Thanks for that wonderful reception. Maybe I won't talk after all; I'll just quit while I'm ahead.
I want to thank the former Dean of Arts and Sciences, Phyllis Rippey; Interim Dean Tom Helm; Assistant Dean Jim Schmidt; and the Liberal Arts Committee--especially John Simmons and Cathy Null--for developing this program and selecting me as the first Liberal Arts lecturer. It's a great honor.
As John suggested in his introduction, this talk tonight is an opportunity to comprehend more deeply what we do here, and to consider what we should be doing. This is not just a lecture but the start of a community conversation--a chance to think about Western and the great tradition of liberal learning--and we will begin that conversation with your participation at the reception that follows.
Of course, the first point to make about education in the liberal arts is that it is under siege and in decline. Here are a few pertinent figures. In 1900 more than 70 percent of American college students attended liberal arts institutions, while today fewer than 5 percent of U.S. students do. At comprehensive universities like Western, the enrollment in most liberal arts major fields is down sharply from a few decades ago. Furthermore, a recent survey shows that about 85 percent of today's college-bound high school students feel that the goal of higher education is simply to get necessary training to secure a job. And among those surveyed students, only 14 percent even knew what a liberal arts education was. Simply put, today's students tend to be career-oriented, and impatient for material rewards, and they place a premium on acquiring specific skills (that is, computer operation, accounting, chemical analysis, etc.) that will credential them for a particular occupation. In other words, they subscribe to the dictum of poet W. D. Snodgrass, who says in a poem about academic life called "April Inventory,"
One by one, the solid scholars
Get the degrees, the jobs, the dollars.
And they want big dollars too. I remember a freshman telling me recently that he was in college so he "would not have to work at some crappy $40,000-a-year job." Partly in response to this narrow view of higher education as simply immediate job preparation, we have seen the rise of on-line courses, and on-line institutions like the University of Phoenix and American Intercontinental University, designed to credential people in marketing, nursing, law enforcement, and so on, without broad exposure to many traditional fields and without direct interaction with professors--as models of intellectual growth, as promoters of reflective self-comprehension, as leaders of reasoned dialogue, and as exemplars of cultural sensitivity. Incidentally, I am not opposed to mixing on-line and other distance learning approaches with traditional classroom teaching, but you can't simply download an education. Computers are not an adequate substitute for the classroom and personal contact, any more than books are. A real education is always a social process.
But more pointedly, as scholar Stanley Aronowitz has recently pointed out, "the crisis in American higher education consists not only in its budget difficulties . . . but in the new demand that it become a multi-layered mass technological training institute." And of course, the great practical problem with that demand--aside from the deeper concerns I'm going to talk about--is that most students will switch careers several times after they graduate, which makes their occupational training largely irrelevant.
The associate provost at Pace University, Beverly Kahn, effectively addressed this issue in an article published last year, in which she said, "The challenge we face is to assure that our students have a real liberal arts experience, and become truly "educated," even when they are simply focused on careers."
Before I go any further in discussing our present situation in higher education, I want to talk briefly about what the liberal arts are and where the tradition of liberal learning comes from. What we mean by the term "liberal arts" is that combination of humanities and sciences, or arts and sciences, that has been at the heart of a liberal education for centuries. Now encompassing fields like literature, history, philosophy, religious studies, biology, and sociology--and aspects of the fine arts, like art history and theatre--the liberal arts provide knowledge of general cultural import and widespread if not universal concern. Moreover, the liberal arts component of your education teaches you how to think independently and effectively, prepares you for lifelong learning, and allows you to see things whole--and that's essential too, because life itself is a complex whole, not a series of specialized encounters with isolatable phenomena.
The problem of a declining liberal arts tradition is a fairly recent development because for more than 2,000 years a liberal education has been the ideal in western culture--for the brightest students, anyway, if not for all. In a sense, the tradition goes back to the fifth century B.C., to Socrates, who challenged his fellow Athenians to think more clearly, to be more reflective and reasonable. Also, his most famous student, Plato, argued in The Republic that civic leadership should be entrusted to the philosopher--because he alone was "a lover not of a part of wisdom only, but of the whole." In other words, the philosopher has breadth of vision and can focus not only on the means used to do something but the ends, the very idea of doing this or that at all. He is capable of seeing both the issue at hand, and his culture as a whole, critically. A century later Aristotle, in his Politics, made a distinction between liberal subjects, that have intrinsic value for fulfilling ourselves as human beings, and non-liberal subjects, that have value only as a means to an extrinsic end--such as making a living. In short, to Aristotle, an immediately useful art is the opposite of a liberal art--which does not mean, however, that a liberal art is, conversely, a "useless art."
