Liberal Arts: A Life of Fulfillment


half full

Hello from my office on a Sunday afternoon,

Over the past 36 hours or so, I have spent my time on two things. First, managing the initial blogs that have come in and second, moving beyond the holiday season at my house, both inside and out. The outside is pretty well completed, including a serious cleaning of my garage, and the inside will be completed today, much to Anton’s chagrin, though he has been a big help. Throw in a quick trip to the ER for fluids and I am in good shape. I must say, the initial blogs I have read in my three sections of class have been some of the most thoughtful and engaged initial blogs I have read in my 10 years here at Bloomsburg. I am beyond pleased. There is still work to do, but that is always the case with writing. There is no perfect writing piece; there has never been a time that I have not gone back and wished I had written something a bit differently than what is there for all to see. It might seem you have found a new site with the different appearance, but no, I merely played a bit with the interface. I needed a lift in the midst of a bit of a struggle.

In the spirit of transparency, I am frustrated with my colleagues, my college, and the direction I see post-secondary education heading, for a variety of very complex reasons. That being said, maybe it is my idealism that has been such an important part of my life was hit in a sort of a smack-down, both in a departmental meeting and in a college meeting this past week. On the other hand, it merely means I need to rethink a bit; it means I need to figure out a way to work both within and with the system as well as think of ways to manage that same system. During the weekend, I had an opportunity to speak with one of the best students I have ever been blessed to have in class. She is a middle-school English or Language Arts teacher and addressed the problem with the system at their level. They are not allowed to fail students. They are not allowed in many ways, if I understood her correctly, to make students accountable at most any level. She also addressed the abject disrespect that is part of her daily existence. It seems too often she is asked to do what the parents should have done, and she is at fault for what the parents did not do.

I would like to say things are different at the college level, but more and more I find little difference. That being said, I understand the importance of a college education and why it is such an important, but expensive commodity in our present society. I also believe that some students should go to a technical training program. I do not believe that college is the best path for every 18 year old. I have noted before I would favor a two-year national service requirement of all citizens (and this is not necessarily the military, although that would be an option). That requirement would provide a job and a living wage and at the end of two years, and successful completion, two years of community college or technical college would be free, as long as the student maintained a C+ average. If the student does not do that, they have one semester to recover or they lose the free option. They they would come to the university with an Associates degree and begin a four year Master’s. The first two years would be in a major and then they would go on and do graduate work in that or a related field. That is a simple overview, but I think it would change much of the difficulties we currently see at the freshman level of post-secondary education and the idea that you should go do college just because you should.

What I heard in meetings this past week was beyond disappointing in that almost everything is reduced to how many students and a continual addition of minors and majors that are as simple as possible to keep students in seats, regardless their work. I know there is more than that to it, but that is what it seems to a large degree. We were told as a department that we cost the university too much money. Simply put we are not worth the work or education we have because we do not have enough students studying English in some track. Of course, if we expect too much in our classes, we are penalized in some manner because we create an easier way for them to get a major or minor in a related program. What happened to rigor? What happened to wanted to create a scholarly populace that is also skilled and therefore competent? This is particularly frustrating for me when it seems it is being propagated by the very entities that are supposedly supporting us. While I am frustrated, I know that I have to figure out a reasonable response and keep working.

What does it mean to have a liberal arts education. As I noted in a recent blog, I was supported when I interviewed here because I had a liberal arts background. I received that unparalleled education at Dana. From my liberal arts classes to humanities, from two majors and two minors, I found that there was little I did to studied that did not have something of interest for me. Our current global climate makes it seem that the only worthwhile, or economically feasible path to take is in STEM. This is not to say that the sciences, engineering or math are not noble or valuable, but that does not take away from the value of understanding what makes us uniquely human or what is necessary in terms of philosophy, art, music, religion, or the breadth of communication. Recent pieces in the New York Times noted the long term value of the liberal arts. Learning to think critically and analyze thoroughly are fundamental to the study of literature or philosophy. The trivium was the foundation of the medieval education. Grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric were the three courses first needed. Why? Can you write in a reasonable manner and follow standard conventions? Can you think logically and realize the complexity of any situation, thereby being able to manage a logical argument? And finally, it is possible to communicate effectively understanding the audience and purpose (both to whom are you speaking and what are your trying to persuade them of)?  Eventually, they would add arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Why those? Can you calculate and manage numbers? Can you think logically or sequentially? Can you see the understanding of a universe beyond yourself and perhaps in disagreement with the church (thank you. Galileo and Copernicus)? And finally, as Luther would eventually state, “Next to the word of God, music deserves the highest praise.” Music and math are not that disconnected. When I consider the classes I took as a student at Dana, I continually realize what an incredible gift I was provided by such a dedicated faculty at such a small college. If you think about the size of the faculty and the student body, what they did for us (and this gets back to some of what I noted at the outset of this post) is beyond astounding. How many of you who attended Dana realized that what the humanities program did was give us an education that ranked in the top two or three in the country? I have done the research earlier in my life. What Dr. Nielsen and others put together provided us a liberal arts (humanistic) foundation that rivaled Ivy League schools and stood on par with places like Stanford, Notre Dame, and others. Yes, at little Blair, Nebraska. I remember having a visiting professor my senior year named Sister Mary McCulley. She had served as an academic dean at Notre Dame, and we were fortunate enough to serve as a visiting professor. Dr. Delvin Hutton had graduated from Harvard. Dr. Richard Jorgensen is a Woodrow Wilson Scholar and holds a PhD from Duke. Dr. Nielsen completed his PhD at Oxford. Those are some incredible credentials and we sat at their feet daily. Dr. Larrie Stone was one of the most brilliant and ethical scientists you will ever meet, but he chose to teach at Dana College. He would have made a lot more money somewhere else.

Perhaps that is where my idealistic nature comes from. Those of us fortunate enough to be at Dana in the 125 years it was a college were provided an outstanding education at an incredibly reasonable price for private school by an unparalleled faculty. A faculty who went without pay raises and sabbaticals for many years. Perhaps that is what I need to realize as I focus on the beginning of this post. It is reasonable, I believe to be frustrated with what we have done to education as a country. In the past three years, we have spent 2.4 trillion dollars on defense and 300 billion on all levels of education (at all levels). I live in the 5th most populace state, but we rank 48th-50th in the three main metrics regarding state spending on education. That is unconscionable. As my one, and closest colleague says, “Heavy sigh.” I wish that would take care of it, but it won’t.” Perhaps after my rant, I merely need to get back to what I have been doing pretty much all weekend. Working on my classes and trying to provide my students the best feedback I can to demonstrate that my classes have value, that the liberal arts education and the connection of that to writing in the professional work is something worthwhile. For those of you reading this as a student, please know how valuable you are to the class you are in. Please remember the mutual “response-ability” we have to make each class the best it possibly can be (this is both about individual classes as well as the semester).  Off to more work in BOLT ( our course delivery tool) and to more blogs. I think there is so much more to what we are about than numbers, and I know we all know that, but sometimes we get lost in the weeds. There are so many things true and problematic about this video about school, but I thought I would leave the blog on a sort of simplistic view of the world when I was born (as in when this would have been high school in the 1950s). The world is no longer simple, perhaps it never was, but we certainly believed it to be so. I need to see it as half-full.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

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