By Ethan Munsill
It’s a cold morning in mid-January. In a small classroom on the third floor of the University of Dallas’ Braniff building a few students shuffle notebooks, sip coffee, and stifle yawns. It’s early. Outside, the bright morning sun shines down on an empty mall, which won’t find its standard bustle of students and professors for another hour or so.
In the classroom, students silently try to recall why they were up so late, and why they thought taking an 8 a.m. class, especially after freshman year, would be a good idea. Dr. Scott Crider walks in, carrying a small, white-styrofoam cup, and greets familiar faces with a smile and “good morning.” He’s wearing the aura of a morning person. Making his way past the u-shape of brown tables to the head of the classroom, he sets down his belongings and proceeds to scrawl out the class’s outline for the day. At the top, the course’s title: “The Trivium.”
In addition to Crider’s course on Classical Rhetoric, and the courses he offers in the Literary Traditions sequence, he is perhaps best known for his three-credit course on “The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Language and Liberal Education.” It’s the reason for a classroom full of primarily seniors — and some graduate students — this cold January morning. It’s the reason for braving another 8 a.m. class. It’s the first day, and, in addition to the course’s syllabus, Crider hands out another piece of paper, containing four short paragraphs that few had seen, let alone read; he hands out the UD Mission Statement. The first sentence reads:
The University of Dallas is dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom, of truth, and of virtue as the proper and primary ends of education.
The students read it quietly. At the front of the classroom, Crider takes a few sips from his white-styrofoam cup, before spending the next hour and a half offering definitions of liberal arts and liberal education, and coaxing the students to offer their own definitions of “wisdom,” “truth and “virtue,” those things which UD pursues; coaxing them to articulate and understand their own education, along with frequent wisecracks and the occasional, careful shifting of his glasses.
It was after one such morning that I sat down with Crider, associate professor of English at UD, to learn what brought this well-traveled West-coast native to the small campus in Irving and teach at a University “dedicated to the pursuit of liberal education in both its undergraduate and graduate programs … [and] in its liberal arts programs … committed to the recovery and renewal of the Western heritage of liberal education.”
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“I am an English Teacher”
On his faculty page on the UD website, Crider starts a short paragraph on his “Vocational Self-Understanding” with this description of himself: “I am an English teacher.” The paragraph is an artful and detailed articulation of the English discipline, as rooted in a Western tradition of studying poetry and rhetoric dating back to Socrates. Crider explains his academic activities as an English teacher. He writes, “English is … a recent study in which … colleges teach students how to read and write literature in English. Before then, poetry and rhetoric were studied in school in their ancient languages. Now English itself is a medium of study.” It is a paragraph that shows a well-developed and reflective vocational understanding. And it is evidence of that same approach to one’s profession that UD hopes to engender, as outlined, also, in the mission statement: a dedication “to reflecting critically upon the ends governing one’s own profession.”
But these are not the terms that Crider has always used to describe himself. Before he was an English professor, Crider was an undergraduate like most undergraduates, uncertain about his vocation, and even his area of study. He was born and reared in Sacramento, Calif., where his father, a navigator for the Air Force, was stationed at McClellan Air Force Base. While attending Sacramento State University, he was for some time undeclared, and, at one point, even pursuing three different majors: English, political theory, and art. But he was less uncertain about what he wanted to do after college, since from early on in his undergraduate career he knew that he wanted to teach. Eventually, he dropped his other two majors and narrowed his focus to the study of English. “At the point that I chose to major in English, then I knew that I wanted to be an English teacher,” says Crider.
His sights were not set on a college professorship, but at becoming a high school English teacher. To that end, he enrolled in the university’s teaching certification program his senior year. His first student-teaching position was at am inner-city public school, C.K. McClatchy High School. The position included various difficulties and challenges, but Crider says the most challenging for him was the prison-like quality of the school. “At times the school seemed more like a prison and less like a school–a prison for the students.” At McClatchy, “I realized that public education wasn’t informed by the principles, which, by then, I had discovered ought to inform education.” Eventually this disenchantment with McClatchy would lead to his return to Sacramento State to pursue his master’s in English. “I thought, ‘well, I’ll just keep going to school.”
Reflecting on his time at McClatchy High, Crider leans back in his chair and thoughtfully notes: “If you take Newman’s idea that a liberal education ought to be an education as a good in and of itself prior to its being a power, my estimation was that there wasn’t enough of that. There was certainly some. But the first thing I noticed was that most of these kids were being trained, already vocationally trained for a job. And it seemed too early for me. And a lot of them weren’t even being trained, they were just being housed.”
