College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Liberal Arts Matters

Thoughts for the Class of 2013

Each year a faculty member is asked to write a statement for the incoming class about the value of a liberal arts education here at Butler. This year's essay, "Getting the Message," was written by Dr. Hilene Flanzbaum, Allegra Stewart Professor of English.

Getting the Message

Everywhere you go, you receive messages. On a normal day, you hear or read thousands of words - words arranged in infinite patterns. In the first ten minutes of the morning, your alarm clock goes off and lyrics play: "For some reason I can't explain, I know St. Peter will call my name." The back of the toothpaste tube promises you whiter teeth and you already have a text from a friend that says," school, so far, is okay." You understand all these messages: they seem to require no close attention or interpretation. Yet even the simplest of messages requires the act of interpretation: you no longer notice it because the process has become so automatic. Coldplay's lyrics require that you know who St. Peter is; you hope, but really don't believe that Colgate will give you whiter teeth than your last toothpaste. It takes a bit longer, however, to figure out what your friend's text means. When she says "okay," does she man okay/good or okay/bad? You call on your shared history and recall that once she said a guy in your math class was just "okay" looking and it turned out he was really cute. When she is really excited about something, she tends to downplay it. On the basis of this information you decide she must be pretty pumped about her college choice.

But what happens when we do not know the transmitter of the message? We have enough experience with advertisements to know that we cannot always, or often, trust them. We have come to expect, perhaps cynically, that both Colgate and Crest will claim that they are the best toothpaste. Because these messengers have profit motives, we have learned to read them more critically. If as an adult you remained as gullible as you were as a four -year -old watching commercials during Saturday morning television, toys and computer games would soon crowd you out of your own house.

Advertisers are not the only messengers that can be misleading or contradictory. We live in a world of competing truth claims, or to put it more plainly, constant contradiction: A guy tells you he wants to hang out, but won't return your text; Fox News reports that the US had a good week in Iraq but CNN reports that 26 people were killed in a suicide bombing; sipping a Diet Coke you remember that you read an article that says aspartame causes cancer and quickly put the can down; then you remember another article that claimed that it didn't and pick it up again. People can disagree, dangerously, when the issues are crucial and life-changing: why, for instance, are some people saying that this mild summer indicates that global warming is a myth, while others insist that such a wet summer proves that global warming is a reality? When the fate of the planet is at stake, why can't Americans find consensus? Follow any political debate, or watch a legal trial, and you will understand that people honestly and earnestly hold different things to be true.

The recent skirmish between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge police officer James Crowley well illustrates that two human beings of good intentions and high intelligence can perceive a situation in entirely different ways. Anyone can spout off about who he or she believes was right or wrong, but a careful and considered point of view requires asking and attempting to answer good questions. The task of learning about, evaluating and judging human nature, actions and motives calls on many of the subject areas that, in a University context, are called the "liberal arts.'" For instance, a student of history asks, "What past events have contributed to Gates' and Crowley's behaviors?" A psychology student asks, "To what degree did fear determine each of the men's behavior?" A math major uses statistics to determine if Gates had ample reason to suspect racism. You can probably figure out the questions that students in other fields of the liberal arts would ask - from sociology, English, political science, philosophy, religion, biology, chemistry, physics and communications, students research the complex, ambiguous and contradictory nature of human interactions and perceptions.

The skills developed by studying the liberal arts enhance every human interaction, including both broad and narrow professional circumstances. A business major learns how to balance ledgers and estimate profit margins, but how can she decide where to build the next Starbuck's? How does she anticipate the needs and desires of a particular population without understanding the methods of psychology and sociology? And once she thinks she knows, how can she best convince her associates that she has the right solution without learning the skills of argumentation and critical thinking? A dance major masters a jeté, but she will perform the part of Giselle more beautifully when she feels the depths of love and jealousy that so prevail in nineteenth-century poetry and fiction. To be a good physician's assistant, a student studies biology and learns the anatomy of the heart - but he also must recognize that there is more to human beings than their ventricle chambers.

The actual business of learning about humanity - what people do and why they do it, what they say and how they say it, what they want and what they need--is the project of the liberal arts. The educators you will meet in your four years at Butler University share the conviction that studying the liberal arts gives you the tools to understand more fully, and to respond more effectively, to the human challenges that surround you.

Hilene Flanzbaum, Ph.D.
Allegra Stewart Professor of English
Butler University
August 2009