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Defining Dignity

What exactly is, "human dignity?"

Earlham now has a course that ponders that question.

Professor of Psychology Vince Punzo received a $22,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of a program to foster exploration of "Enduring Questions" in college classrooms. Punzo has used this funding to create an "Interpretive Practices" course (a category of classes for first-year students emphasizing reading, writing and classroom discussion), exploring the question through a variety of lenses: literary, philosophical, historical, autobiographical and religious.

Punzo says the genesis of the class was a series of conversations he had several years ago with Terri Allen '08, a student with whom he was reading and discussing Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl's memoir about his experience in Nazi concentration camps.

"Terri asked me what Frankl meant by 'human dignity,' and I don't think I had a good answer for her," Punzo recalls. "And then around that time, it was the 60th Anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. That document says that the foundation of freedom, peace and justice is the recognition of 'human dignity' in others. That convinced me that it was crucial to figure out what we mean by that term."

As Punzo began researching the topic and planning for the course, he found that lawyers, philosophers and theologians had a lot to say, but his fellow psychologists were either silent on the subject, or dismissive, claiming the concept of human dignity is too amorphous a topic for scholars to explore.

Undeterred by his colleagues' ambivalence, Punzo developed a reading list that included the book of Genesis, the letters of Seneca, writings of Frederick Douglass, Paule Marshall's novel Praisesong for the Widow  and other texts. And after an intense semester of reading, writing about and discussing these meaty texts, Punzo required his students - who were in their first semester of college - to write 15-page papers in which they synthesized all the books on the syllabus and then formulated their own definitions of human dignity.

"The challenging thing about a class about human dignity is that it forces you to think about your own life outside the classroom," notes Maria Adamson '13, who took the course during her first semester on campus. "It is very easy to say in a class discussion something like, 'We should try to treat everyone with love and respect,' and much more difficult to consider the actual repercussions of this value in your own life."

Punzo adds: "At first I was a bit uncertain about assigning a final paper of that scope to students in their first semester at college, but they came through beautifully."

Vince Punzo

Vince Punzo, Professor of Psychology

Ph.D., University of Notre Dame

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