stories | Students

A Brief History of Interregnum

04.04.2016 | Emily Schatz

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This week, King’s students will get a brief reprieve from their studies to focus on Interregnum— “an annual event in which the entire College participates in a common inquiry of some theme of abiding philosophical importance and public salience,”[1] organized around a classic work of literature. Interregnum is structured as a three-day academic festival of competitive events, ranging from debates to art exhibitions. It is also the last and greatest of the House competitions, in which the ten student Houses compete for various honors—athletic, academic, and creative—throughout the year. Participation in Interregnum events is required for graduation.

Where did this unique tradition—unreplicated among our peer institutions, as far as we know—come from? How does it matter to the King’s community?

Interregnum’s predecessor was first known as Block Week, then as the Fall and Spring Lectureship Series: a week of intensive policy briefs focused on current events, during which classes were suspended. The 2002-2003 academic year zeroed in on “God, War, and Terrorism”; the next year’s topics included “Building a Christian Worldview” and “How to Win Elections.”

Dr. Peter Wood, an anthropologist from Boston University, came to King’s as Provost, or head of Academic Affairs, in 2005. When he arrived at King’s, the week off from classes had become filled with field trips to New York icons such as the Stock Exchange, the United Nations, the FBI, and the Second Federal Circuit Court.[2] Wood saw no reason classes should be canceled for excursions people could plan on their own,[3] so he planned for King’s to observe a fall and a spring Interregnum on the philosophical but culturally pertinent themes of Secularism and Trust, respectively. The name means, in Latin, “the time between kings”; it captures both the royal resonance of The King’s College and the idea of a break from the normal regime, and also puns a bit on the King’s name.

Interregnum planning fell to the Scholars, a group of academic student leaders drawn from each House. Ashley (Debter) Thorne, PPE ’08, was a member of that group. She remembers that both the Scholars in charge of planning and the student body at large were resistant to the idea.[4] They felt overwhelmed by the large number of House competitions, and there was little vision for what Interregnum could or should be. Nevertheless, it began to take shape: The first one revolved around student debates, which are still a central feature today. The speakers for Secularism were the renowned sociologists Christian Smith and Peter Berger. In the spring, they did it all again on Trust, and Dr. Alan Kors was the keynote speaker.

2006-2007 proved to be an energizing year. Doing an Interregnum every semester had been too much, so Interregnum III was a yearlong meditation on Difficulty. The required reading was Pilgrim’s Progress. Students were already grappling with the idea of difficulty after about half of their class discovered, upon arriving at King’s, that they were in for significantly more academic challenge than they had bargained for, and left the school. Although the tension between academic standards and admissions criteria was not resolved that year, students in 2006-2007 seemed to feel that there must be a reason they had made it through the initial hardship and began to turn their attention to what it took to thrive at King’s.

Difficulty, then, came at a fortuitous time. The campus community united so markedly around the theme that Interregnum III became a defining moment for the newly re-founded institution. One student drew a pictorial study guide for the reading test on Pilgrim’s Progress that generated immense goodwill among his peers. The “penalty” for failing the reading test—a recitation for Wood and a few other faculty members—was a constructive encounter for many students. Thorne remembers widespread willingness to try something new, and the Scholars were better prepared to plan the events. They worked more closely with Wood and the faculty on programming and added lighthearted events to the regimen of competitions, including humorous speaking competitions based on faculty exercises Wood had instituted to encourage a culture of healthy eloquence on campus, and an open-mic evening at which the reserved Wood performed a rap based on Pilgrim’s Progress—much to students’ delight. Scholar David Lapp, PPE ’09, arranged for the Evening Lecture to be given by Father Richard John Neuhaus, the legendary Christian writer, Catholic priest, and founder of the journal First Things. Within the Houses, where organizing participation in competitions could at times be like pulling teeth, it became an honor to be asked to represent the House in an Interregnum event. “You can’t really explain the shift [in attitude toward Interregnum] by the programming,” said Thorne. “It was kind of beautiful to see. People started to open up to the idea of difficulty for its own sake.”

Subsequent years brought additional competitions in writing and art, and a continuously impressive array of speakers for the Evening Lecture: Dr. Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and a public authority on policies protecting life, marriage, and religious freedom (Civilization); Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, a Duke University ethicist and theologian (Avarice); Dr. Anthony Esolen, an English professor at Providence College, translator of classic works, and prolific commentator on culture and education (Villainy); Dr. David Bentley Hart, the Eastern Orthodox theologian-philosopher (Tradition); and Dr. Eleonore Stump, a medievalist philosopher at St. Louis University (Mercy).

After Difficulty, Interregnum became irrevocably a hallmark of what it means to be a present-day Kingsian. Since 2009-2010, Interregnum’s theme has been chosen by its student organizers who, to their credit, have consistently tackled portentous topics. The result is a lively and gregarious reflection on questions that matter in the church, the world, and the campus community itself—in a competitive format that seems to pull student talent out of the woodwork. Because Interregnum themes are so pertinent to thoughtful Christian life in the world, they have often helped the campus community understand its priorities more clearly, even in times of hardship or division. This relevance, along with the sheer fun of the week, creates an experience of camaraderie and solidarity that refocuses the whole community on its mission.

Ultimately, Interregnum is something like a feast. President Gregory Thornbury says, “Once a year for three days, The King’s College experiences halcyon days where the best of life at King’s is on display. The admixture of scholarly debate and creative expression gives new meaning to the word Interregnum—the time between kings.”

This year’s speaker, on Ambition, is Dr. Os Guinness, the noted Christian activist and author. The Evening Lecture takes place at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, April 5,­­ at W83 (Upper West Side) 150 W. 83rd St. All alumni are welcome.

 


[1] 2015-2016 College Catalog, p. 34. https://www.tkc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015-2016-catalog.pdf

[2] 2006-2007 College Catalog, p. 41. https://www.tkc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2006-2007-catalog.pdf

[3] Phone interview with Peter Wood, April 1, 2016.

[4] Phone interview with Ashley Thorne, March 4, 2016.