LAS Faculty Perspectives
The Value of a Liberal Arts Education at Butler University
Each year one faculty member from the College writes a statement for the incoming class of LAS students about the centrality, vibrancy, and joy of a liberal arts education, specifically at Butler University. As they are being written, these essays are being collected at this site.
It is an honor to be the faculty member chosen to share with the class of 2018 my perspective on the meaning and significance of a liberal arts education. However, it is a daunting task to attempt to say something new about the value of a liberal arts education. Simply stated, a liberal arts education enhances our ability to think clearly, feel deeply, and to gain knowledge of one’s self within the context of larger communities. However, as the liberal arts teach us, learning to think critically and expose ourselves to new experiences and ideas is not an easy task. It takes courage and intellectual fortitude to cast off what philosopher Martha Nussbaum labels “sluggishness of thought” (Cultivating Humanity, 1997)so that we may become the educated citizens needed to solve the problems that plague our planet.
The class of 2018 has been encouraged to read Ties that Bind, a collection of personal stories. What strikes me about these stories is that they are about life itself. Thus, in keeping with the theme of Ties that Bind, I share two stories from my life that represent for me the essence of a liberal education, the process of coming to know life itself.
The first story begins on an early summer morning more than fifty years ago when my next-door neighbors and childhood friends learned their father had died in his sleep. Later that day, in a darkened living room, I huddled with my bereaved friends wondering about death and how it fit into our lives. Within a few months of burying her husband, my friends’ mother, a woman I called “Mrs. Murphy,” began her long career as a kindergarten teacher, a career that benefited all who knew her. For example, Mrs. Murphy often included me on the adventures she took with her three children. We regularly visited libraries, natural history and art museums, frequently stopping in churches or commercial buildings to explore the different architectural designs. Trips to local parks sometimes included gathering various species of pinecones, not so much to study them as gymnosperms, but rather for the sake of later arranging the cones into holiday wreaths. Nonetheless, Mrs. Murphy was careful to show us the uniqueness of each cone, thereby guiding me towards appreciating the subtle differences that make up the complexities of our natural world. Of all our adventures together, my favorite entailed visiting her husband’s graveside. Respectfully, we would stand near the modest headstone, say the prayers innocents say, and pick away any debris that may have fallen on or around the headstone. After the visit, we would climb the church-topped hill that marked the center point of the cemetery, unpack our picnic lunch, and eat while enjoying the view and talking about life.
When I reflected upon these adventures as an adult, I realized it was during these picnics on the cemetery’s hillside that I learned a most valuable lesson in a visceral way. Watching Mrs. Murphy grieve the loss of her husband, I came to understand life is not complete without death, so we ought not fear death. Death is inseparable from life, and it is life itself that lies at the heart of what I teach and study. I also came to the realization that Mrs. Murphy practiced what I now understand to be the core values associated with a liberal arts education. Life is what happens to us on a daily basis; it is not an abstract concept studied in a course to be checked off as “completed” on a transcript. A liberal arts education teaches us to appreciate life itself in all its glory and sadness, well beyond graduation day.
The second story derives from recent visits I made to art exhibitions. This summer I toured New Mexico’s state capitol building in Santa Fe. World renowned for its architectural design, the building also houses an extraordinary art collection. While browsing the collection, I stopped before a beautiful landscape painting entitled Sundown 1972. The painting’s placard provided a brief biography of its painter, U.S. born Wilson Hurley (1924-2008). Hurley’s “father steered him toward a promising career in the military.” Hurley graduated from West Point in 1945 and served in “air-sea rescue from 1945-49.” Thereafter, he pursued a law degree and “practiced law in New Mexico for thirteen years and engineering for two.” Yet “at the age of forty” he set aside both practices “to pursue full time the profession he had loved as a child”-painting. Hurley asserted that “love and integrity were essential elements of his paintings” and that “a good painting stops the heart and makes the throat ache” (Sundown 1972placard). Hurley likely endured criticism from people who did not understand why he abandoned professions that had taken years of study to enter. I imagine Hurley did what education reformer Parker Palmer urges all of us to do-make “life sustaining” rather than “death dealing” choices (The Courage to Teach, 1997). As I gazed into Hurley’s landscapes his “life sustaining” choice was obvious, for his paintings made my heart stop and throat ache with the intensity of life itself.
I was gripped by a similar heart-stopping ache when I viewed James Pate’s 2014 exhibit entitled Kin Killin’ Kin, wherein one feels the same essential elements of love and integrity present in Pate’s artistry as one finds in Hurley’s paintings. Pate uses “metaphoric symbolism” and sharp geometric lines to create what the exhibit’s curator, Willis Bing Davis describes as “a powerful and thought-provoking series of images that reflect…Pate’s deep love for our youth and great concern for the epidemic of youth violence in the African American community” (Stand4Peacecatalogue). Pate’s images remind us of art’s moral function-to re-present life itself so that we may reflect upon, for example, what it means to take another person’s life and the life of a community. Pate intends his work to help us consider “the role self-awareness plays in decision-making” (Stand4Peacecatalogue) for without self-knowledge and awareness of our shared histories and values, we cannot possibly begin to eradicate the ugly injustices that exist in our world. In this way, a liberal arts education can provide us with the tools necessary to develop our powers of discernment, judgment, and moral fortitude so that we might more readily resist violence and instead, use reconciliation methods and peaceful resistance to affect change in our world.
At the start of this new academic year, students and teachers alike are presented with fresh opportunities to know ourselves better through the study of knowledge assembled through the ages as we develop new perspectives, ideas, and solutions and discover new problems to be solved. As we begin our search for the stunning beauty that may be gleaned through a host of disciplines, from the sciences and mathematics to the social sciences and humanities, we must also direct our intellectual and emotional attention toward alleviating the suffering experienced by so many inhabitants of this world. The goal to gain encyclopedic knowledge or to embark upon a lucrative career post-graduation, is not what it means to be liberally educated. One must be willing to examine and re-examine received “truths” passed down to us. It is my hope that we as liberal thinkers, will keep in mind the words of John Stuart Mill and Harriett Taylor who warn us that settled “truths” may not continue to be truths if we fail to undertake the hard work of reconsidering and reexamining them. As life-long learners and community members, we must remain willing to expose erroneous ideas and intemperate opinions when they re-emerge in order to understand why some ideas are specious and how hurtful opinions frequently arise from ignorance and fear.
I believe the endeavor to search for truth as described by Mill and Taylor-the willingness to explore even the most uncomfortable ideas in order to understand the “truths” that undergird a given society’s cultural, political and social practices-is the goal of a liberal arts education. But let us not forget that searching for life’s meaning and discerning our truths has never been risk free. Socrates remains a powerful example to us in that he drank the hemlock rather than forsake the heart of a liberal arts education.
My neighbor Mrs. Murphy modeled how we may recover joy and find purpose in our lives by giving to others love, respect, kindness, and guidance. As members of the Butler community, we have the opportunity to give to each other in this way-listening to one another’s ideas, treating all with kindness, practicing love, and guiding those who seek our assistance in their journey of self-discovery as they seek to understand and appreciate life itself.
Margaret Brabant, Ph.D.
Professor of Political Science
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.
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.” 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.
Associate Professor of Religion
 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.
 The quotation can be found at www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/eduquote.htm
Address given by Dr. Terri Jett, Associate Professor of Political Science
Congratulations to all of you on your hard work and impressive accomplishments. I would like to honor you by passing along a small pearl of wisdom that was given to me at various points throughout my life by the most brilliant man I know, my grandfather, Rafe Taylor, Sr.. Like some of you I was fortunate enough to be raised in a large extended family, with a tremendous amount of unconditional love and support and so I spent a lot of time with my elders. Some of you come from different configurations of family structures, different from mine, but obviously with no less love or support and no less value, which is why you sit here today, to be recognized for your achievements. You students are standing on the shoulders of the journeys, sacrifices and the struggles of your family. And so the gift of wisdom that I give to you, that was given to me is two words,”BE STILL.”
My grandfather was born in 1914andat an age not too much older than most of you students, he took a chance and migrated across the country from a land he loved, though it violently shut him out of educational and economic opportunity because of the color of his skin to one that he thought would be more accepting of his dreams and the dreams of generations to come. He migrated from Natcotiches, Louisiana to Oakland, California. By that time he was married with two small children, and one in the oven, as they say. He was not given a chance to attend a private, liberal arts institution or study the “canon” or theorize on the meaning of life in salons, or talk world politics at cigar chats, or plan the next corporate take-over on golf courses. Instead, he achieved the equivalent of about a sixth-grade education and read and studied the Bible every day. His life career consisted of him working in sewer systems, which, he would explain to me, is why he knew the streets of the Oakland-Berkeley East Bay Area so well – he had worked underneath them for so long, about 35 years.
He taught himself how to study the sun and the shifts of the wind in order to grow the most lavish layered gardens that fed generations of his family – fig, apple and lemon fruit trees on the top, collard, mustard and turnip greens next layer down, corn on one side and tomatoes on the other, followed by artichokes at the bottom. He knew exactly where to place everything according to how much sun or shade the trees and vegetable plants required. In the front of his house he planted two rows of rose bushes along the walking path, with particular rose bushes named after the strong women in our family: Minerva, his mother, who was blind; Lucy, his mother-in-law and; Elnora, his wife of 72 years. And there was a honeysuckle bush across from the doorway that sent us a burst of peace before we went inside.
He wanted the best for his family and he wanted them to be prepared to provide for their own families. Checking, his children’s grades and/or homework every day, on occasion, he would even take an unexpected trip to his children’s schools just to see how they were doing. Yes, he would just show up, standing in the door of their classrooms. This may sound familiar to some of you. Not necessarily the task, but the emphasis and appreciation for education. When I, or any of my cousins took our report cards to him, as we were required to do, if we got good grades, he would jingle his pocket and then drop a waterfall of coins in our hands. Now THAT was motivation!
And so time and time again, we would take our own hopes and dreams to him for guidance, rambling on and on about what we wanted to become, do for our community, change the world. And time and time again his response was the same,”BE STILL.” It means, take the time to stop, slow down, and listen to the shifts of the wind and the world. And because my grandfather was a man of deep-uncompromising faith we knew it also meant to meditate and pray and be thankful to God. Pay attention to all that surrounds you, the everydayness of life. Be so in tune with the world that you can pick up on not only the anguish of someone that is close to you, but the distress of the stranger that simply walks by. And then act with empathy, understanding and courage.
So you BE STILL so that you can consider how you continue to honor this extraordinary passage of which your family has sustained you and BE STILL so that you can pause and take a moment to be proud of yourself.
Welcome to Butler University and welcome to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences! It has become the tradition of our college that you receive an essay from a faculty member about the benefits of getting a degree in the liberal arts. Butler University has a mission statement, which states:
Butler’s mission is to provide the highest quality of liberal and professional education and to integrate the liberal arts into professional education, by creating and fostering a stimulating intellectual community built upon interactive dialogue and inquiry among faculty and students.
The liberal arts, which are the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, are at the center of the entire educational mission of the University and they infuse the study of every major. You may be wondering, “Why should you choose a major in the liberal arts if you could get the benefits of a liberal arts education in a major in one of our professional schools like the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences or the College of Communication?” Quite simply, majors in these schools are based in the liberal arts, but the focus of these programs is to instruct graduates to perform a particular task or job. They are preparing dancers, teachers, and accountants to perform in the roles of dancer, teacher, and accountant. We won’t be grooming you for particular positions, but rather giving you broader skills that you will need and use for the rest of your life in almost everything that you do.
