Bill Bornschein is a long-time supporter of the Ernest Becker Foundation who teaches religion and philosophy at St. Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky. He graciously agreed to share some of his thoughts and experiences with us regarding teaching Ernest Becker’s work at a high-school level. This is the first in a series of EBF interviews with secondary school teachers about their approaches to Becker conducted by EBF team member Christa Masson.
So let’s start with my favorite question to ask- how were you first introduced to Becker?
It was maybe 10 years ago and I was in my local independent video store, Wild and Woolly Video. Wild and Woolly was an amazing place. I noticed the cover of [Flight From Death] and watched the film. I was blown away. One of my favorite things to say about Becker is that “all roads lead to Becker”, which means that various things I’ve read in psychology, philosophy, theology, sociology, you know, all these different areas – he synthesizes them so beautifully. I think I picked up on that right away. Having seen the film I immediately went out and read the book, The Denial of Death, and devoured it. I think the experience that a lot of people have with Becker is this recognition like “Yes, this is it”.
Becker touches on so many topics, what aspects of his work that resonated with you the most?
The work with Kierkegaard and Freud. Contextualizing the two of them in terms with one another was very interesting to me. The thing I like about Becker is that he is so interdisciplinary. If I’m teaching a philosophy class, we can talk about the philosopher Kierkegaard, or if it’s a psychology class we can hit Freud and Rank. If it’s an art class, or something with an art angle, we can get into Otto Rank’s work on the artist … Becker is an amazing platform with which to delve into diverse disciplines.
You mentioned to me earlier that you currently teach a couple of classes and work Becker into the curriculum. How you do this?
Depends on the particular course. For example, this spring I taught a theology and a psychology course. Towards the end of the year I showed the film and broadly talked about these things. Nothing too adventurous there. But first semester I ran a Socratic seminar, which is a particular discussion technique where the goal is not breadth but depth. Instead of doing an overview of Becker, we would take a couple of paragraphs from Denial of Death or Escape From Evil, and then have an in-depth discussion that doesn’t get into the theoretical stuff but really gets to the heart of the existential. That’s something I’m interested in developing and it turns out that next year we are required to teach a sacraments course. One of those is the last rites, or anointing of the sick, so I’ll be working Becker there in a different kind of context. When I do it in philosophy or psychology I don’t usually get into the religious side of things- but that will be unavoidable in a sacraments class. I think I’ll do what I’ve always done- which is locate religion in terms of mythology- break it down structurally and logically. I think Becker, along with a defrocked Catholic priest called Matthew Fox, will breathe some life into it.
So that was the first time you had done the Socratic seminar? How did the students respond?
Generally, they like Socratic seminar because it’s a really dynamic technique. But, there was only one session on Becker and I think that’s actually the key to engaging people with Becker. You’ve got to do so on an existential level where it really hits home, because once you strike that spark, they know how to research, they know how to think… but you’ve got to get them interested first. Part of my philosophy in presenting Becker in all my classes is that I realize it’s going to be an initial exposure. My thought is that they’re going to go to college and there’s a chance they’re going to hear about it again and think “oh, yeah, Becker, that guy Bornschein was always going on about” and maybe they’ll take a more in-depth look at it. That’s the same with any of the contemporary thinkers that I throw out there- it’s giving [the students] the initial exposure so that the next time around it will take on a bit.
Are there ways that work better than others to engage students with Becker?
One of the best things to do is go to cemeteries and basically provide different rituals and exercises to do. We would take one day and go to Cave Hill Cemetery, which is Louisville’s great historic cemetery where Col. Sanders is buried and all the Louisville luminaries. We go there and do a series of exercises and then later in the week we go to Potter’s Field, where people who can’t afford to be buried are taken. On our campus, there is a cemetery for the Xaverian brothers and I’ll have class out there. I get them thinking in different physical settings, getting them out of the classroom.
How have your students responded to Becker?
You get all kinds of reactions to Becker. I mean you get some students who thank you and come back 10 years later to say that “the class meant so much”, but the story that I take heart from is the final temptation of the Buddha. Basically, the devil says “okay, you win, Buddha, you’ve figured it all out… but you know that what you’ve achieved is so far beyond the common man, your words will be twisted.” And the Buddha responds as he touches the earth, “the earth as my witness, some will understand”. I figure if Becker had the wherewithal to put it out there, then as a teacher, I can have the wherewithal to put it out there too. Maybe not everybody’s going to get it but that’s okay. There’s a synergistic power to this stuff.
Why did you choose to bring Becker into your work and not just keep it as a work that defines part of your own ideology?
I don’t want to sound like I’m a stark raving true believer or whatever, but I do believe that if you really engage these ideas I don’t know how you can not share them. It’s almost like the early Christians and the good news- except it’s the bad news. Bad news that’s not all that bad. Yeah- I could not not talk about it.
What led you to be a teacher? Did you jump straight into teaching high school?
I come from a family of educators and I think I naturally fell into it. When I was a freshman at University of Louisville, I took a course called “Western Religion and Sexism” and there was this one book called The Great Mother– it was a Jungian style discussion of the archetype. That’s where I got really interested in the study of religion. They didn’t have a degree program so I went to Xavier University in Cincinnati and [studied with] Paul Knitter who was into comparative world religions. I got my undergrad there and my masters at University of Chicago. I came back and got a job at Baden High School in Hamilton, Ohio. I taught there for 5 years and then moved to Louisville and the last 30 years or so I’ve been teaching at St. Xavier, all the time continuing to read and think and philosophize.
If you were going to offer any advice to young educators or those just starting to teach Becker, would there be anything in particular you’d want to tell them?
Well, I guess the first words I’d say would be “thank you”. And I’d suggest to them that they have a good lay of the land in terms of dealing with these issues. I know at the high school level, there have been people that have gotten in trouble because parents are upset with the issues dealt with. You also need to know your students. I always let my kids know where the book is going, not necessarily if we’re doing the Socratic seminar, but if we’re watching the film or going into more depth on Becker, I always try to be sensitive. If you show the film, have it in a situation where they can immediately write down their reactions, hot off the press. Whatever you do with it, they have the raw material. But I always let kids know where we’re going and let them opt out. That’s one way of avoiding that political problem. I have an incredible amount of freedom where I teach; I’ve been there enough that they give me some slack, but you really have to know your situation and your ability to relate to kids. It’s not something I’d go into flippantly. I don’t want to sound discouraging but you need to be aware of what you’re doing. The other thing I’d say is: obviously you can get to Becker from so many different sources. From psychology, from sociology… you could do historical analysis, you could do any kind of social science, so I never worry about presenting Becker in its entirety. I will take pieces and try to spark interest and ultimately leave it up to them to follow up. That’s what I can do where I’m at. I tell them if I have my druthers, I’d teach a whole course on Becker and we’d buy The Denial of Death, but I don’t have that freedom. I make inroads where I can. *to access more of Bill’s recommendations and a list of exercises to perform at a cemetery, visit http://ernestbecker.org/approaching-becker-across-a-high-school-curriculum.html