Friday, April 10, 2015

The Human Side of the Liberal Arts

Franklin's Junto
For many college students, liberal arts courses are the courses that they need to "get out of the way" in order to get on to the important courses in their professional-oriented major--business, education, engineering, nursing, etc...  For administrators and the gurus of higher education who write for the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed, the liberal arts are just another piece of the curriculum--something that needs to be delivered as part of a complete college education.

But in the past few weeks--really in the past few days--I have been reminded that the liberal arts, and especially the humanities, are about people engaging ideas in community.  The questions about the meaning of life raised by the study of the liberal arts are often asked in the context of friendship, sociability, and conversation.  The liberal arts are about human beings.  And they are best cultivated by human beings in relationship with other human beings. 

Here are three real-life examples:

1,  This semester I am teaching a course on Pennsylvania history.  A couple of weeks ago I introduced my students to Benjamin Franklin's Junto--a society of artisans and tradesmen who gathered together in Philadelphia for the mutual improvement of its members.  The Junto members sharpened their intellect and sense of civic responsibility through discussions of the major issues facing Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and British provincial society.  

As I often do when talking about the Junto, I got on my soapbox for a few minutes and challenged my students to form their own Juntos--to gather together in their dorms or over a meal together in the college dining hall, to discuss the things that matter, the so-called "first things." These kinds of regular conversations, coupled with formal college coursework, just might result in an education.

2.  This week I had the honor of serving as an outside reader on a doctoral dissertation defense in early American history.  I was not able to be present for the defense, so I spent most of the two-hour session with the phone on my ear until I was given my fifteen-minute opportunity to grill the candidate.  The next-to-last person to question the candidate was the professor who served as the candidate's doctoral adviser. She began her comments by saying that it was a privilege  to work with this young historian. After spending so many years working closely with this doctoral student, conversing about history and other things that matter, and developing a friendship with the student, the adviser seemed sad to see it all come to an end.  She described her work with this student as one of the highlights of her life. As I sat quietly on the end of the phone, I found myself deeply moved by these remarks.  It was clear to me that the adviser's relationship with the student--a friendship forged over the ideas that stemmed from their high-level engagement together with the past--should serve as a model for the transformative power of the liberal arts when practiced in community with others.

3.  This morning I read an op-ed in my local newspaper by my friend Eric Miller, a history professor at Geneva College.  The piece is a moving reflection on the life of Eric's friend and Geneva colleague Howard Mattson-Boze, who recently passed a way.  Here is a taste of that piece:

In the liberal arts Howard was a master.  He knew the lineage that had formed him so finely, and delighted in it. 

A conversation with Howard took one from ancient Athens through medieval Paris to nineteenth century London in ten minutes flat. He dipped into Kierkegaard in the spirit of a boy playing baseball in spring. 

As he spoke, whether across the table or behind a lectern, his eyes gleamed with contagious purpose.

When he died this past January many former students remembered the discussions he and his wife hosted through the years, evenings spent on "the deep questions of life," as one, now himself a professor, put it. 

Howard taught, in the words of another, "the classical liberal ideas that we live by today."

This was simply what college was for, to Howard. More particularly, it was what he thought our college was for, despite countervailing winds. The ideals that spark our way do not live by books alone, he knew, but through people--people living in places structured for their preservation and advance. 

Howard believed that without generosity of mind and depth of spirit this world is a harsher place. About the ideas themselves, about their truth, we might--we will--disagree. 

But apart from a foundation of respect for ideas and their centrality in our lives, all debates about their worth, and about the world itself, move from incivility to hostility to worse. And the great hope of liberal society, of a place where we live together in honor of the dignity of life, fades like fall. 

The liberal arts aren't the only pathway toward our highest ends, to be sure.  But they have aided decisively all pathways we've ever known, keeping them clear, straight, and manifest. 

The darkness many of us feel today, in an age marked by so vicious and spurious a form of "realism," may in part be the fruit of the liberal arts fading among us, leaving us, inevitably, less free.

I know what counsel Howard would offer.  He would urge deep, costly institutional commitments to preserve and prosper liberal learning. 

Do we have the will to heed it?  

The liberal arts are about people.