflicts that destroy people's lives. We ought not to live in a world ridden by war and the devastation it leaves in its wake." We have all these things we can look out and see in the world. These are not new problems. Dante encountered his own instances of precisely these things. Climate change happened in his day. Wildfires happened in his day. Crop failures happened in his day. Wars, civil unrest, exile, homelessness, displaced peoples all of these things he was familiar with. And in various ways we can encounter these phenomena in his work, but in a different time and a different culture and in a different context. And by looking at his experiences through the lens of this beautiful epic poem, we can benefit as we look upon the horizons of our own life, finding ways of navigating through these difficulties and coming out on the other side better people, better families, better neighbors, better citizens.
Derek Smith:Talking with Dr. Henry, and you paint such a great portrait... Paint such a great picture of the work and really almost a great elevator pitch for it, if you will. But I want to ask you is also too, for people who maybe, that's not the type of reading they normally delve into, going back into great texts or in this case going back seven centuries. What would you tell them about this book? Not only in its relevance today, but its accessibility?
Douglas Henry:So Derek, I read all sorts of things. I'm a voracious reader, a wide reader. So histories of World War II and Winston Churchill, I've read recently. Children's literature, I've read recently. Dante, I've read recently. Contemporary fiction, all sorts of books are attractive to me. What I'll say is that for anyone who thinks, "Well, this is one of those really important, great works. It must be difficult. It might be dull. I don't know if I can get into it." I'll say those are all misperceptions. Of all the great works that one might aspire to read and pick up and begin reading, this has got to be one of the most relevant, one of the most engaging, one of the most accessible. Many translations readily available. You can go into any bookstore and pick one up and you'll find yourself captivated within moments of beginning. How could it not be? Here's a man who is so eminently compelling because he knows life has gone badly and he needs help and help comes. And every step along the way of what ends up being a pilgrimage story, the help that he gets, the insights that he understands, the questions that he raises and the answers he gets from his very patient guides along the way, draw us in, making it an accessible sort of work. Because often Dante himself, he's a character in the story that he writes, he asks questions that are our questions. He'll say, "I don't understand. Explain it." And his guides again and again and again will very patiently say, "Well, here's how you ought to think about this," or "That thing that you see over there, here's what you're seeing," or "That sound that falls just outside the limits of your understanding. Let me tell you what's coming. What that sound means." Sometimes it's a good thing. Sometimes it's something that means time to run, time to get out of here quickly. So it's the sort of book, Derek, that everyone can read, everyone should read. And if a hundred days of Dante succeeds, a whole lot of people will pick up and read for the first time or the hundredth time.
Derek Smith:You mentioned it's the world's largest Dante reading group. Obviously people are going to be joining in from all over. What are some of the ways in that virtual format people visit the website 100daysofdante.com. What are some of the ways you're going to share in this work together and build that community together from disparate parts?
Douglas Henry:So this website you just mentioned is the public aspect of the project, the way in which others will engage in a highly interactive, brilliantly designed creative work, which provides access to a kind of geography of this work, which is divided into a hundred parts or a hundred chapters, a hundred Cantos as Dante describes them. And so the website enables one to navigate the geography of the Inferno and that of the Purgatorio, the middle part, and that of the Paradiso, so you can descend down the circles of the Inferno. You can climb up the terraces of the Purgatorio. You can soar through the circles of heaven, of paradise. The centerpiece of the project, however, is not the geography and the navigational aspects of the website, and figuring out which level corresponds to which vice or which virtue or that sort of thing. The centerpiece is rather brief video essays that will be prepared by a number of colleagues here at Baylor and other universities collaborating with us around the country. And in these brief video essays, six to eight minutes in length, a noted expert, somebody who has read and understood this text is going to offer a brief edifying and accessible bit of advice on how to understand what one is reading and the idea here isn't to offer expert commentary or a scholarly address, but to talk to ordinary people about this thing that they may be reading for the first time and give them a little bite-sized understanding, something that's really significant and worth them meditating on, thinking through, holding on to, remembering, using to make sense of their lives. And the text as well.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Douglas Henry. And Dr. Henry, so if people want to get involved is there anything they need to do beforehand, or just a copy of the book and logging to the website enough?