You can think of it this way, study of the liberal arts at a college or university can be likened to joining a huge banquet. You have many choices of what to eat, when to eat, and how much should you eat. There are familiar dishes, servings from other cultures, combinations of exotic spices you have never tried, and cuisines that you did not know existed. You can sample a taste from every bowl at our feast until you find the one that satisfies you. Our colleagues in the professional schools join us at the banquet as well, sample a single serving, and then leave us for their professional study. You are here for the full tasting menu, a little bit of every dish, including dessert!
You have a large number of academic majors to choose from in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The last time I checked, there were thirty-five. If you don’t find one you like, you could always create an individualized major to fit your needs. Once you make that choice of a major, or change that choice, add a minor, or add that second (or third!) major, you will learn how to think as they do in that discipline. I do not mean to imply that you have not learned how to think. I am sure that your academic preparation to this point has had you reflecting and reasoning quite a bit. However, within your subject of study within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, you will not only study the required skills of your discipline, you will also learn complexities like how a discussion is organized, how to support the points made in the discussion, the opposing schools of thought or controversies on particular topics, as well as discovering and appreciating the general philosophy of your chosen field. You will be able to take an opinion, support it with quotes, facts, or data and it will become a reasoned statement. I can assure you, that whatever your next step is, employers, graduate and professional schools, and parenthood all require the ability to take what you know and adapt it to diverse situations, rather than applying a known recipe to generate an expected outcome.
Through all this study, you should be generating an understanding of your chosen discipline. You will see how disparate pieces can fit together to become the whole. As you put together these parts, you may find that there are portions that you don’t agree with. You will be able to explain why these opposing points of view exist without having to accept them as truth. This does not mean that you have to let go of what you believe, whether that is gravity or democratic socialism or existentialism. You just need to understand what you believe, be able to understand both sides of the argument, and occasionally, be able to admit when your argument breaks down. If we could apply understanding to every part of our lives, things might be much better. A little understanding can go a long way.
Along the way, you are going to find out a great deal about the process of learning. You will figure out how to effectively take in information, determine what you are able to comprehend completely, and conclude how long it takes you to master the knowledge you need. This recognition of your learning style is critical. When you leave us and move on to your next step, you will find that more than 70 % of what you need to know is “on the job training” regardless if that job is as a tax attorney, a parent, a scientist, or a social worker. Graduate and professional schools will expect that you know how to acquire new information. Employers will require it if you want to be successful. Your children will depend on it. Life does not come with an instruction manual, and maintaining lifelong learning is a critical skill. There are no hard and fast rules that address every challenge or apply to every situation.
Going back to our banquet, your professional school colleagues will sample their single serving of thinking, understanding and learning. After nibbling many of the items on the menu, you will savor thinking, understanding, and learning, not only as an appetizer, but also as your complete multi-course meal. What is the dessert? I believe there are two other skills you will be learning through your study of the liberal arts, and these are what truly differentiate your liberal arts education from other bachelors programs.
Perhaps more like the coffee that goes with dessert, the first of these skills is the ability to identify a problem, challenge or issue. This is not the ability to point out where someone else has gone wrong, finding a trivial mistake that has little impact, or where someone has deviated from an accepted method or system. I mean identifying the fundamental problems that lead to larger difficulties. The world is very complex and the simple problems that are easy to identify and solve have already been addressed. The liberal arts allow you to look deeply at a situation, separate the symptoms of the problem from the actual issue, and give you the terminology to identify the challenge accurately. For example, you notice a drop in the academic performance of your child. You will not make the easy assumption that your child is lazy (although he or she might be), but will be able to determine that they are distracted in class because they are not getting enough sleep at night. Complex topics like world hunger, economic crises, healthcare, political unrest, and education will require careful analysis to separate the real challenges from the artificial issues created by those who have the most to gain by framing the issue in a particular way.
The real dessert item, your sweet reward for so much work, is that the study of the liberal arts will give you the skill of asking the right question. We are inundated with information from all sorts of sources, but we can’t process all of this information. With your liberal arts knowledge, you will correctly identify the problem, and this will allow you to ask the question that brings us all toward actual solutions. It is much more than punching a few things into Google. It is taking all that you have learned from your courses in the sciences, social sciences and humanities and applying that knowledge in new ways to ask “can we do better?” There is no system or method that you can apply to ask the right question, this ability will come from the diversity of experiences that you will have in your study of the liberal arts.
Returning to the mission statement of the University, remember that you are not at this banquet alone. We really do “create and foster a stimulating intellectual community built upon interactive dialogue and inquiry among faculty and students.” You will have classmates in the liberal arts who will be studying different things than you and these colleagues will ask you questions that may be unexpected or unwelcome. This is similar to someone insisting that you try a new food – you should embrace the opportunity! Butler faculty members are joining you on this journey as well. We may have eaten at a few more banquets than you have, but we have chosen to be here with you to continue to test our limits, to try new things, and to continue to learn. Pay special attention to the “interactive dialogue” part of the Butler mission – this means that we need your full participation – you can’t just take your food to go.
Enjoy the liberal arts banquet and be sure to eat your fill. Find the right questions to ask and hopefully the answers to those questions will be the beginning of a lifelong journey. I am delighted that you all have chosen to start that journey with us in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University and welcome to our table.
Anne Wilson, PhD
Professor of Chemistry
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, PhD
Professor of History
As you are well aware, the world around you keeps changing. It also keeps getting smaller in the sense of being interconnected with people around the globe. You can be Facebook friends with people in other countries as well as the person in the dorm room across the hall. You can text friends around the country as well as instant message people around the world. So what’s the big deal about the world getting smaller? Well, not only does global interconnectedness have implications for your social contacts, it will characterize the world you enter upon graduation from Butler University.
In a publication called College Learning for the New Global Century (2007), The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) argues that you will enter a world where broad-based knowledge is the key. This knowledge must prepare you to innovate and adapt to ever changing circumstances. You must also be prepared to act as a citizen, not only of your country but also of the diverse global community. This world will continue to change. Most Americans change jobs ten times during the first two decades following college. Your experience will be quite different from that of your parents or grandparents who may have spent decades working for the same company.
So what will Butler University do to help prepare you for this complex, ever-changing, diverse global community you will enter? At Butler we believe the best way to prepare you to be citizens of this world is through a university education that is infused with the Liberal Arts. In higher education, Liberal Arts does not refer to where one falls along the political spectrum from right to left. Instead the Liberal Arts are a set of core disciplines that develop key skills required to be an active, engaged citizen. These disciplines include the humanities (e.g., English, Philosophy, etc.), the social sciences (e.g., Psychology, Sociology, etc.), and the natural sciences (e.g., Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc.). Regardless of your major area of study, a curriculum that is infused with the Liberal Arts will help you develop the skills that are needed for meaningful participation in this increasingly interconnected world in which we find ourselves.
A Liberal Arts education will stretch your thinking abilities. Often in high school, the path to an “A” grade is to memorize what the teacher or the book says and then repeat it back in exams or other assignments. Sometimes you will find a university education to be frustrating and challenging because memorizing all the right facts is not enough! Very often you must weigh the evidence and grapple with competing explanations and perspectives. This doesn’t mean that all perspectives are equal or that one person’s “opinion” is as good as anyone else’s opinion. Critical thinking is not about opinions. It is about weighing evidence and marking arguments. It is about learning that one can gain insights from multiple and competing perspectives. It also means you recognize that sometimes there is not a single correct answer to be memorized. This is often a difficult transition for students who have been very successful in high school by memorizing the “right” answers. But it is the key to becoming an educated individual who can contribute as an engaged citizen in a complex world. You will find there are few easy issues with a single right answer. There will be better and worse answers to the challenges you face. As a citizen of the planet, your task will be to sort out the better from the worse and make informed, ethical decisions with the interests of others as well as yourself in mind.
A university education infused with the Liberal Arts will also teach you how to learn. As the rate of expansion of new knowledge continues to accelerate, you must leave Butler with well refined skills in how to learn and solve problems. Your faculty members will push you and challenge you to develop this ability using the myriad of resources available to you. It will not always be a comfortable process. If it were always comfortable, your faculty would be letting you down. Just as with athletic and fitness training, without some pain from exercising and strengthening your body there is no gain. Academically and intellectually the same is true. Your faculty should be pushing you to think and learn in ways you may not have thought possible. This education will cause you to identify and analyze underlying principles, assumptions, and issues as you work with your faculty and classmates to broaden your understanding of the world.
Rather than being narrowly focused on training for a specific job, a Liberal Arts infused education will broaden your knowledge base while giving you the skills necessary for engaging in a complex world. Your linear thinking and analytical skills will be developed, but you will also be pushed to learn to think creatively. You will be challenged to pull together disparate ideas and information in new ways. And you will do so in a context that seeks to increase your appreciation for and ability to work with diverse groups and individuals.
Again, it won’t always be an easy or comfortable process. But the best things in life only come through effort and perseverance. It is a journey filled with excitement that takes place in a community of classmates and faculty who are with you each step of the way. With your investment of energy and effort, it will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. All of us at Butler University welcome you to the journey that is a Liberal Arts infused education!
Jay Howard, Ph.D.
Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
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
If you don’t think the liberal arts matter, I guarantee that you will by the time you’ve finished reading this essay. Admittedly, few things in life are truly guaranteed, but your investment here is small, just a few minutes of reading time. In return, I promise not to beat around the bush. In the span of a few paragraphs, I will not only define the liberal arts but convince you of their importance. That’s a bold claim—not only is it free of caveats and qualifiers but you’ll note I promised to get to the point as quickly as possible (something for which we academics generally are not known). So, what do you think? To entice you further, I’m going to stop writing about me and start writing about you.
Because of your hard work and intellectual prowess, you have been admitted to Butler University, a thriving, multi-faceted, liberal arts community. “OK,” you may be thinking, “multi-faceted and thriving. That part sounds good, but what about the rest of it? The phrase ‘liberal arts’ does little for me – in fact, I’m worried that being a member of this so-called community means having to take a bunch of pointless courses unrelated to my major that won’t help me on the job market or into the law, medical, or grad school of my choice. So, why should I care about the liberal arts?” Fair enough, and yes, I can see you nervously eyeing the bruised state of the economy right now. But before answering why, let’s address the what. What are the liberal arts?
A good place to start would be with what the liberal arts are not. The term liberal arts is something of a misnomer, conjuring up images of left-leaning, ivory tower academics who putter around with decaying books devoted to philosophy, Greek literature, and the like—those classic but esoteric topics that scholars seem to revere (for some reason) but that hold little relevance for the real world. This perspective, while popular, is wrong.
One way it’s wrong is that it’s too narrow. The liberal arts embrace not just the classics, but a wide range of disciplines that span the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. At Butler (and most institutions of higher learning), the liberal arts do indeed encompass subjects like philosophy and literature, but also biology, mathematics, anthropology, physics, psychology, journalism, sociology, computer science, modern languages, history, communication studies, political science, religion, chemistry and so many others. These disciplines are all alive and well, as are their practitioners and scholars. (And we certainly don’t ‘putter around’—we occasionally amble, but more typically stride about, especially if we’ve just made a pit stop at the Starbucks in Atherton Union.)
But it’s still a mistake to conceive of the liberal arts merely as a collection of disciplines, no matter how broad or inclusive. What might prove more illuminating is contrasting a liberal arts education with the kind provided by a professional college. As you may know, Butler has several outstanding professional schools (e.g., the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences) that are distinct from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the part of Butler to which you’ve been admitted. Professional schools emphasize acquiring specialized technical knowledge, skills and ways of thinking that allow their students to immediately enter specific professions. By contrast, a liberal arts education is much broader in scope. Students of the liberal arts are exposed to a greater array of disciplines and perspectives, although it’s also true they acquire specific knowledge and skills in their major. A consequence of this approach is that our students often (though not always) need an advanced degree if they wish to pursue a career based on their undergraduate focus. For example, psychology majors who wish to become clinical psychologists (i.e., mental health counselors) must earn at least a masters degree before they can see patients.
“OK,” you may now be thinking, “a liberal arts education provides breadth, but I fail to see why that’s such a good thing. In fact, it kind of seems like a disadvantage. You appear to be telling me that after investing a lot of time, effort and money into my undergraduate studies, I’ll have to invest even more and go to graduate school.” Not necessarily. If the idea of seeking an advanced degree troubles you, you should know that many of our students forego further schooling. Of this group, the vast majority are gainfully employed within a year after graduating Butler. You might be wondering how this could be. For example, if someone were to end up with ‘just’ a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, for what sort of job would that person possibly be qualified? Scanning the want ads reveals few entry level philosophy positions. Yet, our graduates, including our philosophy majors, experience little difficulty securing not just good jobs, but good careers. Many employers clearly want what a liberal arts education confers. But why? What makes a liberal arts education valuable?
The answer is straightforward: The primary value of a liberal arts education is that it teaches you how to think.
That’s it—that’s as direct as I can be. The overarching goal of a liberal arts education is not to teach you about a particular subject or to think in a particular way, but to think well, in general. (By the way, I’m not implying that you’re not a good thinker now, but if all goes well, you’ll be dramatically better by the time you graduate). However, becoming a good thinker doesn’t occur automatically or quickly. Mastering your intellect will require commitment, time and hard work. Fortunately, you’ll get lots of practice doing exactly that during your undergraduate career – think of it as sending your brain to the gym for four years. Taking coursework in Butler’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences means that you will constantly be exposed to new ideas and perspectives that will frequently push you out of your comfort zone. You will be challenged not just to read texts and memorize facts but to interpret, discuss, imagine, critique, analyze, and synthesize using both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. You will be asked to draw conclusions and defend them; to generate new insights and solutions. As you progress, you will be required to think in increasingly creative and complex terms, sometimes on topics that you never knew existed and may never again encounter after you’ve left our campus. This is because a liberal arts education is not just intended to transmit specific information and skills, but to help you discover, develop and harness your own intellectual talents and abilities. That is the premise and the pay-off of a liberal arts education.
But, as they say, that’s not all. Consider the following passage, the first sentence of our college’s official core values statement: “The liberal arts’ basic and historic purpose is at once to teach us to think for ourselves, to act wisely and well in the world, to undertake occupations useful to ourselves and others.” I really like that sentence. Not only does it eloquently capture the essence of the liberal arts but it also emphasizes that learning to think is only part of our tradition. The other, often overlooked part is learning to act on your thinking, to allow your rationality and creativity to inform your words and deeds. This requires learning to engage with others—to be receptive to others’ viewpoints, but also to be able to express your own thoughts and ideas through speech, writing and other media. This also requires contributing to the world around you in constructive ways. The liberal arts tradition is sometimes equated with navel-gazing, but nothing could be further from the truth. As you continue to hone your abilities, you’ll begin to appreciate what they can do, and you’ll want to take them out for a spin. Go far enough and you may find you’ve written a New York Times best seller, developed a revolutionary web application, published a groundbreaking scientific paper, or founded a Fortune 500 company. Butler is particularly attuned to this aspect of the liberal arts and offers a multitude of internship, research and service learning opportunities that will allow you to continue developing your intellect while putting it to work in meaningful ways.
So, have I convinced you yet? If you’re wavering, bear in mind that it’s not just me who thinks the liberal arts matter. The same skills and talents I described above, the ability and willingness to acquire and analyze complex information, to think critically and creatively, to take different perspectives and communicate effectively with others – those skills that are the lynchpins of a liberal arts education are exactly the skills that, in survey after survey, employers say they value and look for when making hiring decisions. Although some professions will always require specialized training and technical knowledge, in a rapidly changing world where whole technologies can become obsolete overnight, individuals who can adapt to new demands and embrace complexity will always have opportunities.
Throughout the proceeding paragraphs, I’ve argued that the primary value of a liberal arts education is because it teaches you how to think. A liberal arts education is certainly not the only way to achieve this end, but it’s probably one of the most efficient. Good thinking, in turn, is highly practical. It will help you realize your career and vocational aspirations, regardless of whether you plan to enter the workforce directly after college, attend graduate school or do something else entirely. (Incidentally, if your goal is to be admitted into a prestigious law program, you should know that philosophy majors, who in many ways epitomize the liberal arts tradition, consistently outscore all others on law school entrance exams). But there’s a bigger picture: becoming a better thinker will make you a better person. By that I mean not just better for you but better for us.
For you, thinking well will enable you to more readily attain your goals and live your life in accordance with your values, which I would argue is important in its own right but is also a key determinant of well-being. Perhaps just as importantly, a liberal arts education will put you in a better position to identify the goals and values you should adopt in the first place. Instead of having to rely on the authority of others, you will have the know-how to acquire the information and experiences you need to make your own decisions. Will you value family? Faith? Wealth? Love? Fame? How will you label the points on your moral compass? Toward which destinations will you direct your life, if any? A liberal arts education will help you to identify the alternatives and to weigh the merits and drawbacks of each.
But what about us? Above, I suggested that being a better thinker benefits not just you, but us (all of us). I’m sure you’ve noticed the truly monumental problems confronting us, both as a nation and as a global community. Right now we are in desperate need of a generation of good thinkers. A liberal arts education is no panacea, but it provides an efficient way to train people to evaluate information in a critical manner, to embrace complexity and to approach problems from new perspectives, attributes that will be essential to forge solutions to the numerous ecological, political, social, and economic problems we are currently facing. “To act wisely and well in the world” is perhaps the most important part of the liberal arts tradition, one that I hope you will take to heart during your time here with us.
OK, that’s it. Have I convinced you that the liberal arts matter? If so, thank you for your attention. I truly appreciate the time you’ve invested in reading these words. If not, I sincerely apologize for failing to live up to my earlier guarantee, but as of now, we’re just not going to see eye-to-eye on this. Perhaps you object to specific claims I’ve made. Maybe you reject my entire premise and are even now formulating counter arguments. Please, by all means, do so. Send me your protests and complaints. As a member of the liberal arts community, I am beholden to consider them if they are well reasoned and expressed. But if you’ve come this far, if you have read and reflected on my words, your actions mark you as part of that self-same community. The value of membership may not be clear to you just now, but if you think carefully about why you disagree, if you can articulate your reasons, if you can engage me in an attempt to convince me of the merits of your position, perhaps, just perhaps, someday, you will.
Regardless of where you stand on the value of the liberal arts, I’d like to close this essay by welcoming you to Butler generally and to our college in particular. This really is a thriving and multi-faceted community and a wonderful place in which to spend your undergraduate career. Whether you believe it or not, if you work hard, if you commit to your education, if you take advantage of the many opportunities afforded by our faculty, students and administration, you will emerge with a powerful and finely honed intellect, one that will allow you to pursue any goal and realize any ambition. You will have become a better thinker, and in so doing, a better person. I guarantee it.
R. Brian Giesler, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychology
You may have heard the old adage, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” This, of course, is mathematical nonsense, but it contains a magical nugget of truth—a nugget that is applicable in many non-mathematical contexts, including higher education. For example, in team sports, it is sometimes the case that a team composed of moderately talented, well-prepared and well-coached athletes can defeat a team with a couple of superstars—in some way, the collective effort of the less individually talented team overcomes the collective effort of the star-studded team. When this happens, the team members, as well as the crowd watching, experience the magic embodied in that adage. I hope you were watching last year when the Butler Bulldogs men’s basketball team defeated several teams, both in the Kickoff NIT tournament and in the NCAA tournament, that some would say were more talented. Perhaps you yourself have experienced such a phenomenon whether as a participant or a spectator; maybe you even have an old team shirt that says, “T.E.A.M.—Together Everyone Achieves More.” When the team effort transcends the expected, it can be magical for all involved.
The magic can happen in musical performance as well. Although famous and revered composers have written wonderful music for solo performance, many of their most exquisite compositions, their most enduring works, are written for a symphonic orchestra, a full band or an entire chorus. If you have had the opportunity to play or sing with an ensemble, you may have experienced times when the effect the music is having on the audience, as well as on the players or singers themselves, is transcendent, magical, simply because the group effort is greater than the sum of the individual efforts. Don’t get me wrong—I do not mean to say this magic happens without proper training and rehearsal. It takes a lot of effort on the part of each individual as well as on the part of the composer, the conductor, and the other performers. But somehow the result is better than it should be by conventional arithmetic.
You, now students in the Butler University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, are about to enter into a four-year magical experience, because a quality liberal arts education is , like a team or musical group, something else that is greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, you will develop expertise in your chosen area of study—your major—whether it is in the sciences, the social sciences or the humanities. You may do quite well (and I hope you do), make the Dean’s List, receive individual honors from your department, graduate magna cum laude. But here at Butler University, we believe that your major, while invaluable and certainly necessary, is only a part of the magic of a liberal arts education. There are other singers, other team members, and other players who are essential to achieving the greater whole, to providing the transforming experience that a quality liberal arts education offers.
Who or what are these other players, these other singers? There are many: the core curriculum, elective courses, opportunities for study abroad or volunteering, internships; the list goes on. Like parts played by the other members of the orchestra or by the other players on the team, these components are all facets of a superior liberal arts education. In order to get the most out of your Butler experience, you, like a good teammate or a good ensemble performer, have to do your part – you have to work hard, developing your academic, social and interpersonal skills. But while you’re learning, you won’t be playing a solo, you won’t be going it alone. The required courses in written and verbal communication skills, in analytical and scientific reasoning, in foreign languages, fine arts, humanities and social sciences, the various elective courses, as well as the experiential learning opportunities which abound at Butler, all contribute to that greater whole, to that magic, of a liberal arts education; they’re like the teammates and players who help elevate all of your education to a higher level. You may not see, at first, how these courses and other educational experiences are integrated into a the whole, just like you may not understand what a coach or conductor is doing to integrate each of the players or performers, or how that integration will contribute to the group effort. That is where the expertise and guidance of the liberal arts and sciences faculty come in; the liberal arts and sciences curriculum, both in the core and in the your major, has been carefully designed to provide a chance for academic growth and integration, not merely in your major, but also in your broader education as well.
