A Conversation with Dean Edward Scott

February 13, 2006

Dean Edward ScottSince 1990 Dr. Edward Scott has been sharing his passion with Mary Baldwin. Scott, assistant dean of the college and an associate professor of philosophy, expresses enthusiasm for many subjects: jazz, linguistics, Paris. He has taught in Nigeria and on a cruise ship that circled the globe. Scott serves locally as pastor at the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. His passion while speaking on any subject will make him scoot his chair towards his audience one moment, and throw his head back with laughter the next. His zeal for and curiosity about the world around him are contagious.

Q: Where did you work before coming to Mary Baldwin?

A: Monmouth College, a small liberal arts college in Illinois. It was wonderful, and I still maintain relationships with people there. I left because the Midwest wasn’t home. We didn’t have family there. And it was so flat! Someone from there would look at the horizon and say, “Isn’t it grand!” I’d look and say, “Oh my, there’s nothing to break the line of sight!” So when the opportunity to interview with Mary Baldwin came, I was excited. I have family here. My mother’s roots are in Earlysville and my father has roots in Lynchburg. As a boy I spent summers on my grandpa’s farm in Earlysville.

Q: How did you know you wanted to pursue philosophy/religion?

A: Originally in college I was a math major. In my first year I changed from math to music. I did it because of a deep and abiding passion for jazz and I had the fondest desire to learn to play, despite the protestations of the music department. They tolerated me for a semester — I was unprepared, I had never had any lessons. Somewhere in my next year I discovered philosophy. Philosophy would permit me to pursue my interest in arts and sciences. I didn’t have to forsake music or mathematics. Philosophy would cultivate both.

Q: Why did you choose Mary Baldwin?

A: The first person to give me a tour was Rod Owen [professor of philosophy]. I asked him what the value of women’s education was, as Mary Baldwin saw it. He said it was to empower women, give them confidence in their ability and power to lead, and to cultivate their abilities. I felt those were the best reasons one could give, because they are exactly the same reasons one would give for the existence of historically black colleges.

Q: What was it like being the first black professor at Mary Baldwin?

A: Good and bad. I have always had mixed feelings — I don’t want to be the first of anything when it comes to race. I viewed it more as a challenge than a celebration. It was breaking a historical tradition that was certainly not reason for celebration, and yet it was good for the institution to do it. Part of the attraction for me was meeting Mary Baldwin people the first few days here. Jim Gilman [professor of religion and philosophy] picked me up at the airport. I was at ease with him almost immediately. He made me feel so welcome.

Q: What is your favorite class to teach?

A: Whatever class I happen to be teaching at the moment. I was teaching Introduction to Philosophy this morning, and I had the best time. But yesterday I was teaching Introduction to Logic at 9 a.m. and I had the best time. And this afternoon I was teaching Philosophy and the Arts, and I swear to you it is my favorite course to teach.

Q: What is one piece of advice you would give to your students?

A: In my first meeting with my Intro to Philosophy class, we were going through the syllabus, and I had a motif for the class show itself to me. I hadn’t planned this, but I noticed it was necessary to tell them to stay awake. Now they weren’t asleep. But I had to tell them every moment of the class to stay awake. What it meant to me was what Jesus said to his disciples — stay awake. He knows he’s about to be arrested, and he asks his disciples to stay awake. They can’t! His most momentous hour and they can’t stay awake. Staying awake means becoming increasingly more obliged to assume responsibility for your own learning. It’s being consciously and self-consciously engaged in the effort to learn. You can’t do that if you don’t stay awake. I want to provoke students into this sense of discovery. Discovery of the world is intimately related to self discovery.

Q: How do you help each of your students become their best possible self?

A: Today a woman whom I’d never seen came in to class late. She’s a new student and apologized for being late — she had just gotten off a plane from California, and before that had been in Burma. There’s a story. This inspires a sense of awe and that’s what I want for students. You can’t have that unless there are people around you who are different from you. It goes back to telling them to stay awake. And it’s part of the Mary Baldwin Advantage. Taking every opportunity to do what the Mary Baldwin Advantage says ? it’s not even hard to do — if one loves one’s area enough, and I do; if one loves one’s students enough ? and I do love my students. If one has this love, then one would want to do everything to help guide students to become their best possible selves.

Q: What is it like working at the same place as your wife?

A: It’s a wonderful collaboration. My wife and I both deeply love every form of African American life. We are both passionate about promoting this study, particularly for African American students, though it’s worthwhile for every student. I study European and Greek philosophers, and I’m neither European nor Greek. So if that can be as compelling and moving as it has been for me, surely the study of African Americans can be compelling for someone who’s not African American.

Q: If you were suddenly put in charge of Black History Month for the entire nation, what would you see as the ideal way to celebrate?

A: Black History Month had its origins in an idea fostered by Carter G. Woodson. Woodson intended recognition of the African American presence in the history of American affairs. He felt it should be an appreciation, not just of black people who were acted upon, but also an appreciation for black agency, that is, black people who helped shape events. So any Black History Month should speak to this original intention. When I talk about African American history, it almost always involves music. What it means to be African American comes through their music. So for me celebration would include every form of African American music throughout history. From the earliest spirituals to the rural blues of the Mississippi delta. What happened when the blues traveled from the south to the north? What do the lyrics say and describe about their life? I wonder what happened to the music when the black migrations took them from agrarian life to the urban life of the cities. That kind of wondering should sustain the composing of any events that celebrate Black History Month.