College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Department of History and Anthropology

The Liberal Arts

 

Please read the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Liberal Arts Statement.

 

Liberal Arts Statement

For some thousands of years the purpose of the Liberal Arts has been to educate and prepare
individuals for freedom and citizenship.  The Latin word liber, at the root of both the liberal arts and
liberty, means free in both mind and body, a precious quality in a world where most people were
anything but free.  Abolitionist Frederick Douglass argued that "to educate a man is to unfit him to be a
slave".  Butler alumna Amanda Quick, Class of 1888, concurred and noted that, if she did well, "no one
noticed the dress".  During the nineteenth century Franz Boas introduced anthropology into American
universities to enlarge our understanding of humanity and thereby, he hoped, put an end to racial
prejudice.  Earlier, during the 1300s, the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch made the humanities, and
thus history and geography, part of higher education because he believed they taught people to
examine human life and nature, think clearly and carefully about them, then act well, as free people, in
their lives and communities.

Since its founding in 1855 Butler University has held to the principle that a liberal arts education was
meant for all people.  From its first day, as a matter of principle, it welcomed women and African-
American students to study the liberal arts when virtually every other university in the land was
excluding them.  Butler University thus has an enviable legacy of welcoming a diverse array of students
in the pursuit of a liberal arts education.  Our department holds fast to that tradition today.  It seeks to
prepare its students to examine human life and nature, think carefully about them, figure out what is
true, and act well in the world.  Since it seeks to prepare them for freedom and citizenship, we ask our
students, in that spirit, to work, think, and learn, to wrestle with fundamental questions, and master the
methods of our three disciplines.

History takes as its scope all human experience.  Historians tend to stand off at a distance to scrutinize
people. We look at them through telescopes.  We ponder their experience through the remains that
they have left behind, collected, often, in libraries, archives, and museums.  Historians seek to
understand how life really works.  It is sometimes used as well to better our world and sometimes to
speak truth to power: our Declaration of Independence set out a powerful historical analysis of why the
American colonists should of right be free of the tyranny of George III.

Anthropologists ask the same questions but meet people face to face.  We immerse ourselves in
different communities and cultures.  We share life with the people whom we study.  Above all, we listen
carefully.  In so doing, we hope to unfold the ways in which people structure and give meaning to their
lives.  We train students to jump into other cultures and give voice to cultures otherwise silenced,
animal cultures as well as human.  Since anthropologists are quite likely to dig up the objects that find
their way into museums-you have seen the movies-we train them to do that as well.  Ethnography
informs much of our coursework as we seek to understand other cultures and gain a more nuanced
understanding of our own.

Geographers look at the interplay between people and land, between communities and the
environments that shape their possibilities.  We thus train students to read land and water as well as
people, to train them to assess the physical and cultural landscapes. We delight in casting our
discoveries into maps, especially of cultural regions near and far.

All three of our disciplines offer students serious training in the skills and practice of close and careful
reading, (sometimes reading people as well as books), critical analysis, listening, weighing carefully what
they see and hear, and reflective writing.  We give them practice in using libraries and archives;  practice
as well in understanding whose voices get heard and whose get silenced.  We ask them to see what the
world looks like through the eyes of other people and imagine life from other perspectives.

Thus we seek to bring to our students the best traditions of the liberal arts: critical enquiry, spirited
debate, careful reflection, subtle interpretation, engagement with diverse people and cultures.  We
pride ourselves on integrating the best of our individual disciplines to train our students to think
historically, culturally, spatially.  Drawing on the past, we seek to prepare our students for the
opportunities and challenges of years to come.

Through these means our three disciplines, each in its own way, seeks to equip students in both private
and public life with those hardest won of all skills: the ability to think for oneself and act well in the
world.

The disciplines of History, Anthropology, and Geography share the same home because they address the
same fundamental questions about life from different perspectives, the interplay amongst which
enlarges our students' minds and lives.  Butler is singular amongst American universities in bringing
together these three disciplines into a working organism.  Prospective majors in both History and
Anthropology take together a freshman course, introducing them to each other and to the disciplines in
their departments, thus offering all the advantages of self-standing disciplines and inter-disciplinary
work and becoming themselves a community.  Members of the department offer expertise in wide-
ranging areas of the world: United States, Latin America, East Asian, the Middle East, and Europe. 
Within these areas we offer courses on the fundamental conditions that shape human life past and
present: citizenship, politics, war, gender, race, class, sexuality, language, economics, religion, thought. 
We do not process our students.  The department offers a small student-faculty ratio, individual
attention, abundant opportunities for undergraduate research.  Most of our students also study away
from Butler, either abroad or in Washington DC, offering them a taste of this increasingly global world
we inhabit.