During those magical moments in team sports or ensemble performance, not only are the players enriched, but so is the audience, those people watching or listening. Who plays the role of the audience when you experience the magic of a liberal arts education? Besides you, who benefits from this transformational time in your life? It may sound over-the-top, perhaps even corny, but truly the audience, the other beneficiary (besides you) of your liberal education, is your community-your family, your friends, your world. Yes, that’s right, any part of the world that you encounter now or later benefits from the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” nature of your liberal arts education at Butler University. Why? Because, in the words of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Core Values statement adopted by the faculty (for the full text, see ), the liberal arts teach you to “act wisely and well in the world,” and foster in you “compassion and respect for those whose lives we share.”
Certainly developing expertise in your major and landing that perfect job or graduate/ professional school placement both show demonstrate that you are playing your part extremely well. If that is all there were is to a quality liberal arts education, then you would be the lesser for it, you would miss out on the opportunity to experience the magical arithmetic of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. You have a chance to catch the magic that is a liberal arts education – be sure that you do.
Judith Harper Morrel
Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics and Actuarial Science
By Dr. Marshall Gregory
You have probably heard the terms “liberal education” and “the liberal arts” bandied about, but you may not have a concrete notion of what these terms mean, except, perhaps, that the liberal arts are a required set of courses not directly connected to your major, and you may have wondered irritably why you should pay good money to take a big chunk of courses not pointed like an arrow at the bull’s eye of a future job, preferably a job with high status and a big salary. This brief document explains to you why the value of a liberal arts education can, like a wise financial investment, not only stretch across a lifetime, but increase in value the longer you own it.
Despite the fact that the liberal arts are often defined as a set of courses, the truth is that the liberal arts are not a lot of things you learn about. Instead, the liberal arts are a lot of things that you learn to do: things that you learn to do directly on your own behalf, not because doing them serves someone else’s agenda. An “art,” after all, is not a parcel or a burden. It’s an activity. In the second place, you need to realize that these activities-the liberal arts-are the arts of living a life that you increasingly learn to shape by purpose and design-the way you would write a poem or construct a proof or design an experiment-rather than living a chaotic life dominated by random impulse or living a sterile life dictated by social programming. The arts that a liberal education teaches you to perform are the very arts you have been working to master since you were born:
- Rationality: the art of practical reasoning, such as figuring out what’s likely to happen tomorrow based on what happened today, learning how to read such phenomena as cause-and-effect, coincidence, agency, and learning how to use logic or critical thinking to analyze everyday problems. The more you study reasoning, the more you realize the vast span that it covers from, say, figuring out how to use a simple tool like a hammer all the way up to doing the calculus or recursive functions or scientific hypothesizing.
- Imagining: the art of holding an image in your head, holding it there indefinitely, constructing a mental picture of something that does not exist in order to criticize or change something that does exist (where do you think the ideas for better mousetraps or better governments come from?), and sometimes stringing a lot of images together to tell a story, a joke, a lie, or to make a private day dream the topic of social conversation.
- Introspection: the art of thinking about your own thinking. Perhaps this is the only one of the liberal arts that is thoroughly unique to human beings, but whether it is or not, the ability to submit our own thinking to persistent inspection is central to human identity in general.
- Language: the art of using language is a profoundly indicative marker of human nature, and is surely the basis of humans’ ability for abstract thought, metaphor, cooperative activity, and individualized self-expression.
- Moral and Ethical Deliberation: the art of judging our own and other people’s conduct in moral and ethical terms. Only human beings make such judgments, apparently, but all human beings do it, and they do it unceasingly. Deciding who is right or wrong in a disagreement or deciding which actions bring honor or shame, praise or blame, and so on is a human pursuit of ceaseless interest to everyone. From culture to culture the standards of judgment may differ widely, but not the exercise of standards, whatever they may be.
- Sociability: the art of living with other people in ways that either promote human flourishing or that impoverish and undermine human flourishing. Since we have no choice but to live with other human beings-there is no such thing as a naturally solitary human being-we can never shake off this topic. Sociability is woven into the fabric of human existence. Other people may often pain us or tire us or bore us, but they are always important to us-what we think of them, what they think of us-whether we like it or not.
- Aesthetic responsiveness: the art of responding to certain forms, sounds, appearances, shapes, colors, uses of language, textures, designs, and so on because we consider them beautiful, and responding in different ways to these same stimuli when we consider them ugly. Like moral and ethical deliberation, aesthetic responsiveness seems to be an activity that only human beings do, but it is an activity that all human beings do, and is the reason you like listening to music, looking at pictures, wearing jewelry, picking clothes that you think are attractive, going to museums, and so on.
- Physicality: the art of mastering your body. Your education on this front began with learning how to feed yourself, how to walk, and how to go to the toilet without assistance. You’re still working on your body as you learn how to exercise, stay healthy, eat right, sleep enough, (or, on all of these fronts, not).
The point is that these are the arts of human excellence. You are born with a great capacity for the potential development of each of these human arts, but all of us begin life with little functionality. Functionality comes slowly. Mastery comes seldom. The corridor to both is practice.
However, it is natural for most people to overestimate the degree of their mastery of the arts of human excellence. In your own case, for example, you have now gained familiarity with all of those forms of functionality that challenged you as a child. You have not only been tying your shoes for about twelve years, but you can now dance and pass a lab science course and do math problems and read easy poems and drive cars and have sex in your dorm rooms. All of these forms of functionality invite you to participate in the universal human tendency to overestimate your mastery of the arts of human excellence, but you probably have the deep intuition, as the old adage puts it, that “you still have a lot to learn.” We can all make progress toward mastery, however, even though none of us will ever become full masters of excellence, and making progress is what getting an education is all about.
