Politics, Play, and Civics in the Classroom

Reported by Jacks Whitehurst

Photographed by Jessica Holder

In her first year at George Fox University (GFU), Heather Ohaneson is looking to bring a new voice and fresh perspective to contemporary politics in the classroom. She is passionate about civic engagement, very happy to be at GFU, and wants students to understand the importance of politics as it relates to our culture today.

After spending the last two years teaching Philosophy, Literature, and Religion at Azusa Pacific University, Ohaneson is currently an assistant professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies. She was recruited by the William Penn Honors Program as a faculty fellow.

Shortly after finishing her bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religion at New York City’s Barnard College in 2003, she went to work for Project Pericles, a non-profit organization in New York that promotes civic engagement within higher education. Ohaneson credits this experience as highly formative of her love for politics.

Civic engagement, according to the American Psychological Association, is “individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern.”

Ohaneson is able to draw on her educational and work experiences in unique way, but also live into the “Be Known” promise.

“I am fundamentally a student at heart,” she said, “but I do try even in my lecture classes to have a lot of room for student voices—I want students to feel like they can speak up.”

While her birth place and early years were in Charlottesville, Va., she calls New York City her real home. After a few years with Project Pericles, she went on to earn her doctorate in Religion from Columbia University in 2013, with her dissertation entitled Free to Play: An Analysis in Aesthetic, Ethical, and Religious Movements.

“I was looking into the nature of play and why it is important to the good life,” Ohaneson said, “and then I was interested in the philosophy of labor and more personally, in rest and Sabbath-keeping—so I thought: ‘I don’t know how play fits into the category of the work/rest binary.’ So I decided that’s what I want to study.”

Play can mean a lot of different things. Ohaneson mentioned that “play can involve work, in fact, some of the best forms of play involve that kind of effort and potential,” much like structured games such as team sports, or actions like free play that involve no rules and have more room for individual freedom. She focused more on the latter form in her current studies, attempting to understand the relationship between freedom and constraint within free play itself.

She has an upcoming project that will examine the philosophy of extreme sports, which for some would be a form of play.

Ohaneson also mentioned something that most students may not be aware of: “Did you know that George Fox used to subscribe as a university to the New York Times until recently, when they cut the subscription in order to save money[?]...I think that is a bad decision! Part of what it means to be an adult is to be informed on current issues and topics.”

“We want to have students that are more politically aware, so that even as we are reading texts from antiquity, our modern and contemporary questions are at the forefront,” she said regarding students in Honors courses. “I would welcome the political discussions in my classroom.”

Ohaneson stands out among the strong voices in the GFU faculty calling into check this reality: “How is it that you are going to pray for the world, if you don’t know what’s going on in the world?”