Is there hope and encouragement to be found, anywhere?
Massive job cuts.
Devastating floods, hurricanes and ice storms.
If you can’t find it in today’s headlines, take a longer view – say, 2,000 years or so.
A collection of historical documents at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne – in concert with a four-month feast of lectures, courses, films, trips and other events – is a reminder that strong ideals endure and great societies are built on foundations infused with those ideals. The Remnant Trust at IPFW is an opportunity to see, to touch, to study and discuss Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, Milton’s Areopagitica, Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man” and many more texts that have shaped civilization and the American experience.
“A lot of these documents were written in times that were far worse economically and politically than we are in today,” said Erik Ohlander, an assistant professor of religious studies.
“In making a physical connection to them, we’re making a connection with a past that is not so different from our present – far worse than what we’re experiencing, in some cases. It helps us put things in perspective, to empathize a little bit with the people who lived in those times.”
Patrick Ashton, associate professor of sociology, said the documents help place current issues in context. Magna Carta, which enshrined the concept of protesting illegal detention, is one example.
“It shows us that habeas corpus wasn’t just something liberal Democrats cooked up to antagonize the Bush administration,” he said. “All of the debates we are having today – about Guantanamo, about prosecuting terrorists, about snooping on our e-mails. While they didn’t anticipate e-mail, some of our Founding Fathers had the same concerns – that’s how they came up with the Alien and Sedition Acts.”
“The whole idea of vigilance – it’s eternal,” said Ashton, director of IPFW’s peace and conflict studies program. “If we can get more people to think about those principles, we will have done a wonderful education act with (the Remnant Trust).”
The Remnant Trust, based in Jeffersonville, is a collection of about 1,000 historical documents lent to colleges, universities, museums and other institutions. It is unique in that the museum-quality pieces aren’t treated as such. Literally, they represent a hands-on experience – visitors to the Helmke Library exhibit will be allowed to touch and handle a rare third-printing edition of the Declaration of Independence – the only privately held copy – or one of only three known copies of Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica,” or a handwritten copy of the Book of Enoch, from Ethiopia.
Portions of the collection have been on display at other northeast Indiana locations, including a brief display at the Allen County Courthouse in 2007. But Kristophor Bex, president of the non-profit trust, said IPFW is setting a new standard for incorporating the texts into academic and community discussion.
“Display of the documents is the minimum, and sometimes a university will develop a class or two around the display,” said Bex, who earned a master’s degree from IPFW. “There might be seminars or programs for the public. With IPFW we’ve seen all of these things put together, plus much more.”
Even the display of the exhibit has been carefully planned, with Matthew Kubik, associate professor of interior design, overseeing its development.
The university is paying $35,000 to display 55 documents through April, with financial support from the Madge Rothschild Foundation, the Robert Goldstine Foundation and the Courthouse Preservation Trust.
Allen County Public Library is a partner in the project, and 14 public and private schools in Allen County have signed on as official Remnant Trust schools, with extensive programs planned for students. Other school groups are expected to visit the display.
In addition to the lectures and seminars, the public is invited to view the Remnant Trust documents at Helmke Library. There is no charge for the exhibit.
The documents will get the most exposure through IPFW classes, however. A broadly representative steering committee has planned dozens of events tied to the display, and faculty members applied for internal grants to develop courses based on Remnant Trust documents.
In the philosophy department, Ohlander will team up with colleague Duston Moore to teach “The tenacity of text: The diffusion, endurance, and transmutation of great books in western history.”
“It begins with a deceptively simple question,” Ohlander said. “Why do some texts persist while others don’t? What makes a mere book a great book?”
Ohlander and Moore will incorporate books in the collection in their instruction, with students “adopting” a book to study and develop an expertise on it. Ohlander will also teach a course on the Qùran, using the first copy published in the U.S.
“It’s a great opportunity in that we have very rare and important documents put at our direct disposal and we are encouraged to use them in innovative and creative ways,” Ohlander said. “They’ve been very open to whatever we want to do.”
Ashton and Kubik taught a fall semester course that was an introduction to the Remnant Trust documents. It attracted 120 students. Also last fall, IPFW freshmen took part in a common reading of Mark Twain’s work, in advance of actor Hal Holbrook’s Omnibus Lecture presentation on Jan. 29.
Ashton said he’s looking forward to seeing people surprised by what they learn. Benjamin Franklin’s founding document of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society reveals the statesman’s fervent anti-slavery sentiments in 1787, for example.
“It’s revelations like these that show righteous people can stand up and do the right thing,” he said.
Louise Teague, coordinator for the Remnant Trust, said she hopes the community will take advantage of the exhibit and its surrounding events to mark this time in history.
“In a week or so we are going to inaugurate a new president,” she said. “It’s one of those pivotal moments that calls to mind the history that came before and how far we’ve come. This is a celebration and application of all we’ve learned. The timing with the inauguration brings it all to life, which was our intent – to bring history to life, to bring life to history.”