Douglas Henry:That is enough. There are a couple of things that might make it a little bit easier to profit. I would encourage visiting the website now. There is an introductory video about a minute and a half in length. It's inspiring. It's interesting. I think it's quite well done. And there's an opportunity to sign up for email updates, and that will provide a prompt as each of these short video commentaries become available. Three per week. First will be released on September the eighth and then each week over a period that extends through Easter this next spring. That's when the culmination of the book, the dramatic conclusion of this epic also falls. And so we're going to wrap up just as Dante does with [sight] of the glory of God on Easter Sunday. The other thing that one can do is follow on social media, a very active engagement, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds associated with the project. Getting a copy of the Divine Comedy is the other obvious thing. There are additions of that in public domain available online, but I really recommend going to the bookstore and picking up a translation and any translation you'll find in bookstores around Waco throughout central Texas and elsewhere are going to work.
Derek Smith:Talking with Dr. Henry. And again, 100daysofdante.com is where you can go to join in that. And Dr. Henry, as we wind down to the final couple of minutes, I want to bring it all together here. And you've talked about the fact that this book has timeless wisdom for hard times and what you... The kind of students you want to build. And obviously people get a taste of that as they work through 100 days of Dante with you together. Let me ask you specifically, what is it about this time in human history in particular that most calls for students educated holistically, or people just having someone to walk alongside them, to think through some of these important topics together?
Douglas Henry:This time is like all times. This time is unique for us, but in the vast sweep of human history, we're living through the same sorts of questions and issues and challenges. We're embracing the same sorts of hopes and dreams for our lives that people perennially have entertained. There's a woman whose work I have benefited from. I return to her often, Edith Hamilton was her name, writing in the first part of the 20th century. And these lines often use even with prospective students talking about what we can offer in terms of a high quality Baylor education in the Honors College. Here's what she says, Derek. She says, "When the storm clouds gather and the bad that happens, and the worst that threatens are so great as to blot out everything else from view, then we need the strong fortresses of the spirit, which men have built through the ages." And then she goes on to say, "The eternal perspectives are being blotted out. And our judgment of immediate issues will go awry unless we can recover them." 1930s, when she's writing these lines, all sorts of difficulties, both then and on the horizon. And the decade of the 1940s was going to turn out to be even worse. The storm clouds, in fact gathered, and the cataclysmic storms fell with their fury upon the European continent. Her reminder to us today is that these sorts of works, these sorts of great texts, like Dante's Divine Comedy have perennial relevance to us because the storm clouds are going to gather anew, if they aren't already up on us. We are going to encounter the bad and the worst [inaudible]. And then we're going to need to have resources. We're going to need to have understanding of what is good and true and wise in order to navigate those challenges. And she's very practical about this. Our judgment of immediate issues will go awry unless we have those bearings to help us chart our course. That means we need this wisdom, not just for the grand, difficult challenges of life, but we need it today, lest we stumble into falls that we could otherwise avoid. So that's the sort of thing that I aspire for all of us to see our students leave Baylor with. To emerge out of the Honors College with that sense of cherishing wisdom that can guide them personally, professionally, as family members, as citizens. And I think we do a capable job of that every day.
Derek Smith:Well, absolutely. That's a great way to summarize our time together as we wind down. And I hope people, you can visit the Honors College online. And again, would take part in 100 days of Dante, 100daysofdante.com. Well, Dr. Henry we'll look forward to seeing some exciting things in store during 100 days of Dante and the Honors College as well. And appreciate you taking the time to share with us today.
Douglas Henry:Thanks so much, Derek.
Derek Smith:Thank you so much, Dr. Douglas Henry, Dean of the Honors College, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. Reminder, you can hear this and other programs online, baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.