As a child and young teenager, Mark Cladis didn’t enjoy school. In high school, he tried to avoid reading and writing. But everything changed in college when he took what was supposed to have been an easy “general ed” course requirement. On the reading list was The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, the famous American psychologist and philosopher. It was through that text Cladis fell in love—with James, yes, but also with books, with thoughtful questions and compelling arguments, with the University and the humanities, and with a world where people devoted their lives to exploring the messy and ambiguous tangles of experience.
About halfway through his freshman year, he took a walk with an “older woman”—Alice Bartle, a senior majoring in Drama. As they circled the campus lagoon at sunset, she asked, “Mark, what are your plans for later on?” He was glad she asked. “I’m going to change my major from physics to religious studies, and then, after four years of philosophy and religion at UCSB, I’m going to divinity school for three years for a master’s degree, learning from people who actually believe in religion. After that, I’ll get my PhD at a secular university and bring together the theological and the secular.” Alice laughed. “I was asking about your dinner plans.”
Yet the plan he had laid out for Alice Bartle was the path he took, borne along by a love, by a desire to read and write, to ponder and wonder—and to mature in these endeavors. He became a professor of philosophy and religion at Vassar College, teaching courses on various spiritual, ethical, and environmental traditions. He was a seasoned scholar who taught on the art of living.
Until crisis struck.
In the wake of the calamity, he found his own philosophical and spiritual foundation giving way, and suddenly it was he who needed guidance—and not the strictly academic sort. He needed open air, a change of scene, a friendship, and an education.
That is how Cladis found himself on a fateful road-trip through the American Southwest with his friend and Vassar colleague, Paul Kane. Cladis had undertaken the journey for not only for professional reasons, to learn about traditional Native American conceptions of the environment, but also for personal reasons, to convalesce from the crisis that had recently beset him. He was in search of a course for the classroom but also for his life. Without such a course and path, how could he again engage his students on the subjects of spirituality, the environmental imagination, and the art of living? How could he talk meaningfully about vulnerability, grace, and human growth? How could he teach about love when his own had failed him? That personal and professional search led to his memoir, In Search of a Course, a story that details how those days in the desert saved his life.
Mark Cladis is the Brooke Russell Astor Professor of the Humanities and Chair of his department at Brown University. He was named a Carnegie Scholar and has received research awards from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowments for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He teaches various courses on modern religious and philosophical thought, social and political theory, and environmental humanities. His work is as likely to engage poetry and literature as it is philosophy and critical theory. Cladis lives in Barrington, Rhodes Island, with his wife, Mina, and his three children, Sabine, Olive, and Luke.
And he’s still endeavoring and borne by love.
Preorder In Search of A Course, to be released January 8, 2021.