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The Good Place: Spring 2020 Ducharme Lecture

Shannon Hunt, C'19
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts

ducharme feature

Daniel McMahon, Ph.D., a 1980 graduate of the Mount and principal of DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, explained the concept of utopia in the spring 2020 Ducharme Lecture. In his address, titled, Mapping Utopia: From Plato to Atwood to Where We Live, McMahon encouraged the audience to reflect on the word play behind “utopia” as coined by St. Thomas More in 1516: “the good place that is no place.” Utopian perfection exists only in the mind and in literature: it cannot project itself into reality. Throughout his lecture, however, McMahon demonstrated how utopian thought is embedded in the educational journey found in the Mount’s unique core curriculum.

320-ducharme-2-in-text.jpegMcMahon identified three virtues of studying utopias: they break down the boundaries of academic disciplines; they explore the big questions about human existence; and they trace the historical narrative of ideas. He opened the lecture by referring to José Ortega y Gasset’s essay “The Barbarism of Specialization,” which argues that extreme specialization in modern society results in a “disarticulation of knowledge” which creates the “self-satisfied” specialist who in knowing a “tiny portion of the universe” becomes a “learned ignoramus.”  In contrast, McMahon praised liberal arts education for “giving individuals the tools to succeed in specialized work,” but also making them “humble and curious about traveling in the archipelago of knowledge.”

Citing literary theorist Northrop Frye, who described utopias as places where all “specialized disciplines can meet and interpenetrate with a mutual respect,” McMahon argued that utopias are not confined to any specific literary genre; they are driven by ideas and explore universal issues examined by the liberal arts. No single discipline can answer all of life’s questions and so the “study of utopias forces us to make connections across traditional departmental lines to fight the disarticulation of knowledge.”  In this sense, McMahon stated, utopias are “a real gift in education.”

McMahon next explained how utopias and the related category of dystopias raise important questions about the goals of human life. How should we live our lives?  How should we govern ourselves?  Are authority, force and power synonymous?  In exploring such questions, McMahon explained, utopian literature makes “directed assumptions about human nature.”  In doing so, utopian texts become “works in the history of ideas.”  He provided examples spanning from the ancient world such as St. Augustine and Pelagius, to important figures from the European and American Enlightenment. He also explained how utopias are both creative and destructive--creative in the sense that they imagine newer and better societies and destructive in the sense that they wish to replace societies as we know them. Dislocated from the real world in time and space, however, utopias ultimately self-destruct because they posit societies that cannot exist.

ducharme-crowd-spring-2020.jpgReferencing works such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, McMahon also illustrated the central role education plays in constructing and maintaining utopias and dystopias. “Traveler” characters are frequently the subject of this education, and they often stand in the place of readers. McMahon explained that the educational project in utopias and dystopias is often advanced by depicting the state metaphorically. One such metaphor, “the body politic,” was popular in ancient texts such as Plato’s Republic because it assumed a hierarchical society governed by a “head.” This metaphor became less popular during the rise of democracy, but it was revived during the nineteenth century in the thought of Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer. McMahon warned his audience that people must “choose their metaphors carefully” because “eventually they will do your thinking for you.” 

Utopias often transform work into play. In Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, for example, two characters happily decide to assemble munitions in their spare time. On the other hand, dystopias typically convert play into work. There is no time for play, for example, in the Gilead of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Utopias and dystopias also address questions of justice and fairness. Contemporary society is often obsessed with what is or is not fair, and to that extent we are all invested in utopian thinking. Because it is so central to our view of the world, McMahon was inclined to affirm Oscar Wilde’s statement: “A map of a world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

An award-winning educator, McMahon is an active scholar, book reviewer, blogger and newspaper commenter, who offers workshops on pedagogy, writing and leadership. He serves on the boards of many nonprofit organizations including the Advisory Board of the Mount’s College of Liberal Arts.

The Ducharme Lecture series was endowed with a generous gift from Raphael Della Ratta, class of 1992, and his family. In establishing this series, he has chosen to honor one of his professors, Robert Ducharme, Ph.D., professor emeritus of English, whose inspired teaching motivated generations of students to see the value of the liberal arts.

Shannon Hunt, C'19
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts