College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Liberal Arts Matters

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 enter.

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
Butler University
August 2011