Fred receiving a teaching award from the University of Shanghai

From RC Director, Catherine Badgley

I have continually been learning new things from Fred Peters.  Even now, reading his reflections essay (which is linked below), I am surprised to learn that he started college as a pre-med student and graduated college with a major in German.  He spent several years studying German culture and language at several European universities, earning a Master’s Degree in German Literature and Culture from Columbia University.  Then he studied in England for seven years, eventually earning a Ph.D in Philosophy from Cambridge University.  These peregrinations through subjects, countries, and degrees embody his approach to teaching in the RC: he tackled big topics and designed a scholarly pilgrimage for himself and the studens to examine each topic from many perspectives.  Here is a sampler of his course topics: The Western Mind in Revolution; Atheism: a History of Skepticism and Unbelief from the Greco-Roman to the Modern Period; Death in the Western Imagination; Nietzsche and Fascism … Not for the faint of heart!  I wish I had been a student in one of these classes.

For years, Fred was also an enthusiastic participant in Kate Mendeloff’s theatrical productions, including those in the Keene Theater, in other “environmental” settings on campus, as well as in other countries. It was a thrill for me when Fred played Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in the famous public debate with Thomas Huxley about the merits of Darwin’s newly published On the Origin of Species, in my play about Charles Darwin. (We staged this play in the old Museum of Natural History; see photos.) Fred played the part in his graduation gown from Oxford University, where the original debate took place.  Rehearsing the play with Kate, I came to perceive Fred’s astonishing knowledge of books, art, history, and the philosophy of science.  

Fred embodies many RC values.  Here is one that I especially cherish, in Fred’s own words reflecting on his four decades of teaching here: Although I am able to recognize and to value the high-flying teachers among us when I see them, I am not such a teacher. I have always considered myself more as a student among students. This is why I found listening to the visiting professors in my classes to be such an exciting experience. This is also why my experience in the theater seemed so right. There I was an equal part of the student experience, a citizen in a community exploring new ways to experience art -- and doing so collectively.

Thank you, Fred, for your curiosity, dedication, and compassion. May your adventures continue!

Catherine Badgley
RC Director

- Fred Peters

Fred at Tiananmen Square in front of the Forbidden City

Below are excerpts from Fred Peters’ retirement reflections, which you can read in their entirety at the link at the bottom. 

Academic path 

To describe my academic training is a somewhat protracted affair since where I finally ended in the Residential College is 180 degrees from where my studies began, a convoluted path and which led through a sequence of universities that involved studies in and degrees from more than a dozen universities, mostly in Europe.

As my personal investigations proceeded step by step, I took my students along the same path upon which I was moving. Thus we moved together as an exploratory group gaining simultaneous illumination.

Teaching the course The Western Mind in Revolution in China

I gave this course for five straight summer semesters at the University of Shanghai. Some observation on teaching Western ideas to students living in an authoritarian dictatorship:

  • My students were very aware that his would be their only chance of being exposed to Western thinking – and so my classes filled way beyond to set limit of 35 students to always over 100 students, which greatly annoyed the front office and the Party (my Chinese interns told me) that strictly controlled all aspects of the educational system. 
  • A troubling question for the Party: what would this American have to say in his three lectures on Karl Marx? Very conscious, however, of being a representative of the University of Michigan, I always exercised great discretion by sticking to textual explication... In the final session, I always asked: if we could read one more text by one of the six writers in the course, who would it be? No one wanted to read more Marx. Everyone wanted to read more Freud, who for them seemed to validate the existence of an inner private self. (I had to bring to China the Freud texts on a flash drive.) 
  • Finally, however, in my fifth summer, the President of China declared that “Western Ideas must not be taught in any Chinese University because such ideas are not in the interest of the Communist Party.” 

Teaching methods 

While at Oxford and Cambridge, I taught in the college tutorial system. This experience of highly personal intense intellectual interaction between student and teacher was an experience that has strongly influenced my teaching of small classes at the Residential College.

[At the RC, I employed] student teaching interns to run some class discussions and to meet with students outside of class. The student interns... demonstrated to students that their three teachers could have differing perspectives, thus validating the students’ search for their own independent opinions, opinions possibly even in direct opposition to that of me and my two interns.

Fred and RC Drama Program Head Kate Mendeloff at the original U-M Museum of Natural History rehearsing the play "Struggle for Existence: Darwin's Dream", written by RC faculty (and current director) Catherine Badgley and directed by Kate Mendeloff, 2006.

Appreciation for his Residential College faculty colleagues

If you have ever experienced [Cirque Du Soleil], you will never forget the music, the dancing, the breathtaking acrobatics and death-defying leaps, particularly of a few of the high-flying star athlete/artists. The thought came to me that Residential College – intellectually and emotionally – is a lot like Cirque Du Soleil. We, too, have our breath-taking high-fliers, particularly three faculty members whose contributions to the Residential College display a unique and courageous heroic resolve, each in her and his own way. 

Cindy Sowers' [counter] perspective has provided a salutary balance to the left leaning values of many Residential College faculty. 

Hank Greenspan's [work] has provided a salutary balance to those who would rather forget [the Holocaust] as well as to students in The Residential College who were largely ignorant of the specifics of this event.

Kate Mendeloff - [I] had opportunity to step upon the stage and look out to the audience from the other side… I made my stage debut rather late in life at the age of 72 [in] Moscow to present a production of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull and Tennessee Williams’ The Notebook of Trigorin as part of the International Chekhov Festival [directed by Kate].

Fred "onstage" performing as Bishop Wilberforce (far right) in "Struggle for Existence" in the rotunda lobby of the original U-M Museum of Natural History, 2006.

Residential College faculty, eternal student

I have never sought to dazzle students with intellectual calisthenics -- attempting to gain their admiration for my intellectual leaps -- but have instead attempted quietly to encourage their own emotional and intellectual calisthenics by demonstrating to them new unimagined possibilities.     

I was simply another student, although much older and better read. The Germans have a term for this: der ewige Student (the eternal student). 

As Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says to his students as he departs from them: “This is my way, now you go your way.”

The glory of the Residential College is that it possesses and encompasses so comfortably and productively so many different kinds of teachers and programs and is able to attract so many different kinds of students.

>> Read Fred Peters’ complete essay of his reflections at retirement

>> Read Fred Peters' professional biography