The term "liberal arts" comes from the Latin phrase "artes liberales," meaning "the arts worthy of free men." It first appears in the writings of Cicero, the famous Roman statesman of the first century B.C., and at that time they referred to a set of disciplines (such as rhetoric and logic) that fostered abilities characteristic of a free citizen, or someone expected to lead, as opposed to the servile arts (such as bricklaying and shoemaking) that were skills acquired and practiced by slaves. The word "liberal," then has the same Latin root as the word "liberty," and the liberal arts were understood as those abilities that allowed you, as a free person, to help govern--hence, the abilities to read and write effectively, to speak convincingly, to reason clearly, and to comprehend your world. Accordingly, the first task of the liberal arts is to free the mind from the many fetters that can bind it, especially ignorance, prejudice, and shallowness. But this is admittedly no easy matter. As philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, "Many people would rather die than think. In fact, they do."
By the early Middle Ages, the seven liberal arts had been codified into the "trivium," or three basic studies, of grammar, rhetoric, and logic; and the "quadrivium," or four advanced studies of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The trivium, or language arts disciplines--grammar, rhetoric, logic--became the priority fields in education for centuries, the central disciplines needed for training civic leaders--people who could think analytically, argue persuasively, and write clearly. So, Western culture had for centuries a huge commitment to educating people for civic responsibility. And yet, to repeat part of my opening statistics, today 85 percent of college-bound high school students view higher education simply as a way to get credentialed for a specific career. This issue, then, and the drift of higher education toward mere training for specific careers, is what the contemporary liberal arts movement, here at WIU and elsewhere, is concerned about.
What has happened, then, to cause the decline of the liberal arts tradition? In more recent generations, various developments have challenged the old tradition of broad education for civic responsibility, which was by the mid-19th century championed by more than 300 American liberal arts colleges. One of those developments was the transformation of many colleges (Harvard, Cornell, Johns Hopkins) into research universities, which took place in the decades following the Civil War--with the resulting professionalization of so many occupations. Another factor was the emergence of land-grant, or public, universities, following passage of the Morrill Act of 1862. Those universities--such as the University of Illinois, first named Illinois Industrial University--sprang from the pragmatic need for people skilled in agriculture and the mechanical arts, although more traditional fields were not neglected. One basic idea behind such land-grant institutions was that education had practical utility for our society. In more recent decades, the practical arts became central to the development of community colleges, which have emphasized nurses training, computer courses, business operations, and so on. Those market-driven, two-year schools have done those specialized occupational training functions fairly well, but they have not done as well with the liberal arts. Moreover, federal support for curriculum development has strongly favored vocational programs, rather than general academic programs. Indeed, it is worth noting that the rapid decline of the liberal arts in recent decades has occurred precisely over the life span of our community colleges, suggesting that the same cultural forces that have diminished the former have fostered the latter.
As this suggests, the liberal arts tradition has contrasted sharply with the primary forces of cultural change in recent decades--market demands, advertising, and technological development. Those forces have prompted some American leaders to see higher education as a kind of "industry," like steel or plastics, and thus to stress economic issues--the "bottom line"--and to conceive of students as "customers." One result, as a 2001 article in the Christian Science Monitor pointed out, is that "The liberal arts . . . have been ravaged by managers, government officials, and taxpayers looking for 'measurable' results. But all such measures in our era are inextricably linked to corporate bottom lines. And few things could be more inimical to the spirit of the liberal arts than to turn education in philosophy, sociology, and history into a seamless fit for corporate career climbing." In other words, demands on higher education now often come from a sector of our society that is not committed to re-examining ends, but only with improving the means to do what they are already doing. But if universities are simply seen as having a market function, supplying career-oriented "customers" with educational services, then higher education is stripped of any moral or cultural influence on the lives of Americans.