While pursuing his master’s, Crider met his wife Trang, who was getting her bachelor’s degree in economics and French. When both graduated, they moved to France, where she had found work teaching American language and culture in northern Paris. “While I was there, then I concluded that I really wanted to teach at the college level,” Crider says, noting that he applied to schools on the West Coast, and returned a year later to the Ph.D. program at University of California, Riverside.
While at Riverside, Crider’s son, Kien, was born. At the end of four years, married and a father, Crider was determined to find a teaching position. Although he had never heard of the University of Dallas, he found listings for a position and applied. Crider interviewed with Dr. Eileen Gregory of UD at a conference. It was then that she gave him a copy of the UD Bulletin, which included the school’s mission statement. “I was really quite taken by it,” says Crider. “To tell you the truth, I couldn’t believe it. I thought maybe that they just had failed to revise it. The mission statement, especially the opening sentence, struck me.” After successful interviews, including an on-campus interview, Crider was on his way to UD in 1994.
“I thought maybe that they just had failed to revise it.”
From the very first sentence of its mission statement, in its “pursuit of wisdom, of truth, and of virtue as the proper and primary ends of education,” UD marks itself as an eccentric institution, especially from the common current of American higher education. This small liberal arts university resting atop its lone hill in Irving stands out as an anachronism in America’s contemporary academic scene. It seeks to recover and engage a notion of education that is fundamentally liberal — a good in and of itself — at a time when college has all but become synonymous with occupational training.
It wasn’t only the University’s dedication to liberal education that struck Crider. He was also impressed by the fact that the UD was open to otherness within the Western tradition. “I was amazed that a school started its freshmen with Homer.” The Literary Traditions sequence, taken by each student as part of the core curriculum, begins with a course on epic literature, starting each student with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In his work, Homer writes according to a pagan worldview of antiquity, very different from that of the Christian tradition. Crider says that the longer that he has been here, and the more he has come to understand the Catholic culture, the more amazed he has become that the first Literary Traditions course is devoted to the Ancient Epic. He is impressed by the fact that the school takes up Homer as wisdom literature, and does not just treat it as error. “There is a great deal of courage exhibited in the curriculum, I think.”
Even with all its eccentricities, the University of Dallas remains connected with the world around it. It draws professors and students from all over America, from coast to coast. And, however much an anachronism, it shares the 21st century’s problems and concerns, especially those regarding education. Crider notes that now, as always, the American experiment poses the same question for the future of its education: “Can you make available to all, to the democratic polity, an education that was for long periods of history aristocratic?” Crider explains that more and more too many people on the right and the left answer that question “no.” “It seems to me that unless you answer yes, the American experiment is in a kind of final phase.” He says that we could continue as a vibrant, productive, just culture, but the American experiment of making the goods of human life available to all would decline. He believes that at a certain point in moving up the schooling ladder everyone ought to receive a liberal education, otherwise it will be more difficult for those who don’t to flourish as people and participate as citizens.”
Crider notes that much of what defines an education at UD should be available to everyone. “If we could maintain our cultural confidence that all deserve a liberal education to a certain point in their education process, and determine the best general competencies, then we could have a common educational culture, which I think we are losing.” Crider says having a common educational culture would give us a way of adjudicating our differences. It wouldn’t solve all of our problems, but he believes that if there were a truly common language that was not too prematurely universal, then a discursive community could exist, which would make a just and flourishing community more likely.
“I am also interested in the literature of the daily”
Under expertise on his faculty page, he lists two: The first is Shakespeare, the second Rhetoric and Composition. His own unique interest in rhetoric comes out of a sense of the rhetorical tradition’s significance for the Western tradition. He notes that rhetoric is the literature of real life–“what historical figures use when they want to be poetic”–and he appreciates this application of art to actual deliberations. For this reason, he finds political discourse fascinating, the way that people draw upon the art of rhetoric to deliberate about what would be good to do, that is, to judge and to appeal to the noble and the beautiful. He notes that rhetoric in political discourse does these things in the way that literature does as well, but it does so in the “heat and dust of actual life, where political decisions have to be made and acted on, and court cases have to be decided, and ceremonial occasions have to be enacted.”
Crider points out that “I don’t think of myself as interested only in what we call imaginative literature, because I am also interested in the literature of the daily.”
He spends a lot of his free time with his wife. They love to walk and have a goal of going for a walk everyday. They’re also movie buffs. “On any given weekend you’re bound to catch us at the Angelica.” He loves to read, especially outside of his own field. Asked about interests and hobbies outside academics, Crider is quick to note that one thing about professors is that “it is hard to tell where work stops and pleasure begins.” At least for this semester, on any given Tuesday or Thursday, around 8 in the morning, Crider can be found on the third floor of the Braniff building coaxing students, dispensing frequent wisecracks and encouraging them to articulate and understand their own education, a liberal education.
Ethan Munsill wrote this article for the magazine writing class at UD.