Thoughts for the Class of 2015
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, "Welcome to the Butler Bubble," was
written by Dr. Paul Hanson, Professor of History, College of
Liberal Arts & Sciences.
Welcome to the Butler Bubble
Welcome to the Butler Bubble! If you haven't already heard this
expression you will learn soon enough that it is the label that
Butler students have fondly attached to the campus environment. It
is apt in some ways. The next four years will be unlike any others
in your lifetime, a kind of transition zone from youth to
adulthood. The university has long been referred to as an ivory
tower, removed from the real world, a sheltered idealistic sort of
place. Here in the Butler Bubble you will have the opportunity to
explore yourselves and to learn more of the world you are about to
But the label is also misleading, especially for you who will be
studying the liberal arts. You will be encountering new ideas,
gaining new knowledge, and visiting places, both figuratively and
literally, that are far away and long ago. Ten years ago when I was
visiting a Chinese professor in Beijing, who had been to Butler two
years before to give a guest lecture, she introduced me to an old
friend, who had left China for Sydney, Australia. When I told her
that I taught at Butler University she immediately replied, "Oh, I
know about Butler. Two Butler students live in the apartment below
mine. They like to party." Some of you will study in Sydney, others
in Paris, and yet others in Buenos Aires or Santiago. Remember,
though, that if you party too much your professors back home may
hear about it! The Butler Bubble is an expansive place.
As I write these words I am sitting on the shore of Puget Sound.
The tide is coming in, for the second time today. Spending time at
a place like this reminds one of the continuities of life. Every
day there are two high tides and two low tides. Waves have been
breaking on this shore for millennia. There is a timeless quality
about the sea. But there is change here, too. High tide tomorrow
will be 32 minutes later than high tide today, and one tenth of a
foot higher. The waves will carry in with them a different set of
driftwood and detritus, and they will leave their mark on the
shoreline. The point at the east end of the bay juts out into the
water 25 fewer feet than it did 40 years ago, when I was your age.
Wind, rain, and the waves have worn it away.
No matter which of the liberal arts you study, you will find
that your discipline has a tradition, a history, a foundation upon
which it rests. But you will also learn that every generation of
students and scholars brings something new to the discipline: new
questions, new insights, new discoveries. Like the tide, the
liberal arts are enduring but also changing, sometimes dramatically
(as in the times of Darwin or Einstein), sometimes subtly. This is
part of what makes the study of the liberal arts so exciting.
As a liberal arts major, you will soon grow weary of hearing
relatives ask, "What are you going to do with that when you
graduate?" How will you answer?
Think first about the issues that have dominated the news this
past summer: the debt ceiling crisis; the explosion and bombings in
Norway; and the persistent debate over climate change and
environmental protection vs. jobs and economic growth. Begin with
the debt crisis. I teach French history (how relevant is that?!),
and the debate in Congress this summer reminds me of the Assembly
of Notables convened by Louis XVI in 1787 to address the financial
crisis facing the French monarchy, at that time the greatest power
in Europe. A decade earlier Adam Smith had published The Wealth of
Nations, in which he argued that if each person pursued his or her
own self-interest it would redound to the benefit of all. This is
what the notables argued in 1787. While the king and his chief
minister called upon all to sacrifice for the common good, the
aristocracy and the clergy defended their self-interest and opposed
reform. The result was the French Revolution, which did not, as you
may recall, turn out well for the aristocracy, the clergy, or, for
that matter, the king.
The bombing and shootings in and near Oslo this summer stunned
Norwegians and the world. How are we to make sense of this tragedy?
Literature, history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and
political science-all liberal arts disciplines-can help us to
comprehend this perplexing event. They will not provide an easy
answer, but this is one of the central things that the liberal arts
teach us: easy answers are seldom good answers.
There are no easy answers to the challenge of climate change,
either, but the scientific disciplines among the liberal arts shed
light on the processes and forces that are causing our oceans to
rise, our glaciers to shrink, and our weather patterns to grow more
volatile. I am hoping that by the time you read these words the
heat index in Indianapolis will no longer be above 100 degrees! I
am also hoping that our representatives in Congress will pay
attention to what scientists have to say about climate change. This
is an issue that will affect all of us in the years ahead.
One final gloss on the value of the liberal arts. Last month I
had dinner with six old friends from graduate school. Four of us at
the table studied history as undergraduates, one studied theatre,
one music and literature, and the other psychology. Thirty-five
years later (yes, graduate school was a long time ago for me!) two
of us are in fact teaching history at universities; but one of the
other history students is now a computer programmer living and
working in Silicon Valley, and the other is a health care
consultant, advising big companies and the White House on how to
manage spiraling health care costs. He considers the study of
history to have been excellent preparation for the work he does
today. The theatre major gave up acting after college and became a
set designer for twenty years, but now he is an independent
contractor, remodeling people's homes. The music and literature
major spent her career working for IBM. And the psychology major
recently retired from a career as a medical librarian. The seven of
us have seven children, all liberal arts majors. So as you begin
your four years at Butler, think of the liberal arts not only as
something that will serve you well in your long and unpredictable
lives ahead, but as something you will likely pass on to the next
generation as well.
Paul Hanson, Ph.D.
Professor of History