Small wonder that newspaper publisher Paul Neely, in a recent essay in Daedalus, a broadly focused intellectual quarterly, chronicles a decisive drift in our culture toward the vocational spirit, including, among today's students: 1) a single-minded focus on landing the first job after graduation; 2) an almost frantic concern over salary and status; and 3) a strong desire to escape from, rather than be engaged in, thoughtful inquiry and the life of the mind.
Those students are simply reflecting our culture at large--a culture that now often sees liberal arts education as an expensive extravagance or a waste of time, a diversion from the "real world" of jobs, money, status, and power. No wonder so many of them dread the required core curriculum courses at places like Western, and don't really engage themselves with those subjects--and thus, learn far less than we might hope. As Chicago humorist Finley Peter Dunne said a century ago, "It doesn't make much difference what you study, as long as you don't like it." Or to paraphrase Aristotle again, any field of study that has no intrinsic value for the student is inherently non-liberal; it causes no inner development.
Indeed, because our culture as a whole says one thing--what's important is the job you have, the car you drive, the clothes you wear, the status you enjoy--and our best colleges and universities say another thing--what's important is self-growth, critical intelligence, cultural sensitivity, social commitment, etc.--students come to Western and similar institutions with that shallow, popular view well established, and consequently, they are alienated from academic life. They often experience their education as a kind of forced labor, which they have to suffer through, and in which they have no real stake. They are consequently passive in class, unwilling to read, and ultimately uninterested in the outcome of it all, except for the credits that are posted with the registrar, to become part of their credentials.
I was reminded of this last Thursday morning at 9:30, when I walked into my American Drama class, English 341, to discuss with them Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece, Long Day's Journey into Night, perhaps the greatest play in the history of the American theatre. Currently being revived on Broadway, the play--based on O'Neill's own dysfunctional family--is a searing look into the lives of four deeply frustrated but fascinating people. Out of twenty students, three or four didn't even bring the book to class with them; several others that I asked to comment obviously hadn't read the play. Ten minutes after I had walked in, I closed my book and said, "This class is over. And if you don't give a damn whether you read this great play, then believe me, I don't either. But the exam that asks you to write about this play is going to come, just like life is going to come, whether you're ready for it or not." And I told them I'd see them next Tuesday, and if they still didn't have it read, that would be a short class too. And I walked out. Well, "next Tuesday" was this morning, at 9:30. And I'm pleased to report that they all had it read today, and we had a fine time. For some years now, those of us in English have been used to that kind of passivity in general education (or required liberal arts) courses, but I was surprised this time: English 341 is a course for majors. Incidentally, and ironically, O'Neill's great play is about the struggle to take responsibility for our lives, without blaming mother, father, husband, wife, luck, fate, the system, or whatever.
Furthermore, as many faculty here tonight can attest, students today who submit a paper to be graded at the end of the semester commonly fail to even come and pick it up later, so alienated are they from the products they produce or the process they are supposedly undergoing.
Let me add that I'm not down on Western students. I'm very pleased to teach them, and talk with them, and get to know them, and I am proud of our graduates. I'm a Western graduate too. But we must realize that our current students are the product of a changing American culture--a culture that seldom values serious studies, a culture where young lives are shaped by contact with the shallow worlds of commercial advertising, video games, and action movies. It is a big step for them, from Lethal Weapon III to Long Day's Journey into Night.
There are also forces within academia that militate against the liberal arts and the commitment to education for civic responsibility. Consider, for example, that within the liberal arts we strive to consider the broad picture, to achieve a more comprehensive vision, especially to discern the cultural--and in our time surely, environmental--implications of a problem. Promoting such thinking is more difficult than it used to be because of the extent and complexity of specialized knowledge--and hence, the tendency to take only the specialized view of something in a particular course. One consequence of this, which all professors recognize, is the fragmentation of knowledge--and the very limited vision of the educated specialist. Another negative result, in the humanities and fine arts, at least, is that cultural products (art, literature, theatre) are not promoted for their broad impact on the head and the heart, as complex things to be loved and pondered, but objects to be analyzed, ideological messages to be unwrapped and conveyed. My own field of literary studies has been invaded by this narrow, overly specialized, inherently non-liberal approach, and the recent field of cultural studies is pervaded by it. In other words, liberal education in our time is under siege from the inside, not just the outside.
