Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Sentimental Intellect: An Education in Teaching and Deep Thinking​

By Mary Hierholzer ’16

Ian Corbin wants to bring more clarity, understanding and happiness to the world. He often writes cultural and literary criticisms for publications like The Wall Street Journal, First Things, The Weekly Standard, Commonweal, The New Criterion and The American Conservative. But the ’06 Gordon alumnus, 32, gives a wry laugh when asked about his treasury of fellowships and scholarships. A true philosopher, he would rather discuss life over coffee than rattle off a list of achievements.

Corbin’s Gordon experience was not the typical four-years-and-La-Vida. After two years at Salem State University, a professor recommended that he transfer to Gordon for the Oxford program abroad. His junior year, Corbin came to Gordon as a political science major, and found himself in the first cohort of the Jerusalem and Athens Forum (JAF). The seminar came at a time of transformation in his education, when Corbin had “just discovered Christian intellectual tradition beyond C.S. Lewis.”

“JAF was an extremely formative year,” Corbin says. “I was moving out of a version of Christianity that was very anti-intellectual. It was refreshing and liberating to read great texts.”

Every so often he returns the favor to JAF as a guest lecturer. Through the program Corbin was introduced two very influential Thomases: Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Albert (Tal) Howard, Gordon’s Center for Faith and Inquiry director. The professor became a mentor to Corbin, and through Howard he met professors who remain good friends.

“I was especially moved by Thomas Aquinas and his confident, clear-eyed openness to whatever reality held,” he says. “Tal is the same with his schtick.”

Corbin laughs at his vocabulary. “Change that to ‘metier,’” he says.

His senior year, Corbin got what he came for: Oxford. A “Podunk evangelical kid” displaced in Oxford, he studied under a tutor, Professor Richard Alan Cross, who wore three piece suits every day and was considered by some to be the smartest man at Oxford.

Corbin wanted to make an impression. He put 40–50 hours into his first paper, and marched into the office of a man who could cite any section from the Summa Theologica—“And have you seen the Summa?” he asks me. Upon Cross’s request, Corbin read his first essay out loud, shaking with fear.

Corbin twists his face into a prim expression and slips into a proper English accent: “Oh, what a very clever boy,” he quotes like a caricature of his scholarly tutor.

Oxford, Corbin says, was incredibly difficult, but a crucible with his book’s worth of research papers. It was, essentially, a master’s program. Corbin was shifting from political to philosophical studies. In the following two years he pursued a master’s degree in philosophy of religion at Yale Divinity School, as an Earhart Scholar.

“I’m not sure how many questions my education has answered, but it clarified a ton of things,” he says. “In everything I try to do, my education is very much present. It has shaped my view of the world and what it means.”

When Corbin speaks of his 2012 experience as a Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal, he recalls the office’s free coffee and cheap bananas on his walk to work. “It was a good setup for me,” he says. “Bananas and coffee and writing.”

After an intimidating interview for the internship, Corbin showed up at the Wall Street Journal office for his first day in the Op-Ed department, flaunting a suit and tie, possibly even a pocket square, he recalls with a shudder. The dapper young scholar with a Yale M.A. and a Boston College Ph.D. in the works found himself trucking massive piles of books around the office in a large metal cart.

“It was a little embarrassing because I was wearing a suit, but everyone thought it was funny and they were apologetic because I had already been writing for the Journal for a while,” Corbin says.

But the manual labor did not last long. As a fellow he attended editorial board meetings, and proposed, wrote and edited articles for the Journal. In 2013 Corbin was named a Novak Journalism Fellow. On the program’s grant, he is producing an article series, “The Nature and Value of Conservative Cultural Criticism.”

For six years now, Corbin has worked toward a Ph.D. in philosophy at Boston College. His dissertation explores “the experience of beauty as a springboard for intuition of spiritual reality.” A Lilly Graduate Fellow and a Presidential Fellow at BC, he teaches an introductory philosophy course, required of all BC undergraduates. On the side he teaches English as a second language, and tutors.

Though he says his first year of teaching was intimidating, Corbin now sees potential to love the work. Realizing that students take his course due to college requirements, he selects exciting texts in hopes that a student will get his foot in the door. He wants them to experience revelations: “Oh my goodness, Eliot solves everything!”

“Teaching is salesmanship in some large part because the ideas are important and astounding and amazing and exciting,” Corbin said. “The pieces teach themselves, you just unpack it a little bit. It’s the easiest thing in the world.”

Corbin views both teaching and writing as opportunities to share his joys and passions.

“I tend to write about thinkers and artists who I appreciate a lot because when I am immersed in a great piece of music or literature, I am very, very happy and I feel such deep kinship and love for the people who have made the things that I’m consuming,” Corbin said. “I want more people to experience those things. I want to say to my students something like, ‘Guys, guys, GUYS! You’ve got to read The Brothers Karamazov. It’s going to make your life better.’”

In his teaching, he applies the philosophical style of Albert Camus: personal and emotional. Recalling his own classroom experiences and surveying his students, Corbin concludes that the most profound impressions come from teachers who are transparent, teaching with passion for their subject.

“If Eliot means a lot to me, I make that very clear,” Corbin said. “You’re out with your friends and you explore an idea together; it’s so exciting and fun. Then to go into the classroom and make it a dry, intellectual exercise—I don’t really fancy the ‘Herr Doktor’ professor, grave, formal style at all. I admire philosophers like Camus who keep it embodied, personal and intellectual.”

Corbin and a friend consider launching a publication of their own in the future, but the logistics of his plans depend on variables like job openings and finances, he says. But his motivation to continually pursue more comes from a dissatisfaction with the world and himself.

“I look at some people who look better than me and some states of being that seem better than the current one, and I want to work towards them,” he said. “I read a certain writer and it’s electrifying because they seem to understand the world in a more beautiful way than I do—a clearer, more beautiful, less terrifying, confusing way. I want to do that too, both for myself and for other people.”

The young professor smiles: “I want there to be more clarity and understanding and happiness in the world.”

Mary Hierholzer ’16 is a communication arts major and history minor, and Editor-in-Chief of the Tartan. She hopes to study history and political science in graduate school, and to pursue a career in writing for intellectual publications. In the rare moments when Mary is not writing or conducting an interview, she enjoys good conversations, drinking coffee, exploring great literature, admiring art and discovering music.

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