Presentation Descriptions

Festival of Ideas 2021 Presentations

Professional Presentations:

Session I: 2:15pm to 3:05pm

The Art of Isolation

Rex Seiple, Art Teacher, Liberty Common High School

Isolation, whether physical or psychological, has always been a part of the human condition. We will take a look at how a few artists have communicated, explored, experienced, and expressed isolation.

Surprised by Lewis: The Enduring and Timely Wonder of C.S. Lewis's Life and Work

Jared Dybzinski, Literature Teacher, English Department Head, Liberty Common High School

C.S. Lewis has sparked delight and clarity for so many people of different ages, traditions, and convictions. Why? Mr. Dybzinski will walk through highlights from Lewis’s life and works as well as highlights from his own reading experiences of Lewis in order to reflect on this appeal and what it means for our own reading, thinking, and living.

Twisted Tales and Stories Spun: Textile Traditions in Literature

Mary Renstrom, English Teacher, Liberty Common High School

Spinning and weaving traditions were usually considered the province of women, and are often overlooked when mentioned in works of literature. However, this domestic work gives us valuable insight into the contributions of women in pre-industrial societies. 

Strike at the Root: Exploring the Shared Mentality of Fascism and Communism

Stanton Skerjanec, Economics and History Teacher, Liberty Common High School

Many recall World War II as the fight against fascism, the monstrous ideology that ravaged Europe. Few then forget the immediate fight Western Civilization faced against communist regimes. Today, we see anti-fascist demonstrations lead by communist ideologues. I will argue that, for the sake of preserving liberty and justice, the split between fascism and communism is a false dichotomy. Under close examination of their most fundamental beliefs, they are merely two sides of the same coin, responsible for millions of deaths and generations of freedom lost.

Catastrophic Geometry

Dr. Gavin Polhemus, Physicist and Professor

The most catastrophic events in the Universe – its creation at the Big Bang and its local destruction deep inside black holes – are driven by the stretching and collapsing of space itself. We will explore these events as unfolding geometric shapes.

Zero and Her Evil Twin, Infinity

Ashley McAllister, Math Teacher, Liberty Common High School

Infinity and zero... everything and nothing. They are opposite sides of the same coin. These ideas stumped Greek philosophers for centuries. Let's explore how looking into infinitely large and infinitely small quantities led to the invention of Calculus. Then we will take a look at what happens when you multiply infinity times zero. Multiplying by infinity always leads to a product of infinity. Multiplying by zero always leads to a product of zero. Who will win in this epic battle?

Can you promote virtue without being an elitist?

Dr. Matthew Post, Professor of Humanities and Dean of Braniff Graduate School at University of Dallas

Ever since the ancient Greeks, the claim that human beings are capable of moral virtue was seen (by some) as undemocratic and anti-egalitarian, the false propaganda of an elite deployed to maintain their oppression of everyone else. Yet rejecting the authority of moral virtue, ostensibly to end oppression, led to the view that all that matters is power. It aggravated the very problem it was intended to solve. The tradition offers an elegant response, (a) that all human beings are naturally free, rational, social and political, and (b) that each human being can learn to discern and actualize a beauty and nobility that is objectively real in every sphere of human activity. This response, key parts of which are still neglected today, holds up in the face of modern science and is even in harmony with it. 

Modern poetry’s epistemic force: naming as knowledge and remembrance

Dr. Robert Jackson, Chief Academic Officer of Great Hearts Academies and Founding Director of the Institute for Classical Education

Modern American poets like Dana Gioia have found depths of source-material in rocks and rills, flora and fauna, planets and quantum mechanics. Their vivid yet jarring depictions of embodied existence deploy empirical observations to move readers by creative juxtaposition. Take, for example, William Carlos Williams’ “glossy black winged May-flies” as precursor to “poesy’s transforming giant wing.” Robinson Jeffers, Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, and others do much the same, drawing upon empirical methods (informed by modern science) to expand the poetic idiom of English. Drawing judiciously upon these modern bards, classical classroom instruction can expand our students’ apprehension of epistemic paradoxes—e.g., human observations (per physical stimulus) leading to human interpretations (naming, knowing) further reshaping the physical world to human ends—and thus equip them to grasp the integrity of intellectual and moral formation. Said more simply, selections of modern poetry can aid the classical (secondary) classroom teacher in addressing the “epistemic turn” of modernity, by exploring a both/and relationship between scientific facts and humane values—and developing a more liberal mind for the late modern world.


Session II: 3:15pm to 4:05pm

Telling the Stories and Reading the Texts: Classical Education and the Black Intellectual Tradition

Dr. Brian A. Williams, Dean of Templeton Honors College, Dean of Arts & Humanities, Co-Director of MAT in Classical Education, Professor of Ethics & Liberal Studies

When Martin Luther King, Jr., was asked which book besides the Bible he would take with him to a deserted island, he replied, “I would have to pick Plato’s Republic. … There is not a creative idea extant that is not discussed, in some way, in this work. Whatever realm of theology or philosophy is one’s interest—and I am deeply interested in both—somewhere along the way, in this book, you will find the matter explored.” Of course, King was not the first Black intellectual interested in the traditions of classical education. Before him were Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Maxwell Philip, Alexander Crummell, William Sanders Scarborough, W. E. B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, and many others. Their stories ought to be known and their writings ought to be read. This workshop will introduce the stories and writing of several Black classical educators from the late 19th and early 20th century who helped pass on the classical tradition we now enjoy.