Another problem within higher education has to do with the rapidly expanding cadre of administrators who are attempting to restructure colleges and universities in imitation of corporations, and to reduce the educational experience to quantifiable data. One result of this, direct from the business world, has been the rise of "assessment," a procedure which supposedly measures "learning outcomes"--as determined by various models and measures--all of which give the professors like myself who try to implement them the anxious feeling that we are inadequately addressing the complex transaction of self-growth that is the essence of the higher education experience. Unlike the situation in training-oriented courses, the value of liberal arts courses does not reside in mastering a specific set of limited objectives, but in exposing students to disciplines that illuminate the often hidden structures of our experience, making those students more confident and articulate interpreters of culture and experience. The liberal arts are, in fact, focused on long-term change in people's lives, and that alone makes assessment of our impact on progressing undergraduates forever inadequate. Not every outcome can be readily measured.
Furthermore, our society increasingly regards knowledge as a commodity--something you can immediately obtain on the Internet or in a study guide--rather than an ongoing, self-managed process. And in keeping with this commodification of learning, students increasingly approach education like shoppers seeking immediate gratification. Coming to academia from our consumer-oriented American culture, they increasingly see themselves as consumers of higher education. Because they are paying professors to be responsible for the quality of what transpires in the classroom, or so they construe the matter, they themselves are absolved from responsibility. If that class doesn't turn out well, it is the professor's fault, and it's time to shop around for a better educational product. And if the course material can't get them a job immediately after graduation or be applied at work tomorrow, students often avoid coming to grips with it--and in my field that sometimes means writing papers with no real intellectual content or merely recalling on exams the comments they've heard in class so as to avoid reading, and thinking about, the assigned texts. Scholar Barbara Ann Scott, author of The Liberal Arts in a Time of Crisis, refers to such students as "credit-hour junkies on vocational highs." This is a kind of narrowness that results from the failure to embrace higher education for what it really is--responsible, energetic, well-focused self-growth--for which classroom experience is merely the catalyst.
That reminds me of a little-known comment by L. Y. Sherman, the great Illinois political leader and our principal founder, for whom Sherman Hall is named. Talking in 1914, he was recalling the establishment of Western, for which he wrote the legislation, and also recalling his own struggle for an education. He was from a very poor family; was raised in a log cabin, and had no advantages. But like Lincoln, he was a model of self-growth. And he said, "My own education was fragmentary, gotten in a country school when I was a boy on the farm. . . . But the best of teachers cannot educate you. All education is self-education. There is no other kind." His point, of course, was not that teachers are unnecessary, but that the key to education is a commitment to self-transformation. And he was right.
Liberal education in America also has a specific cultural value. In most nations of the world, students enter a university to pursue a single subject, and that is all they study, but here in the United States we believe--or we have believed until recently--that higher education should cultivate the individual for contributing to a democratic culture. As Martha Nussbaum points out in a fine recent book called Cultivating Humanity,
Our country has embarked on an unparalleled experiment. . . . Unlike all other nations, we have asked higher education to contribute a general preparation for citizenship, not just specialized preparation for a career. . . . [In doing so,] We have hoped to draw citizens toward one another by complex mutual understanding and individual self-scrutiny, building a democratic culture that is truly deliberative and reflective. . . .
In short, cherishing and strengthening a university's liberal arts component has more to do with our American tradition of producing educated individuals for a democratic society than with turning out graduates who will be successful in an entry level job. And the fact is that most people, even if they have been raised in this country, are not ready and able to contribute effectively to American culture, or even appreciate much in our culture, above the level of TV soap operas and professional wrestling, without an effective education in the liberal arts.
Moreover, in our twenty-first century world--characterized by lingering prejudice, violent social conflict, rampant materialism, shallow relationships, and a ravaged environment--a liberal education must include critical reflection on the ethics and politics of participating in a global civil society. Here we Americans are, asserting ourselves as the great, indispensable post-Cold War international leader--yet we have a frightfully shallow comprehension of other nations and cultures. How many educated Americans today have the terrible feeling that, at the top level of our federal government, we don't have adequate comprehension of global cultural complexities? Indeed, our military, economic, and social participation in other countries must be as ethically well-grounded and culturally sensitive as our handling of issues within the U.S. But if the decline of the liberal arts continues, we will surely lack the human resources to comprehend our enormous international challenges, thereby increasing the likelihood that we will resort to military force to solve our problems.