The methodology of a liberal arts education is to take you through a series of courses, each of which gives you particular forms of practice that are the foundation for progress in all the arts of human excellence. Text-based courses such as literature and history and languages, naturally, give you the kind of practice that helps you strengthen such arts of language as your sensitivity to metaphor, rhetoric, idioms, different levels of style, conventions of usage, and the sound and feel of language used for artistic purposes rather than informational purposes. Lab courses, math courses, and science courses give you the kinds of practice that help you strengthen certain arts of reason, such as computation, calculation, hypothesizing, collecting and evaluating material evidence, and so on. Courses in art history and music appreciation give you practice at strengthening your aesthetic responsiveness to ever more complex and, at first, unfamiliar forms of artistic expression. And so on. All the way through the liberal arts curriculum you will be assigned forms of practice the real purpose of which has less to do with your remembering the content of the discipline forever than with your getting the kind of exercise that will develop your fundamental capacities for human excellence.
Every class is about some discipline or other, and this fact is neither trivial nor false, but it is also neither trivial nor false to say that, most of all, every class is about you. It is about how much progress your study of each discipline forces you to make simply because some good teachers is making you sweat blood in the chemistry lab, or making you sweat blood over the poem, formula, hypothesis, fact, or interpretation. The sweating blood is not about anyone’s ambition to turn you into a chemist or a literary specialist or a psychologist or an art historian. It’s about your learning how, regardless of the discipline, to get it right. And to get it right-to get right the fact, the formula, the hypothesis, the proof, the poem, or whatever-forces you both to employ and deploy all of your arts of human excellence. If you think back on all of your years of previous education, you will instantly perceive that you have forgotten most of the content you learned. This is not because you have a learning disability; it’s because education is about a lot more than what you remember or forget. It’s about how you learn to think, feel, and judge.
Another thing you need to realize is that you are the target of insidious designs on your autonomy, and that you are probably looking in the wrong direction to see the trouble coming. While you are peering anxiously into the future as if the “What Job?” question is the only important question driving your education, the trouble coming at you from both sides is composed of false and confusing messages incessantly being shouted at you by the American marketing machine. The great act, the great deed, that a liberal arts education helps you perform is the act of constructing an entire human life that is socially responsible, intellectually perspicuous, personally enriched, and morally defensible. However, all Americans’ lives are saturated in messages constructed by corporate marketers, and the last thing marketers want is for any of us to be authentic and autonomous because, the more autonomous we are, the less they can control how we spend our money.
The scary thing is that corporate marketers are among the most accomplished and successful teachers you will ever encounter. In matters of teaching, many of your college teachers feel like bumbling Neville Longbottoms when they compare themselves to the Lord Voldemorts of corporation marketing, for corporation marketers know the magic spells and enchantments that make their lessons about the heaven of toys and fashion go all the way down. Corporate marketers have actually mastered the magic of restructuring human desire. The words and images that they use on television and movie screens teach all of us not only what products to buy but what kinds of lives to desire.
Another thing you need to realize is that life is always more than a job or a career or a profession. Quite independently of jobs and careers, everyone falls in love, gets love denied or love requited, gets sick and gets well (or not), relates to other people in a wide variety of roles, needs rest, walks on two legs, fails, succeeds, endures accidents, enjoys good luck, suffers from bad luck, feels happy, feels sad, grows old, and dies. Educational talk that forever forces you to focus on the question of what you are going to do with your education is profoundly misleading because it is way too shallow to be truly useful. The deeper question is not what you are going to do but who you are going to become. Every day the choices you make are turning you into some particular version of your potentialities, and your four years in college will be a particularly formative period of self-formation. All those people who have shallowly led you to think that you can form a self merely by preparing for a profession have done you a serious disservice. No matter what career you choose, the single job that every human being has to work at is the job of deciding what kind of person he or she will become. You cannot dodge this issue. Not deciding who you are going to become is, in fact, deciding to let internal impulse or outside pressures form your soul. A liberal arts education is your best resource for learning how to think in holistic terms about who you are and about who you wish to become.
A final thing you need to realize is that the arts of human excellence are your only resources for doing anything at all. Because academic disciplines and jobs in the world vary so much, people often think that these differences mean that everyone needs vastly different kinds of education to prepare for professional life. This is a mistake. Whether you turn out to be a physicist or a stock broker or a computer engineer or a high school history teacher, the only resources you will ever have for performing any of these tasks are your resources of reason, language, sociability, imagination, introspection, moral and ethical deliberation, aesthetic awareness, and physicality. These resources can and will be tweaked by specific job requirements-chemists have to know things that stock brokers don’t-but, still, the success with which chemists and stock brokers do their work, and the success with which you will master job requirements of any kind, depends on how well you have strengthened your fundamental resources, the arts of human excellence. For 2500 years society’s main strategy for strengthening those arts has been a liberal arts education.
So what’s the value of a liberal arts education at Butler? The value of a liberal arts education is no more and no less than the value of your own life and the extent to which that value can be added to, strengthened, and enhanced by your persistent efforts to develop all of the arts that make for human excellence. All of you possess these arts but none of you possesses them completely. Working to develop the arts of human excellence is a lifetime project of discovery, enlightenment, and joy. If you learn how to start working on this project in a serious way here at Butler University because we know how to lead you through a liberal arts education, you will enter post-college life having learned how to learn, how to think, and how to feel and judge with subtlety, propriety, finesse, and power. You will have learned how to liberate yourself from sheer impulse, prejudice, bigotry, and any shallow belief in quick-and-easy answers. You will have learned how to use evidence and make arguments. You will have learned how to communicate clearly and effectively. You will have learned how to argue about issues of justice, fairness, and equity without relying on the clichés of partisans or the platitudes of popular culture. You will have learned how to see beauty in corners of life where you never before suspected that beauty might be hiding. In short, you will have learned how to become a joy to yourself and a solace to others. The liberal arts education you acquire now will be a mainstay of your life forever.
Ice Professor of English, Liberal Education, and Pedagogy