Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Second Wave of American Liberal Education - Part II – Theory and Application


The Second Wave of American Liberal Education - Part II – Theory and Application

There are significant advantages in being a liberal arts institution with a long history of professional education in the arts, business, education, and at one time, the ministry. We are really good at liberally educating students for meaningful professional lives.

One recently popular effort to establish a core knowledge base was the “Cultural Literacy” movement spearheaded by E.D. Hirsch. His Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, co-authored by Joseph Kett and James Trefil defines the Liberal Arts as:

The areas of learning that cultivate general intellectual ability rather than technical or professional skills. Liberal arts is often used as a synonym for Humanities, although the liberal arts also include the sciences. The term liberal comes from the Latin liberalis, meaning suitable for a free man, as opposed to a slave.

This is a pretty good definition. It certainly represents the traditions of private higher education prior to the Second World War. It does, however, suggest a certain intellectual elitism that may not be profitable to our contemporary enterprise. This elitism has been at the center of some of the most public debates surrounding academic life throughout the 20th century. It also separates theory from meaningful application.

I am reminded of a conversation I had nearly 30 years ago during an interview for a sabbatical replacement I did at a very traditional southern college. I was visiting with a delightful, senior member of their English Department who incidentally was quite a good pianist. He said, with a sense of irony that I would only appreciate much later, “Jonathan, you must understand that it is important for a southern gentleman to know enough about music to appreciate concerts and to serve effectively on his local symphony board, but he mustn’t become too proficient as a musician. This is what he hires others to do for him.”

This has been one of the great misfortunes of a number of distinguished academic institutions, and it springs from Plato. In Republic, he suggests that musical proficiency should be left to the servant class, and I am convinced this model fostered centuries of theory-only classrooms, but as Steve Martin said, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”

There is a danger, in my view, that a curriculum solely rooted in the past, no matter how rich and relevant it may be, is like learning to drive while never averting your eyes from the rearview mirror. There is no shame in getting one’s hands dirty in the pursuit of enlightenment. I am proud to point out that this has been a hallmark of Susquehanna’s educational philosophy from the very start.

On a number of occasions, I have quipped that I did not have a liberal arts education, and that I have been trying to catch up ever since. As an undergraduate student, I was in a training program to be an opera singer, but even then, I was required to take a general education program. At that time many students believed, and this was somewhat reinforced by some of our faculty, that the general education courses were an inconvenience that took us out of the practice rooms and studios.

Strangely enough, in hindsight, the richest holistic education I received was within the professional school. While music was the center of the curriculum, much of what we learned was how other forces and ideas shaped our art. We learned physics, physiology, literature, design, history, and philosophy all in the service of our discipline. Because of this, in that context, these subjects were given profound relevance to us as students, and more importantly the interconnections of these ideas were made clear as they were drawn into a common circle.

Stranger still, in my own educational experience, the most unified and catholic curriculum was my doctoral study in conducting. Religious doctrine, social history, liturgical traditions, kinesthetics, philosophy, acoustics, contract law, and literature were all integral components of study. This may in part be due the fact that it is discipline that demands an unusual integration of intellect, emotion, and management with techniques of physical communication.

Otto Klemperer, whom some of you will remember as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century (others may give him more credit as the father of Werner Klemperer who played Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes), stated that the best training for a conductor was a degree in philosophy and a job as a coach in an opera house. He had a good point, recognizing the importance in a complete education of theory and practice.

Students thrive and become culturally literate when they have a pragmatic fulcrum upon which to balance the world of ideas they encounter. We will continue to celebrate how we connect the disparate elements of our students’ education in meaningful and relevant ways. This is something Susquehanna does unusually well. Professional studies and liberal studies have cohabitated on our campus since the founding. This is precisely how we provide an intersection between mission and market.

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