Growing in virtue, as any Catholic knows, can be as filling as a good loaf of sourdough bread. That’s why Franciscan University of Steubenville professors Brandon Dahm and Matthew Breuninger are collaborating to create a one-of-a-kind class.
In this new summer class, students will spend two weeks in Gaming, Austria, learning to make sourdough bread and diving into readings about virtue. The class will then travel to France to sample world-class breads and, if all goes according to plan, to stay at a monastery where students can learn from exemplars of virtue in person.
Dahm and Breuninger, professors of philosophy and psychology respectively, have long been interested in virtue development as it relates to habit formation. They recently had the idea to collaborate on a class to bring their traditions together, along with the theological perspective, for an integrated intellectual experience.
Students will have the option to take the class for a theology, philosophy or psychology credit.
Dahm explained there is a long philosophical tradition on habit and virtue but a very short psychological tradition. The goal of the class is to see how they overlap — whether there is a kind of psychological habit which could be considered a virtue and if the disciplines can inform each other. The goal is “learning in a very concrete way how to go about becoming more virtuous,” Dahm said.
“Virtues aren’t just things we think about,” Breuninger said. “They’re things we live; they’re actual things we do.” As a psychology professor, he is interested in the ways his field can “inform areas of philosophy.”
The academic learning is then concretized in the Kartause kitchen as students will daily learn how to make sourdough bread as a point of contact with the literature. Throughout the day, breadmaking will be punctuated by discussions on the readings, along with time for personal and group reflection.
Why bread? “It’s delicious,” both professors said.
If that wasn’t enough, bread is eminently usable, Breuninger said. It can be made and used every day, and the repetition is a great way to put into practice the language of habit and virtue formation that students will develop in the classroom.
“There’s a lot to learn, and mastery takes forever, but it’s easy to learn enough to regularly make really good bread,” Dahm said. “So, in a two-to-three-week class, we can actually learn enough to make good bread and get a taste for the process of skill mastery.”
To deepen the practical side of the class, the professors plan for each day to end with a communal dinner, at which the students’ bread is featured and they can continue reflecting together on what they’ve learned.
Community also plays a vital role in virtue development, Breuninger said. “Friendship serves as this fertile soil for the development and cultivation of virtue,” he explained, citing Aristotle’s concept of the friendship of virtue.
“We’re social beings,” Dahm said. “So, if being virtuous is living the good life, living the happy life, it’s going to have a deep social component because otherwise we won’t be satisfied.”
The professors have several goals for the students to take away from the class.
“I’d really love students to come away with, first and foremost, language to better understand virtue and virtue development,” said Breuninger. He explained that without the right language, it’s hard to address certain problems or work toward solving them.
“The other (goal) is the ability to make a really great loaf of sourdough bread. There’s just something nice about learning how to make something with your hands, and to have mastered it,” Breuninger said.
Dahm explained that through the process of mastering a skill — breadmaking — and reflecting on the experience in light of the literature studied, students can hopefully come away with the ability to make concrete plans for growth in specific virtues.
“You infuse your actions with meaning, and it’s the meaningful actions that change you to be more (virtuous),” said Dahm.
The professors made the decision to have the class take place on the Gaming campus in order to foster community among students in a way that isn’t always possible on main campus and to allow students to study virtue while surrounded by the beauty of Austria. Both professors said they’re excited to have their families joining them in Europe during the class.
For any students on the fence about taking the class: “This is the class that I’m most excited to teach, absolutely,” said Breuninger. “I think it is a class that could genuinely change you. I think it’s a class that will form habits of reflection and prayer that you will hopefully carry with you the rest of your life.”
Dahm simply encourages them to “come taste the bread.”