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The Liberal Arts at Earlham

Mahler -greg _0Opening Convocation

Gregory Mahler, Academic Dean and
Vice President for Academic Affairs

Chase Stage, Earlham College
August 16, 2013

In the 1963-1965 Earlham College Catalogue, Elton Trueblood, Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College offered many comments about the “Reason for Earlham.” He included in those comments some observations about Earlham as a liberal arts college.

Trueblood wrote the following, which I want to remind you was written in 1962, so gender characterizations in the pronouns he used do not exactly reflect our values today:

Earlham is a liberal arts college. It is a fellowship of inquiry where men and women are trained, experimentally, in the liberal tradition. By a liberal education is meant one which really sets men free — free to see themselves and their fellow-men honestly and whole, free to develop their potentialities, for the betterment of society as well as themselves. A person is not genuinely educated if he knows merely his own trade. A mechanical engineer needs to know more than mechanics, because it is his destiny to be a man as well as an engineer… To superficial thought the liberal and the vocational conceptions of education may appear to be in direct conflict, but actually they need not be. It is possible, Earlham believes, to organize all educational experience in such a ways to furnish life with those basic liberating ingredients without which the practical life cannot be adequately lived. (Earlham College Catalogue, 1963-1965, p. 12.)

Earlham College is a good place to think about the liberal arts. Having a liberal arts background for life, I believe, is the best preparation for a future that we cannot imagine, challenges that we cannot predict, and need for skills that we cannot anticipate at this time.

I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes this afternoon about an Earlham liberal arts education. I’m going to address you members of the class of 2017, although we’ll let your parents listen, in, too.

Truth in advertising: I am a believer in the liberal arts experience. My father taught at a small liberal arts college in Los Angeles, where my younger brother attended college. I attended — and met my wife at — a small liberal arts college about four hours north-northeast of here. Both of my daughters attended small liberal arts colleges, one in Ohio and one in Minnesota  After getting my Ph.D. from Duke I tried for years to get a teaching job at a place like this, but it took a good while until I was successful.

Earlham is a remarkable place, with a remarkable faculty. While it is absolutely true that we need to be concerned about our infrastructure and our technology — and all of the building taking place on campus right now certainly should demonstrate to you that we are committed to keeping our infrastructure and our technology at a state-of-the-art level — I want to remind you that the most important part of your college experience is going to be the relationships you have with your faculty. The teaching faculty here are the real Earlham College, and their commitment to teaching, to teaching all of you, is what is special about Earlham. They have chosen to come to Earlham, rather than go to other small colleges or larger universities, for a reason. You are that reason.

There are several things about our faculty — your teachers — that I want you to know. Virtually all of our faculty have the highest degrees in their fields. For most of them that means the Ph.D., although for some in the visual and performing arts that might mean the M.F.A. They will be your teachers, not graduate teaching assistants. They won’t make a big deal of it, and our practice of having our students addressing our faculty by first names masks the fact that virtually all of our faculty would elsewhere be called “Doctor,” but it is true. When you meet with your advisors, I urge you to ask them about their educational background. They’ll tell you. They engage in exactly the same kind of research as faculty at major state and private universities, often receiving the same kind of very competitive grants — National Science Foundation grants, National Endowment for the Humanities grants, Mellon Foundation grants, American Chemical Society grants, I could go on and on – as faculty at major state universities. However, and this is significant, one key difference between our faculty and faculty at what are called “major research universities” is that our faculty want to work with undergraduate students; lots of our faculty engage in research with you, our undergraduate students. Many of our students have publications to their credit by the time they graduate.  Many have made presentations at academic conferences. Another key difference between Earlham and major state universities is that our faculty are here — and I include myself in this statement — precisely because we want to be teaching outstanding undergraduates, we want to mentor the next generation of scholars and practitioners, we want to continue to participate in lifelong learning and live a life in the liberal arts where we continue to learn, along with you.

The Liberal Arts

We all use the label “liberal arts college” with some frequency, but I wonder how many of us regularly think about what it means?

The “liberal” in “liberal arts” doesn’t have anything to do with the traditional political “liberal” that is suggested by the “liberal-conservative” continuum. As the terms are used today,

Liberal Education

A philosophy of education that empowers individuals, liberates the mind from ignorance, and cultivates social responsibility. Characterized by challenging encounters with important issues, and more a way of studying than specific content, liberal education can occur at all types of colleges and universities.