I hope that future speakers in this series will take on the task of showing at some length the importance of their respective fields for a liberal education. And with that in mind, let me take a few minutes to do what I so often do in the classroom, read and discuss a text, to illustrate how literature frees us from conventional views, enhances our cultural sensitivity, and prepares us for civic responsibility.
This is a poem that you probably won't know; it's by Kristine Batey, a contemporary poet living in Chicago, and it's called "Lot's Wife." It is a retelling of the famous Old Testament story of the woman who disobeyed God by looking back as she and Lot were fleeing from the wicked city of Sodom, which God was destroying, and she was therefore killed by God, was turned into a pillar of salt. Of course, the story was used for centuries to sermonize about the importance of obedience to God, but notice how this poet enlarges our sensitivity to the human dimension of the story by imaginatively reconstructing the consciousness of Lot's wife, who is never even named in the biblical account.
While Lot, the conscience of a nation,
struggles with the Lord,
she struggles with the housework.
The City of Sin is where
she raises the children.
Ba'al or Adonai--
Whoever is God--
the bread must still be made
and the doorsill swept.
The Lord may kill the children tomorrow,
but today they must be bathed and fed.
Well and good to condemn your neighbors' religion,
but weren't they there
when the baby was born,
and when the well collapsed?
While her husband communes with God,
she tucks the children into bed.
In the morning, when he tells her of the judgment,
[that is, God's decision to destroy the city]
she puts down the lamp she is cleaning
and calmly begins to pack.
In between bundling up the children
and deciding what will go,
she runs for a moment
to say goodbye to the herd,
gently patting each soft head
with tears in her eyes for the animals that will not understand.
She smiles blindly to the woman
who held her hand at childbed.
It is easy for eyes that have always turned to heaven
not to look back;
those who have been--by necessity--drawn to earth
cannot forget that life is lived from day to day.
Good, to a God, and good in human terms
are two different things.
On the breast of the hill, she chooses to be human,
and turns, in farewell--
and never regrets
Of course, this poem, with its evocation of the female struggle in a male-dominated Hebrew culture, and its implicit condemnation of the Old Testament God's brutality, could not have been written before the 20th century. It prompts reflection on several issues--not the least of which is the constraint that our own religion--which is always the right one, the best one--often places on our appreciation for people of other faiths. At any rate, Lot's wife is viewed here not as an example of a person justly punished for disobedience--which is the Old Testament author's use of her--but as a positive model of heroic empathy, of imaginative participation in the lives of others. She looks back for a very good, very human reason. Unlike her husband Lot, she reached beyond the confines of the self, to identify with the non-Hebrew people of the condemned city. And that kind of empathy, which is also fostered by the great literature of the world, is the experience from which social trust is built. It leads to cooperation and civility and mutual concern. In other words, stories create and maintain social bonds. They also show us the consequences of our actions, and they help us to deal with suffering and loss. And, as my own writing about our corner of America repeatedly tries to show, stories help us to live responsibly, and meaningfully, in a particular place. In any case, people who have little or no exposure to literature that requires empathetic identification with different, often troubled people, literature that demands interpretive sensivity and critical judgment, are simply not prepared for civic responsibility in the 21st century.
We must remember too that students who graduate from Western Illinois University will be--and they always have been--much more than effective workers or successful career managers. They will also be parents and neighbors, voters and volunteers, citizens and consumers, role models and cultural leaders. And to carry those civic responsibilities they will need a broad-based liberal arts education, that not only sharpens cultural sensitivity, but also provides alternative methods of problem solving, allows for long-term flexibility in career choices, responds critically to media messages, fosters ethical choices in work and personal life, and promotes well-being through appreciation of art, literature, and other cultural achievements. In short, students need to achieve the kind of personal transformation that never results from career training but is the hallmark of the truly educated person.
Fortunately, the campaign to reemphasize the liberal arts in higher education is expanding. At some institutions, in fact, centers have been set up to foster the liberal arts and examine their role in modern society. The University of Virginia Center for the Liberal Arts and the Franklin and Marshall College Center for Liberal Arts and Society are two of those. But in general, as I pointed out earlier, the liberal arts have been losing ground, to the point where most students no longer value a liberal education and many institutions fail to rise much above occupational training.
