Good morning. Thank you to Earl Lewis and my fellow speakers. I concur with Earl Lewis that liberal arts education is at an inflection point, in large part as the result of the ways in which globalization has come to shape our daily lives. And we welcome the leadership of President Craft at this critical time. I think that we have come to this transformative moment not because liberal learning is an impaired or failed approach to higher education. Rather, it is the very capacities of critical analysis and reflection that have enabled the colleges and universities in which liberal arts education has thrived to creatively reinvent ourselves. The global nature of our present lives has not diminished the importance of the virtues that are cultivated in a liberally educated individual, but the world in which we enact them has become critically imperiled. When the Concordia mission statement – “to influence the affairs of the world …” – was written, it may have been viewed as an optimistic aspiration; whereas today, it is unavoidable. Earl Lewis speaks to the importance of formulating the proper questions, and John Churchill speaks to the project of learning to choose well – and by contemplating in these ways how the global nature of our present life may shape a liberal education – we will come to, in Earl Lewis’ phrase, “own the liberal arts” in this time and place. And so I speak as a Concordia faculty member in response to Earl Lewis’ invitation to engage in the discussion of our task in going forward. While my response does not address all of the questions which Earl Lewis has posed, each of which is imperative for this institution to address, I will highlight the rich resources on which Concordia can draw to both work productively with the new opportunities afforded by globalization and successfully navigate the challenges imposed by global markets and cultural divides. Perhaps not surprisingly, as a Lutheran, I frame my thoughts in terms of paradox.
First, there is the paradox of place. Our global reach has become vastly extended and intensified – students have increasingly rich opportunities to study, research and serve in distant locales, and graduates find increasing employment opportunities both overseas and with domestic organizations that function in multinational settings. At the same time, however, the residential setting of our college and the quality of the academic community nurtured here, increasingly distinctive features of the liberal arts experience are vital elements shaping the capacities of our graduates to function effectively in the world. Boundaries between campus, the Moorhead-Fargo community, the nation, and the world are dissolving. Technology enables us to invite into our classrooms voices from distant places that contribute to a penetrating understanding of scholarship and engender meaningful conversation. Learning and serving here, with people whose diverse experiences and points of view challenge our assumptions too comfortably held, promotes the opportunity to, as John Churchill says, “see ourselves as others see us.” And as the content of the curriculum and campus programming are intentionally shaped to cultivate a “sympathetic imagination,” the students and faculty of this college experience study away with greater insight and return to campus to affect our life together more profoundly.
Second is the paradox of purpose. Liberal learning was traditionally centered on cultivating one’s own knowledge and virtues, and inquiry was thought to have been practiced with the greatest purity when pursued without regard to any vocational utility, financial reward, or ideological purpose. But the global nature of our present life calls into question the means by which we can now become our truest selves. The growing consciousness of our radical interdependence that has emerged with a global perspective on our lives invites us to re-locate the center of liberal learning in collective aspirations and achievements. Recognition of the severity and complexity of global problems intensifies the urgency with which the members of this college community engage in vocational discernment and practice. A robust understanding of liberal learning embraces the acquisition of skills that prepare our graduates to undertake employment that both enrich their lives and those of others, by promoting peace, justice, and a sustainable environment.
Third is the paradox of integrity – that which promotes wholeness. At the very time in which we have greater access to exponentially increasing sources of information and solutions to the world’s most persistent problems clearly require our sustained, collective wisdom, institutions, including liberal arts colleges like our own, are more likely structured to promote specialization and competition rather than integrative-thinking and collaboration. Perhaps scarce resources will constitute the necessary incentive for us to imaginatively respond to the questions that Earl Lewis has posed regarding the curriculum and pedagogy of liberal learning. The promise of potential benefits for responsible engagement in the world invites us to reflect on the limitations we impose upon ourselves by equating academic excellence with that which is narrowly conceived and parochially defended. Boldly embracing the opportunities afforded us at this transformative moment, we are re-inventing the undergraduate experience to promote integrity. An understanding of connections between the academic disciplines, identification of transferable skills, and practice in addressing real-world problems cannot be left to chance, but must be explicitly structured into a liberal arts education.
In this time and place, liberal learning is neither frivolous nor an extravagance. Owning the liberal arts is the means by which we become our truest selves in a global setting. Thank you.