Renewal and Liberal Education

Crocus flowers blooming through the snow covered ground at St. John's College Annapolis Campus
Crocuses blooming through the snow-covered ground at St. John's College Annapolis Campus

Crocuses blooming through the snow-covered ground at St. John’s College, Annapolis.

It is been a long winter in the eastern United States, including here in the mid-Atlantic. It’s late March as I write this, and we are just starting to see the tops of daffodils and crocuses that usually appear a month earlier.

Delayed spring means delayed renewal. Everyone feels it—the desire to get outside and breathe in some warm air, the desire to see the trees and grasses run green again, the need to clear away winter’s detritus and welcome once more the arrival of new life. Thoreau’s encomium to spring, from near the end of Walden, rings true now just as it did a century and a half ago:

The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis which all things proclaim. It is seemingly instantaneous at last. Suddenly an influx of light filled my house, though the evening was at hand, and the clouds of winter still overhung it, and the eaves were dripping with sleety rain. I looked out the window, and lo! where yesterday was cold gray ice there lay the transparent pond already calm and full of hope as in a summer evening, reflecting a summer evening sky in its bosom, though none was visible overhead, as if it had intelligence with some remote horizon.

I was reminded of a different sort of renewal earlier this month, when I delivered the keynote address to this year’s conference of the United World Colleges in Maastricht, the Netherlands. I was asked to speak because I represent St. John’s College, which is recognized the world over as having deliberately and staunchly maintained the traditions of the liberal arts in the face of the steady march toward specialization that has characterized higher education for much of the past two hundred years. The champion of specialization, the research university, began to dominate the educational landscape in Europe early in the nineteenth century—before it did in North America. This came at the expense of liberal learning. In America the research model did not really take hold until the 1930s and 40s, and even then, it had to compromise: most of the leading colleges insisted on retaining either distribution requirements or core courses, in order to ensure a liberal education for their undergraduate students.

Over the past eighty years, though, the liberal arts have also declined in America, as specialist education and career preparation came to be seen as the main purposes of education.  The leading voices in higher education today simply assume that the aim of education is economic: What good is education, after all, if it doesn’t get you a job that will support your family and contribute to the Gross National Product? Arguments for a more expansive view of the purpose of education appear almost daily, but they seem to have little effect. It’s not that they aren’t heard; they simply are not credited, because they speak in a tongue that cannot be interpreted into the language of “hard-headed economic reality”.

But many around the world are now realizing a need for renewal in education. Out of this relatively recent turn towards specialist education is now emerging a thirst for deeper, more serious sort of learning. Young people especially want to pull together the scattered threads of modern life. They want an education that can help them do that, a real education—and that is precisely what I was asked to speak about, to an audience of eager students preparing to go to university.

So what did I tell them? Among other things, this:

You may be asking how you are going to get into a college or university and what you hope to study in the coming years. But you must also be asking, What am I going to do with my life? and How shall I live my life in a way that will make me whole and happy?

These questions require that you ask the prior questions, What does it mean to be human? What kind of world do I live in? and What choices are open to me so that I may take ownership of the life that is mine and mine alone?

We are complex creatures—political and social beings with physical bodies that must function in an earthly world. We think, weigh evidence, and judge. We reflect on the world about us; we wish to understand it, sometimes in order to make our way in it fruitfully, and sometimes simply because we are in awe of Being itself—of the grandeur, the beauty and the mystery of the universe, which prompts us to ask, Why is there something rather than nothing? And why this particular something? . . .

These questions surely cannot all be answered over just a few years of high school or college instruction, but a little help at the start will give you the habit of reflection and the confidence to pursue the questions that will make life meaningful—so long as you remain alive to learning.

Better too that you ask these questions before you fix upon a specialty or a vocation to pursue. You need first to spend a little time getting to know yourselves and the world around you in order to make wise choices, in order to choose the life that belongs to each of you. You will face the world of specialization soon enough. Better that you first come to understand some things that are at the root of your being and your world before you study the veins on the leaves on the branches of the tree of knowledge.

It is ironic that just as others around the world are realizing the downside of specialized education, America seems to be doubling down on it. The current manias for assessment, for testing, for trying to guarantee a “return on investment” (as if the “investment” metaphor is at all appropriate for an educational experience that should be, if well-chosen and responsibly followed, literally priceless) all point to a profound misunderstanding: education is not primarily about making a living; it is primarily about making a life worth living.

More than seven decades ago, after 240 years in existence, St. John’s College explicitly dedicated itself to preserving the liberal arts in its curriculum, in its educational practice, and in its academic community. We stand ready to share our experience and our practice with anyone—in Europe, or America, or anywhere else in the world—who wants to renew education by reviving the liberal arts.

3 Comments

  1. M. K. Conrad   •  

    Amen brother. Miss Conrad AGI ’93

  2. Christopher Perrin   •  

    Harvard education professor Tony Wagner (in his book The Global Achievement Gap) is one of the those modern voices calling us back to a liberal arts education which he says is now more pertinent than ever. The “survival skills” he thinks the country needs (collaboration, imagination, cross-disciplinary understanding, effective oral and written communication) are the fruit of a liberal arts education. Yes, even from Harvard there are such voices.

  3. Dale Williams   •  

    President Nelson,

    Your comments about students wanting to “pull the scattered threads of modern life together” puts me in mind of a peculiar image which has recurred to me for some years now:

    In the Hall of Honor in the vast palace of the Escorial, in Spain, there is displayed the tapestry, God the Father of Mercy which was used to line the canopy of the throne of the emperor Charles V. It is constructed of gold, silver, silk and wool.

    For the arch typical vocational graduate who has acquired the financial means to see this marvel first hand, the thought experiment is as follows:

    Assume the graduate has no understanding of the world political, financial and religious struggle which the Escorial represents. Further assume that he is equally innocent of knowledge of Scripture and of the multiple compelling questions which such an artifact will present to any graduate grounded in the traditional Liberal Arts.

    Question: Will the vocational graduate really even “see” the tapestry at all, or will it be for him another random, quaint artifact, invisible among countless others.

    The question really becomes whether the vocational graduate is, in an important and decisive sense, blind to what is enduring and fecund to the human spirit. And, for such a person, will his vision be restored, or by not having it, will he never even come to know of his blindness?

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