Liberal Arts

Specific disciplines (the humanities, social sciences, and sciences).

Liberal Arts Colleges

And for those of you with a more classical bent, you may want to know that this all comes from a classification going back to medieval times including the trivium (three subjects, including grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and the quadrivium (four subjects, including arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music).

Source: Practicing Liberal Education: Formative Themes in the Re-invention of Liberal Learning
*Carol Geary Schneider, President, Association of American Colleges and Universities*

To my mind, a liberal arts background is more than being able to show off a collection of disparate facts — a mole is 6.02 x 1023, or being able to recite “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” or remembering “King Philip Came Over From Germany Saturday,” or being able to list all the American presidents in chronological order. It is about understanding, and adaptability, and a willingness to say “gee, that is a new idea to me and I’m not really sure what I think of it or what to do with it, but I’ll let it roll around for a while and see what happens.” 

My view is that in the long perspective, preparing you, our students, to be able to speak, read, write — that is, communicate effectively — to imagine, to reason, to inquire, to empathize, to hypothesize, and so on, is the best we can offer you. Depending on what your source is, current wisdom suggests that graduates of today are going to have from four to eight different careers in their lives. You can’t specifically prepare for what you don’t know is coming.

The former dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, Nicholas Lemann,  has written about liberal education in our society:

Liberal education is best defined with its most literal meaning: It is education that liberates, that frees the mind from the constraints of a particular moment and set of circumstances, that permits one to see possibilities that are not immediately apparent, to understand things in a larger context, to draw upon a base of master knowledge when faced with specific situations. The essential paradox, or one might even say the miracle of liberal education, is that by being evidently im¬practical, it equips a student for life far more richly and completely, and across a far wider expanse of time and space, than does education whose sole aim is to be useful. (Nicholas Lemann, “Liberal Education and Professionals,” Liberal Education, 90:2 Spring 2004, p. 12. Lemann was dean and Henry R. Luce professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.)

I really like that image: how graduates see possibilities. One of my very favorite literary passages is by Marcel Proust, who wrote an enormous, seven volume, work in the first decades of the 20th century. One of his points in this work was that chronological distance gives us some perspective in life; the title of his book Remembrance of Things Past, suggests this. What is perhaps his most often cited passage from this work is the phrase “The real voyage of discovery comes not from seeking new destinations, but having new eyes.” I love that. “Having new eyes.”

When I have the occasion to talk about what we do in the liberal arts at Earlham, I tell people that in the liberal arts we’re in the “eye” business, to use the image that Proust provided. During your four years at Earlham you will come to see the world through new eyes; you will go through a personal transformation in your time here, as a result of the liberal arts environment. Through our rich curriculum, whether it is your studying the “News in China” with Marya Bower in the Philosophy Department, or studying malaria with Peter Blair in the Biology Department, or blowing things up with Lori Watson in the Chemistry Department, working on the Model U.N. with Welling Hall, or studying “Hip Hop and Religion” in James Logan’s Religion class, your horizons will be broadened, your perspectives affected.

This “eye” image, by the way, is not limited to Proust. I have run across a body of Quaker lore with a reference to “new eyes for invisibles” that suggests the same general idea. In a book published in 1943, Rufus Jones talked about perspectives and values in the much the same way as Proust.

It is also true, of course, that most of you as Earlham students willengage in literal voyages of discovery with your faculty that contribute to your change and growth. You may have seen on the web news of our new program in Dharamsala, India, where I was meeting with leaders at the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics to arrange for a program in Tibet and Buddhist Studies that is starting even as we speak. I am sure that this will be a life-changing semester for our students who choose to pursue it — including having the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama. 

This travel dimension, reflected in our overseas studies programs, seems to me to be a distinctively “liberal” dimension of education. In my view there are very, very few experiences in life that educate as much as travel. With its emphasis on experiencing other languages and cultures, coming to see ourselves as “the other,” trying to learn to question our assumptions by seeing through the eyes of other cultures, the travel experience is extraordinarily valuable, and really is central among our institutional goals.

You folks will have the opportunity to receive from Earlham, in addition to your B.A. degree, a certificate of Global Engagement if you meet the requirements, something that I am confident will help to separate you from many other college grads when you’re out on the job market after graduation.

In addition to sending you overseas, you’ll also have plenty of international contact on campus. How many of you come from outside of the United States? Raise your hands. Last year we had students from 81 countries on our campus, further adding to this broadening of perspectives.

