Reflections on Edward La Beaume Cherbonnier

By Calvin Bradford ’66

Dr. Cherbonnier represented what has always been the best of Trinity College. For him, college was not simply about making the grade to get a job. It was a place to learn how to learn for the rest of your life. While he taught courses with religious titles, he was really about teaching people how to think critically — a skill in short supply today.

When I took his classes in the 1960s, he brought with him his personal relationships with great religious scholars like Paul Tillich. Dr. Cherbonnier used Tillich’s three-volume Systematic Theology as a challenge for his students — not to be intimidated by such acclaimed figures but as a test to develop each student’s own skills at critical thinking. He mustered his students’ confidence by noting, with his slight smile, that Tillich claimed that no good philosophy could be written in English because the language was “too clear.” After lessons on how to identify false, misleading, or poorly supported arguments, he drew from his students (in clear English, no less) insightful, thoughtful, and impressive responses to Tillich’s complex, but often vague and convoluted, arguments. He taught us not to blindly accept opinions because of the reputation or status of the person but to hold that person, and more importantly ourselves, to thinking based on reason, sound logic, and honest observation and reflection.

Dr. Cherbonnier was also a personal friend of the great Jewish scholar Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who was an activist for civil rights and a leading critic of the war in Vietnam. He came to campus as Dr. Cherbonnier’s guest and lectured on peace, civil rights, and moral courage.

Dr. Cherbonnier’s legacy in making us informed and active citizens is clear from the impact he had on my life and on so many of my classmates. The reputation he advanced for Trinity as a place for creative thinking is also clear in that he attracted Rabbi Heschel’s own daughter [H. Susannah Heschel ’73, H’10] as one of the first women students at Trinity; she has become a noted Jewish scholar in her own right as well as a leader in advancing the role of women in religion. Learning is a lifelong journey, and through Dr. Cherbonnier and so many other members of its faculty, Trinity has provided an understanding of how to walk vigorously along that path.