I was riding a horse, when suddenly it pulled up short!

That experience of stopping very quickly and unexpectedly serves as both title and metaphor to describe the vision for a forthcoming new podcast by Stanton E.F. Wortham, the Charles F. Donovan, S.J., Dean of the Lynch School of Education and Human Development—one he hopes will produce surprise or disorientation, and marked by revelations so startling that they derail accepted assumptions. 

Launching on March 22, “Pulled Up Short: Gadamerian Conversations at BC” is based on German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s notion that regular, intentional challenges to our habitual perspectives are crucial to the development of critical thinking, explained Wortham—what Ignatius called discernment.

“Jesuit education is a process centered on attentiveness, reflection, and being loving. We strive to develop young men and women for whom discernment is a habit. BC faculty work to create moments when students and colleagues must wrestle with alternative ways of experiencing the world. Gadamer’s philosophy is thus attuned to a crucial component of the University’s mission and practice.”

Wortham plans to produce one 30- to 40-minute episode each week or approximately 10 podcasts through the end of this semester, and then restart in the fall, with a desire to reach a broader audience as it moves forward.

On being pulled up short:

It requires that we go beyond superficial insights to consider alternative ways of thinking about and living in the world.
Stanton Wortham, Dean of the Lynch School of Education and Human Development

The podcasts will involve small group conversations focused on an insight, story, or challenge from one participant that reconfigures some aspect of experience. The conversations will articulate and explore the insight and its implications for how listeners might change their understanding and engagement. Episodes will focus on questions such as “Should six-year-olds be allowed to vote?”; “Was economist Adam Smith a socialist?”; “Do witches exist?”; and “Does neuroscience dictate human behavior, eliminating free will?” 

Wortham said initial guests are likely to include BC faculty members like School of Theology and Ministry Professor Thomas H. Groome, Richard Kearney, Charles Seelig Professor in Philosophy, and Usha Tummala-Nara, Lynch School professor of counseling, developmental and educational psychology.

Wortham, who noted that Gadamer was a visiting professor at BC in the 1970s, points out that various kinds of inquiry can lead us to be pulled up short. For example, exposure to unfamiliar cultures often reveals perfectly rational but unfamiliar beliefs and practices that can cause us to re-examine our own principles and customs.  

“Scientific discoveries can have similar effects, such as those by Copernicus and Darwin, which caused us to radically reframe original theories. To take a cross-cultural example, a belief in the transmigration of souls from one body to another explains facts about our experience, and explicates how child prodigies arise and why bad things happen to good people. Asking people who have not thought about it to seriously consider this concept can truly ‘pull them up short.’”

Being pulled up short has several aspects, explains Wortham.  The practice requires that we recognize deeply held or unquestioned positions, and that we entertain the possibility that they may be incomplete or distorting. Furthermore, it demands openness to questions concerning—and different formulations of—the issue under discussion.  

“It requires that we go beyond superficial insights to consider alternative ways of thinking about and living in the world. By encouraging situations in which people are pulled up short, we also adopt several values: commitments to imaginative vision and to seeing the world anew; to systematic inquiry wherever it leads; to openness; to move beyond dogmatism and consider alternative beliefs and practices; to conversation and to inquiry jointly with others; and to fostering the development of relevant dispositions in young people.”

Wortham offered a literary and political example, drawn from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TEDGlobal talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” In it, Adichie describes the harm that results from characterizing entire communities with single stereotypes and simple, deficit-based notions, and how African and Black communities are often subject to these harmful reductions in literature and elsewhere. 

Wortham points to Adichie’s recollection of her realization “that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.” 

Said Wortham, “This revelation unraveled her prior acceptance of stereotypical literary accounts of Black people, which triggered her reimagining. This insight reconfigured her own worldview and allowed her in turn to create moments of being pulled up short for her own readers.”

Wortham is concerned that while the dispositions, practices, and values involved in being pulled up short are important at most universities, the professionalization of disciplines and an incremental model of knowledge production are increasingly driving this practice into the background. Although discernment remains central at BC, he believes it could be strengthened. 

“Our goal is to exemplify this type of practice and to help develop the dispositions and values required to participate in it,” said Wortham. “If this podcast engages a wide audience of faculty, alumni, students, and administrators, we could cultivate a set of shared dispositions, practices, and values centered around openness and conversation, around the willingness to be pulled up short, and the desire to create more of this in daily life. We aspire to build on our history and reinforce BC’s identity as a place that values and fosters this kind of inquiry.” 

Find the podcasts on the "Pulled Up Short" website or across an array of podcast platforms including Spotify, Apple and Google podcasts, Amazon Music, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Pandora, Podchaser, Podcast Addict, and TuneIn + Alexa.

Phil Gloudemans | University Communication | March 2021