A World of Music in Your Backyard

Dave Lunn, Maestro & Music Teacher, Liberty Common High School

The popular children's show "The Backyardigans" was a staple of many of today's teenagers and 20-somethings. What many don't realize, however, is the hidden gem that is the show's soundtrack by composer Evan Lurie. Each episode featured a different , sometimes obscure, music genre, with over 30 different genres being used throughout the show's run. The songs were crafted with faithful authenticity, providing a great introduction to each genre. In this session, we'll use "The Backyardigans" as our launching pad on a journey of musical genres such as Zydeco, Tango, Operetta, Klezmer, Calypso, Bossa Nova, High Life and more.

Platonic Idealism and Aristotelean Empiricism: The two epistemological strands of the Western philosophical tradition

Ian Stout, Executive Director, Loveland Classical Schools

At the center of Raphael’s “The School of Athens” renaissance masterpiece, Plato and Aristotle stand at center; one pointing skyward, the other with hand extended, palm facing downward. This subtle difference refers to the seminal epistemological distinction of the Western philosophical tradition. Our conversation covers the roots of this debate regarding the nature of human knowledge in classical Athens, and its arc of influence through Augustine and Aquinas, the strands of Rationalism and Empiricism in the European Enlightenment, and contemporary Continental post-structuralism and Anglo-American post-analytic philosophy. We walk away from our conversation considering the question, “where does Western philosophy go from here?”

How to Start Your Own Country

Dr. Joel Penning, History Teacher, Liberty Common High School

How do communities of people come together to form a government? Who gets to decide which nations count? How big should a country be? This talk will examine these questions from the bottom up, examining the "founding moments" of several very small states to help us think more deeply about what it means to belong to a nation. Our journey will take us through the Mesopotamian city of Ur, ancient Rome, Renaissance Florence, and the modern day microstates of Sealand, the Hutt River Province, and the Conch Republic.

The Most Abundant Particle in the Universe is a Shapeshifter

Dr. Robert J. Wilson, Physics Professor, Colorado State University

Away from the glare of city lights, our beautifully clear Colorado night skies afford a spectacular view of just a fraction of the billion and billions of stars in the cosmos. Each one of those stars is pumping out unimaginable numbers of the most abundant known matter particle in the universe – the ghostly neutrino. In this talk I will introduce you to this ubiquitous entity, including some of its more down-to-earth origins. I will also describe how international teams of scientists are studying its shape-shifting quantum properties that might explain how the stars came into being.

How Quantum Mechanics Gets Under Your Skin - The Exciting Field of MRI Physics

Hannah Erdevig, IT and Physics Teacher, Liberty Common High School

Giant magnets and radio waves can make protons dance. Learn how MRI provokes, detects, and then deciphers this dance to give us a glimpse inside a living person. We will look at the quantum mechanical basis of MRI and its evolution from probing the structure of molecules to diagnosing disease.

Owl Moon: The Elements of Literature in Children's Stories

Lander Hultin, Literature Teacher, Liberty Common High School

Are children's stories just for children? Can children's stories actually help us read more complex stories? I think so. A few principles show this: All stories share 5 common elements. Children's stories show these elements most clearly. The Socratic Method is the best method to examine these elements and enter into the Great Conversation. Therefore, by examining children's stories in a Socratic seminar, readers can learn the tools of interpretation for any story, be it "Owl Moon", Huckleberry Finn, or Batman: The Dark Knight. In this session, Mr. Hultin will lead a seminar on Jane Yolen's "Owl Moon", an enduring classic that, although a children's story, is just as profound as Tolstoy or Hemingway. Participants do not need to read the story prior to joining. The other bonus of children's stories is they can be read out loud in a short time!


Student Presentations
Session III

4:15pm to 4:45pm

Perfect Pitch. Panacea or Party Trick?

Avery  Nevins (12th grade) and Chloe Young (12th grade)

This talk will revolve around the fascinating phenomenon of Perfect Pitch- a musical and neurological ability that affords its possessors skills which are envied by all musicians. In addition to an explanation of Perfect Pitch, you will learn about the neuroscientific potential surrounding this ability, and it's musical applications.


Give Machiavelli a Chance

Stasia Clegg (10th grade)

Who was the real Machiavelli?  This talk will illuminate what one of the most misunderstood figures in history truly intended in writing The Prince.

From Quill to Keyboard: Typography through Time

Bethany Tafoya (12th grade) 

Have you ever thought about why our alphabet looks the way it does? Did you know that letter shapes are greatly impacted by what tools are available? Beginning 5,520 years ago with the first wedge-shaped styli, materials and tools have dictated what letters look like, even to today’s modern computer programs. Come find out what has shaped our alphabet!

How My Education Has Failed Me, and Also Succeeded

Sydney Reinke (11th grade)

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis expands the concept of man's division into three parts: the belly as the center of appetite, the chest as the center of emotion, and the head as the center of reason. By illustrating how these three parts function in accordance with one another and ultimate objective standards, truths concerning the pursuit of knowledge are revealed. Namely, an education sought for power, as opposed to one sought for beauty, quickly changes a person's resulting lifestyle, level of contentment, and ability to achieve virtue.

Alternative Fuel: The Race For a Green World

Merek Ranstrom (10th grade)

In my presentation I will be addressing the past, present, and future of alternative fuels in automobiles. I will discuss how a gasoline engine works and what alternative types of fuels there are to replace it and how they work.

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