Shelf Life - Skalnik

Two members of the Moravian community recently published their first books: one a scholarly monograph, the other a novella. Neither they nor their authors could be more different.

If you want to find Jim Skalnik, look around campus for a Greek fisherman’s cap: a natty little black number with a visor. Jim may not be the only man in the Lehigh Valley to wear one, but he’s certainly the only one at the College.

Until two years ago, he was a professor of early modern European history. In 2001, he came to Moravian to “give deaning a try,” as he puts it, and joined the Office of Academic Affairs as assistant dean for academic advising. But he still belongs, in soul if not in body, to history, and has been a member of the search committee for a medievalist to succeed Janet Loengard, who is retiring.

Now he has turned his dissertation (earned at the University of Virginia) into a treatise on an early modern European philosopher, which has quickly found its way into the collections of scholarly libraries around the country. Ramus and Reform is a study of Peter Ramus, a.k.a. Petrus Ramus or Pierre de la Ramée, a 16th-century educational reformer who died in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Huguenots on August 24, 1572, in Paris.

“He devised a system of education that had an enormous vogue in Europe in the late 16th century,” Jim says of Ramus. “He influenced everyone from Comenius to Milton” — who translated one of Ramus’ books from Latin into English— “and his system was used in the early years of Harvard University.”

According to Jim, Ramus had interesting ideas but was not rigorous enough to carry them out and was too cantankerous to persuade others to adopt them. By the end of his life, he was already known as a vulgarizer or popularizer, not much appreciated by those who clung to the classical foundations of higher education. His criticism of Aristotle, whom he said was unsystematic and repetitive and failed to follow a proper method, and his rewriting of the liberal arts curriculum was very influential in France until the 1570s, in Germany and England into the middle of the 17th century—just at the time that Congregationalists in New England were establishing the first institution of higher learning in the American colonies, Harvard College.

In his heyday, Ramus propounded radical ideas: that a professor should be appointed on merit and not because his father had been a professor or his rich uncle had bought him a chair; that education should be participatory rather than hierarchical; that the king should support universities, removing them from the payroll and the restrictions of the church. His ideas on participatory learning may have come from his Huguenot beliefs (he converted from Catholicism) and he spent the last part of his life arguing for a participatory structure in the French Reformed Church—but this brought him into conflict with Theodore Beza, successor to John Calvin in Geneva.

Ramus also believed that learning should be conducted in the vernacular (in his case, French) rather than Latin, and he invented a new phonetic alphabet for French in which every letter stood for just one sound— something that generations of students, bewildered by the multiple colors of French pronunciation, could wish had stood the test of time.

“He discouraged me at first,” says Jim, “because he really was an intellectual giant. No one’s been quite sure what to make of him.”
Jim’s own background slopes gently toward academic pursuits. He grew up in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Falls Church, Virginia. His father was an intelligence analyst for the U.S. government, his mother a member of the Women’s Army Corps. Jim went to Yale University and then to U.Va., where he worked with H.C. Erik Midelfort, one of the great names of early modern European history. He taught for eight years at the U.S. Naval Academy, then moved to the Lehigh Valley when his wife, Ronda Cook, a classical historian specializing in Greece, joined the faculty at Muhlenberg College.

“Marriages are better when you’re in the same city,” says Jim with a smile.

He began teaching at Allentown College, which he left the summer it became DeSales University. So Moravian found an experienced professor and learned dean right in its own back yard.
Jim submitted the Ramus study to its publisher, the 16th Century Essays & Studies series at Truman State University in Missouri, in 2000. But in the busy year of 2001, he might be forgiven for losing track of where it was in the publishing pipeline.

“Life got in the way,” he says. “We were changing jobs, parents were dying—all kinds of things.”

The finished book—and very elegant it is, too, with its navy leather binding and gold-tooled lettering—arrived on December 22, 2002: “just in time to give as Christmas presents to various people, who were absolutely astonished,” Jim says. “Including my wife.”


Ramus and Reform: University and Church at the End of the Renaissance by James Veazie Skalnik. 16th-Century Essays & Studies, Vol. LX. Truman State University Press, 2002. 172 pages. $39.95

April 15, 2003

Shelf Life - Skalnik:
Two Moravians publish their first books. James Skalnik, assistant dean for academic advising, a scholarly monograph on a 16th-century French educational reformer.
Shelf Life - Wacker:
Two Moravians publish their first books. George Wacker '03, a novella about a young man's search for identity.
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