Earlham’s Mission and the Liberal Arts

Earlham’s mission is:

…to provide the highest quality undergraduate education in the liberal arts, including the sciences, shaped by the distinctive perspectives of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

A basic faith of Friends is that all truth is God's truth; thus Earlham emphasizes: pursuit of truth, wherever that pursuit leads; lack of coercion, letting the evidence lead that search; respect for the consciences of others; openness to new truth and therefore the willingness to search; veracity, rigorous integrity in dealing with the facts; application of what is known to improving our world.

To provide education of the highest quality with these emphases, Earlham's mission requires selection of an outstanding and caring faculty committed to creating an open, cooperative, learning environment. The College provides for the continuous support and development of this faculty.

The teaching-learning process at Earlham is shaped by a view of education as a process of awakening the "teacher within," so that our students will become lifelong learners. Students at Earlham are encouraged to be active, involved learners.

The College provides extensive opportunities for students and faculty to interact with each other as persons, to learn from each other in a cooperative community, an important aspect of which is collaborative student/faculty research.

At Earlham College this education is carried on with a concern for the world in which we live and for improving human society. The College strives to educate morally sensitive leaders for future generations.

Therefore Earlham stresses global education, peaceful resolution of conflict, equality of persons, and high moral standards of personal conduct.

Our ultimate goal here, as our Mission Statement suggests, involves your growth and development. Who are you going to be in four years? What kind of person are you going to be? How will you look at the world and society? What will your values be? What kind of job, what kind of career, what kind of vocation, are you going to be ready to pursue?

Here is an answer to what is going to happen over the next four years. With what we call our Ten Year Mindset, in your years at Earlham your experience will:

  • help you develop skills to be an independent thinker, to learn to engage in critical thinking;
  • help you meet a wide range of knowledge, from a wide range of academic disciplines; you will meet both disciplinary and interdisciplinary inquiry this way;
  • help you develop communication skills so that in future years in a variety of careers and vocations when you have ideas you can communicate them, orally, and in writing;
  • help you understand your place in an increasingly complex and challenging global society, through actual experience overseas and through other languages;
  • help you develop skills in encountering diversity and acquiring the capacity for respecting and engaging effectively with all kinds of difference, not only global or international difference;
  • help you to understand how to evaluate and appreciate the beliefs and values of others;
  • help you to learn how to plan, develop, and execute a senior project, and then present it to an audience so that you develop both analytic and communication skills;
  • help you appreciate your ethical and moral role in the society in which we live.

Through our Earlham Seminars, our general education structures, and the wide range of disciplinary offerings that will face you here, you will graduate in four years — we hope — prepared to go into the world and play a role as a leader and a life-long learner.

The End

Today only a very small minority of American college students — somewhere between 8 percent and 2 percent, depending upon who is doing the counting — attend small liberal arts colleges. 

The liberal arts college has been called a “uniquely American” institution.

Roger Smith (1987), the former chief executive officer of General Motors, wrote a few years ago that "Liberal Arts may ultimately prove to be the most relevant learning model. People trained in the Liberal Arts learn to tolerate ambiguity and to bring order out of apparent confusion. They have the kind of sideways thinking and cross-classifying habit of mind that comes from learning, among other things, the many different ways of looking at literary works, social systems, chemical processes, or languages." In the future, the constructs of liberal education will be more applicable and in higher demand than they are today… (Roberts T. Jones, “Liberal Education for the Twenty-first Century: Business Expectations,”  Liberal Education, Spring 2005).

At this point I’d like to recognize five members of the new class who showed their interest in the liberal arts by submitting essays on our summer common reading Cutting for Stone that were selected by some of our faculty as being really exceptional. We told you in our cover letter when we sent out the book that we would be awarding an IPad Mini to the top essays, and I’d like to invite five of you to come forward now and receive your IPads.

Alexis Baker
Kaitlyn Brunner
Laura Honsig
Gina Milano
Katherine Sorrows
Ashutish Rai

Now you’re about to go off and meet with your academic advisers to start to think about putting together a schedule for the fall semester. As you begin your academic careers you’ll work with faculty who will serve as your academic advisers; they’re anxious to meet you and are ready to partner with you on this journey. Have fun! Today is the start of your academic career at Earlham College. Remember it. You will, I am confident, look back many years from today and tell others that “this was a key moment, and the start of a key experience, in my life.” This is a remarkable place, and we’re glad you’re here with us.

Thank you for being so attentive.

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