College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Liberal Arts Matters

Thoughts for the Class of 2017

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, "The Liberal Arts Banquet," was written by Dr. Anne Wilson, Professor of Chemistry, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

Imagining the World as it Might Be Otherwise

In the Pema Sutra, a sermon recorded 2,500 years ago, the Buddha criticizes our human tendency to be influenced by others as we form our opinions about what is good or bad, valuable or not valuable, and attractive or unattractive, and encourages us to develop the ability to imagine the world as it might be otherwise than we, under the influence of our intellectual habits and popular opinion, have been conditioned to perceive it.[1] 

There's nothing particularly Buddhist about the assertion that things might be otherwise than they immediately appear to us; skepticism about conventional wisdom and everyday human perception pervades the world's major religious and philosophical traditions.  In 1 Corinthians, for example, the Christian St. Paul writes with an eschatological hope, "Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then we shall see face to face: now we know in part; but then we shall know even as we are known."  Similarly, for thousands of years Hindu sages have been warning us that this material world, the world of appearances, of name and form, is maya,an illusion, and have suggested that true spiritual progress requires the ability to see through this illusion to the really real, the truly true. 

Developing the ability to imagine the world as it might be otherwise, it seems to me, is a suitable summary of the goal and vision of the liberal arts.  If we do our jobs well here, we will prepare you not only to think for yourselves, but also (and perhaps more importantly) to empathize with others, to be able to thoughtfully and carefully consider the opinions of others, to have a flexible mind, even to change your mind. If we do our jobs well, we will help you develop the ability to imagine the world as it might be otherwise. 

Your success in life depends upon that ability.  The arts are an expression of it.  Businesses seek leaders who have it.  Neither science nor medicine can progress without it.  And the ability to imagine the world as it might be otherwise is not merely a vocational skill.  It is also a personal and civic asset.  Close and nurturing relationships are impossible without it.  True compassion for others flows from it.  The productive civic engagement of diverse individuals and communities depends on it.  And a thriving, fair-minded, and inclusive democracy is simply unachievable without it. 

The ability to imagine the world as it might be otherwise is not a genetic trait.  It's not about raw intelligence or innate ability.  In fact, it is very often the case that the most intelligent people have the hardest time imagining that things might be otherwise than they believe them to be.  Rather, the ability to imagine the world as it might be otherwise is a learned ability.  And we will do what we can to help you learn it.  But it is your responsibility, now and for the rest of your life, to ensure that this ability grows and does not degenerate or atrophy.  And that will take some intentional action and careful decision-making on your part. 

Like all of you, I was, in college, required to take certain courses that exposed me to alternate ways of viewing and thinking about the world.  And I also took the opportunity to study abroad in the Ivory Coast, where I lived with a polygamous Christian pastor's family in a shantytown built on a beach outside of the capital, Abidjan.  There, not surprisingly, I witnessed things that had not been part of my rather sheltered, suburban, middle-class American upbringing: dismal poverty, widespread interpersonal violence and domestic abuse, and lives ravaged by disease and psychosis in the absence of adequate health care.  And I also experienced, if only faintly and fleetingly, the gnawing sense of insecurity that many people feel every day in those parts of the world where law and order have not been effectively or fairly established. 

And yet, when I returned home to my Midwestern American college, I managed to compartmentalize my experiences in Africa, to cordon them off as if they were experiences unique to Africa and to Africans.  College has a way of allowing this.  It is a rarified environment, a kind of retreat.  And it must be.  You wouldn't learn much, I imagine, if you felt constantly out of sorts in college.  And your parents probably wouldn't be very happy with us either.  And so college is designed to balance comfort and challenge in the proportion optimal to your intellectual and personal development.  But it should not be confused with the real world.   

It is easy for one to go through college, even to graduate, and never really leave behind the insularity of the college experience.  It is easy to take up the vocation for which one has prepared, to immerse oneself in it and in the more comfortable than average lifestyle that a college education allows, and to turn a blind eye to the experience of others.  And I certainly did.

But a few years after graduation, I took a part-time job as the facilitator of a support group for men and women with HIV and AIDS in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  And suddenly there, I was confronted with an American experience that had previously escaped my notice, largely because my unacknowledged privilege had allowed me to avoid it.  It was profoundly unsettling. 

I was no longer able to compartmentalize those African experiences as if they were unique to Africa.  Here were Americans-white Americans, black Americans, Latino/a Americans-who struggled under crippling and self-perpetuating poverty, who lived insecure lives in neighborhoods with high crime rates, who, in some cases, had suffered violence and bigotry as a result of their sexual orientation, and who, on top of all of it, were dealing with a socially marginalizing disease which was at that time quite commonly fatal, and with a health care system full of prejudice and non-eligibility clauses in small print that had failed them miserably.  "Take away our Play Stations," asserts singer/songwriter Ani Difranco with characteristic rhetorical flourish, "and we are a third world nation."  It is an exaggeration, of course, but if we cannot see at least a kernel of truth in it, we have probably failed to adequately imagine the world as it might appear to others, even others within our own country.

The American semanticist Kenneth Johnson once described education as the process of moving from "cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty."[2]  As you begin college, therefore, I encourage you to nurture thoughtful uncertainty by embracing an education, and a life, that does not insulate you from realities other than those you know well. To engage with people who dress differently than you do, who think differently than you do, who pray differently than you do, who don't have the education that you do, who don't have the same concerns, anxieties, and fears that you do.  To choose friends who can help you-even force you-to imagine the world as it might be otherwise.

And this, then, brings me to my final point, which is that a liberal arts education is not merely about learning to see the world from another's perspective.  It is not merely about sympathy and empathy, though these are important.  It is also about imagining a new world, a better world than the one in which we now dwell.  A world where we more regularly extend our hands to include rather than turn our backs to exclude.  A world where we are not de-humanized by our technological advance, but where we rather take time, through the arts, to express ourselves, to laugh, cry, and be moved.  A world where all people receive an effective and equitable education.  A world where the poor are not forced to choose between treating their illnesses and feeding their children.  A world where we learn to understand and tame our environment without destroying or losing our appreciation for it.  A world where all people live by the noblest of their ideals rather than hiding hypocritically behind the most impoverished of their prejudices.  A world where wealth abounds, but where we measure our success by how well we care for the many rather than by how finely we line the pockets of a few. 

And this, then, is the distinctiveness and value of a liberal arts education.  Each of you at Butler will be given the skills you need to survive in your chosen field.  But a liberal arts education is not merely about survival.  It is not merely about copying and reproducing technical processes, best practices, and standard operating procedures.  It is also, and more importantly, about giving you the skills you need to create, to revise and reform, to improve the world in which you live. 

Sometimes the solutions to our greatest problems are complicated and elusive.  At other times, however, they just require a bit of innovative thinking.  A grade school student was once asked on an exam to provide one way of preventing milk from going sour.  Her simple answer?  "Keep it in the cow."  Our greatest problems are greater than this one, of course, but you get the point.  And so as you begin your college career, our hope for you, our charge to you, is that you would use your education to go out into the world and imagine it otherwise.  And don't stop there, but make it so. 

Chad Bauman, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Religion
Butler University
August 2013



[1] This essay is an adaptation of the faculty speech I delivered at Butler University's commencement in 2010.  Phrasing the import of the Pema Sutraas encouraging us to "imagine the world as it might be otherwise" was suggested to me by an interpreter of the text whose online essay I read many years ago.  I am no longer able to find the essay, suggesting either that my memory of it is faulty or that it no longer exists online.

[2] The quotation can be found at www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/eduquote.htm