I realize that, for the most part, tonight I'm preaching to the choir. But assuming that Western does not want to follow this unfortunate drift, what, then, should we do at our university to foster a liberal education--that is, an education that transforms people, that frees them from ignorance and prejudice; that hones their thinking and writing and speaking skills; and that fits them for civic responsibility in a democratic culture?
First of all, we must pay vigilant attention to the quality of our core curriculum. We must prune it of courses that are too specialized in content, and too narrowly focused in approach. We must ask whether this or that combination of courses will yield the liberal education we want students to have, one that helps them discover values worth sustaining. And we must hold in high regard the liberal arts courses and teachers that are part of that core curriculum.
Secondly, our students must also be made aware of the purpose of those liberal arts courses--must realize that the liberal arts prepare them for later, unanticipated challenges and career choices. What I'm saying is that we should begin such gen. ed. courses, in whatever field, by talking about the liberal arts, and about education as self-transformation. Indeed, we should also appeal to the market-oriented mentality of today's students by pointing out that the liberal arts prepare working professionals for the knowledge-intensive, rapidly changing organizational environment they must work in. We have a case to make, and we must make it.
Also, we should encourage students who major in a non-liberal arts field (accounting, law enforcement, etc.) to develop a minor in a liberal arts field--which is to say, a field strongly devoted to general thinking and/or writing skills, to increasing breadth of knowledge, to fostering cultural sensitivity, and so on. This is to say that we must take student advising to levels far beyond simple advice about which courses should come first in a degree program--to ask instead, what courses will foster the kind of transformation he or she will need to function as a truly educated person.
Also, the faculty at Western should liberalize even non-liberal arts courses, where possible, by confronting broad questions in the classroom, by placing a given major field's concepts and approaches into a dialogue with values, and by demanding high quality written work characterized by focus and clarity. In turn, this liberalization will challenge our students to grow intellectually--and ultimately, to grasp the essence of a liberal arts education. In short, we need a thoughtful integration of liberal arts goals into the more narrowly focused, occupational courses, and as an academic community we must share a vision of both our very important professional fields and our liberal arts program as complementary.
Also, in the 21st century students must experience other cultures as part of their university education. Therefore, we should encourage WIU students to study abroad far more than we do, because placing students outside of American culture for a semester can be a powerful, indeed unforgettable, liberal arts experience. Of course, that kind of experience will challenge students to see things differently, and will liberate them from the customary, unexamined ways of thinking and doing. Few educational experiences are more transformative than study abroad.
Yes, study abroad is admittedly expensive, but as Harvard president Derek Bok quipped a century ago, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." For the public good, as well as the success of our graduates, we must commit more funds and faculty to international studies, here on campus as well as abroad.
Related to that suggestion is another: we should promote service learning and other experiential activities. Liberal education should not be confined to the classroom, and students often learn best by doing. Internships and other service learning activities might be worked out with community agencies and organizations, especially in larger regional communities. Likewise, our western Illinois region is characterized by many smaller towns with a host of economic and social problems, cultural deficiencies, and environmental concerns, and upper division courses might very profitably incorporate an issue in this or that community, as well as exposure to that community, into the course experience. Students need to make connections between their major and their future way of life--their emerging role--and to develop an appreciation for the precious significance and deep complexity of local culture, which is under siege in our time by commercial and technological forces. Aside from the direct educational benefit of such experiential involvement, we need to do this kind of thing simply to model social commitment for our students. Faculty members need to be collaborators for the common good, beyond the boundaries of our campus.
In fact, too many of our faculty members construe "service" to simply mean participation on departmental and college committees. Our comprehension of "service" at WIU needs to embrace our community, our region, and our state. We need to be engaged--with corporations, municipalities, civic groups--as planners, advisers, and partners in tackling the challenges that face people in our part of America. I wish that I had time to adequately praise the small number of very engaged WIU people--city councilman John Maguire, Macomb Unplugged leader Bill Maakestad, historical society leader Kathy Nichols, environmental activist Sean Meagher, and some others. Such activism beyond the borders of our campus also has the benefit of spreading public awareness of our commitments, so those who pay the tax bills that support us will increasingly care about WIU.
Yet another suggestion is to increasingly engage students in our liberal arts courses through student-centered pedagogy. That is, we should have our students participate more in the operation of our classes--for example, by reading aloud from primary texts, and then responding to those texts; by taking sides to discuss or debate historical issues; and by relating conflicts noted in history or literature to our contemporary experience. Approaches such as these motivate students by putting their feelings, their realizations, and hence their self-growth closer to center stage. The more experienced I have become as a teacher--and this is my 34th year at Western--the more I agree with the insight of French writer Simone Weil, who tersely commented, "Education . . . consists in creating motives." That is, we can no longer take for granted a commitment by our students to self-growth and social purpose. Some of them still possess those ideals, but most do not. So, we must arouse in all our students a real interest in expanding their intellectual horizons and participating actively in public life.
And finally, we should encourage, and sometimes require, student participation in cultural and intellectual activities on campus and then fold those experiences back into our classroom discussion and course writing requirements whenever possible. We must come to regard our campus as a place of meaningful encounters with intellectual issues and cultural achievements. The annual Mary Olive Woods lecture, which comes up next week, offers a fine opportunity for enriching many courses, but is seldom employed that way. So do some of our plays at University Theatre, such as next week's production of Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding. My general education students in English 353, Great Books, will be seeing and discussing Blood Wedding--which deals, incidentally, with the conflict between individual self-fulfillment and responsibility to one's family and culture. A more pertinent issue for today's young people I could not imagine.
At Western this year we are in the process of doing important institutional planning, and that will include a revamping of our mission statement, which will focus on getting students ready to face the challenges of a rapidly changing, increasingly interdependent, socially diverse, and deeply troubled global society. Despite the emergence of an increasingly shallow, self-oriented American culture, here at WIU we must not allow the fading of our traditional concern for the public good. Let us remember that Western, unlike the other state universities in Illinois, was established to address a pressing social problem--the very poor quality of country school education. Our founders were crusaders for a cause. And our early students were ablaze with idealism. In the 1909 Sequel one of our graduating seniors said, "I believe in a curriculum that epitomizes the things most worthwhile in the history of humanity . . . that makes the individual competent to think and judge for himself, that enlarges his sympathies, that enables him to contribute something that will leave the world a little better than he found it." That Western student had been influenced by the liberal arts.
Over the years our cause has changed, but our sense of commitment to social purpose should not. And to that end, nothing we do now is more important than educating students through exposure to the liberal arts. In the face of increasing vocational emphasis in higher education, and excessive individualism (that overlooks social commitment), the liberal arts component of our bachelor's degree program should dare to assert that there is inherent value in learning, that human purposes must always receive reflective reconsideration, that coherence of thought and clarity of expression are essential values, that breadth of vision and cultural sensitivity are indispensable, and most importantly, that transformation of the self to prepare for civic responsibility should be central to the undergraduate experience. Forget the misguided effort to assess "learning outcomes," the essential question to put to our undergraduates is simply this: "Are you changing in important ways, and if so, how?" And if they are not seriously interested in that question, not dedicated to self-growth, we need to see what we can do to get them interested in it--preferably during their freshman year.
Such a transformation has always been possible here, and I can attest to that myself, for I arrived at Western, as a freshman student, exactly forty years ago this fall. I was good student, of course, but also, as I look back, a strikingly alienated kid from a dysfunctional family--a kid whose mother had committed suicide a few years earlier, and who had substantially broken with his father, partly over that incident. Western was then a much smaller place, just starting to emerge as a university. In fact, during that fall of 1963, I was among the very last group of students to take classes in Sherman Hall. Two of those first-term courses were, incidentally, in philosophy and world literature--new fields to me then, and I've followed those interests ever since. Western was certainly a transforming experience for me. I was, of course, motivated to make it so. When you are on your own--and I mean, really on your own--at eighteen, as the Army likes to say, "Failure is not an option." But I can also speak volumes about the sense of community here, and the contribution that close, friendly association with faculty and staff members, and other students, can contribute to one's self-growth. Now, we must find ways of motivating today's booted-up, logged-on, computer-savvy but narrowly career-oriented students. The future of liberal education will depend upon its advocates being articulate about its personal and social importance.
Here at Western we must see ourselves as a proudly committed academic community in search of an always-improving, total educational experience that will enable our graduates to live responsibly and joyfully, fulfilling not just their promise as individuals but also their obligations as citizens. That's what the liberal arts have always been about--and that's what Western should always be about too.
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