Excerpts from a speech by
J. Timothy Cloyd, Ph.D.
to the Hendrix Board of Trustees
October 26, 2006
Looking out at a packed room in a restaurant in small town Arkansas recently, I was faced with a familiar challenge. I’d just been introduced as the president of Hendrix College, “one of those liberal arts colleges.” There were no Hendrix graduates in the room and since Arkansas has among the lowest percentage of college graduates per capita in the nation, I assumed there were few graduates from any kind of four-year college in the audience.
How could I articulate to this group what it means to be a liberal arts college and why a liberal arts college education is so relevant in contemporary America?
I was not on the defensive, because I am an evangelist for the liberal arts. I am confident that what we are doing at Hendrix - the kind of education we offer, the way we teach, and the values we hold up to our students make our enterprise the most important type of higher education in contemporary America today. I want to tell you why.
First, however, I want to discuss some of the stereotypes that are conjured up when we say we are a liberal arts college.
The first is the word liberal – what is the liberal in liberal arts? The Romans coined the phrase liberal arts. They meant by this that it is an education that frees the mind – it is for the free mind, and it creates an open mind. The Romans thought in terms of technical arts and liberal arts – technical arts were the crafts, applied crafts or crafts of labor. Liberal, then, in liberal arts means - among other things - free, open minded, questioning, and unafraid of challenging orthodoxy.
Liberal arts education cultivates the analytical and critical skills to struggle with complex questions thoughtfully and to develop the communication skills to articulate an informed position. The Romans saw these as essential traits of citizenship and leadership. A liberal arts education leads students to resist fixed absolutes in knowledge and in truth claims in recognition of the possibility that no one human being, country, race, religion or historical epoch can know the whole truth. But that does not mean that nothing is ever true. It does mean, however, that perfect knowledge and absolute truth are for God, not for humans who suffer the defect of what St. John of the Cross called a spirituality of imperfection. We are exiles from Eden…..
So what are the stereotypes about the liberal arts have I encountered when I talk with those outside the world of higher education? For many people, liberal arts means:
- Just the arts, not hard science
- You study impractical stuff with which you cannot get a job
- An openness to and a student population of geeks, odd balls, homosexuals, and radicals
- You learn a little about a lot and not a lot about a specific discipline
- You learn only about poetry, literature, philosophy, and history and perhaps how to paint and play the violin
- You can’t be a doctor, a veterinarian, an engineer, an architect, a scientist or a “professional”
- Liberal arts education is for the rich and privileged. State schools are for the poor and the middle class
I could go on, but you get the point. How do we overcome these stereotypes?
I could have shared some facts about Hendrix to counter these notions about liberal arts education. I could – and to some extent did – have shared some of this information with them:
- One in eight medical doctors in Arkansas graduated from Hendrix.
- Hendrix is one of the top 20 liberal arts schools in the country that sends students on to get Ph.D.s in the sciences.
- Graduates with a B.A. from Hendrix have become some of the most successful entrepreneurs, corporate, and government leaders in the state, in the country, and in the world.
- Lawyers with undergraduate degrees from Hendrix have federal judgeships, are partners in the largest law firms in the state and the country.
- Hendrix academics are rigorous and demanding, with no grade inflation. That is why we have had six Rhodes Scholars, 17 Goldwater Scholars, 23 Watson Fellows, and students who have won dozens of Fulbright, Truman, Marshall, Mellon, Cook, and MacArthur scholarships. That is why we shelter a Phi Beta Kappa chapter.
- Hendrix offers institutional aid that makes our institution accessible and affordable for most families.
The question to answer is this:
How does a liberal arts experience change a student’s life? What difference does it make to the world?
Pause with me and to see how the experience students have at “one of those liberal arts colleges” like Hendrix can be transformational ….indeed it has a transcendent meaning!
Here is the context….
We are on the brink of a deep, dramatic, dangerous and perhaps irreparable crisis in American society. We are being torn apart as a country by deep ideological divides. These divides are being presented to Americans by some political leaders and the media in terms of irreconcilable truth claims.
On the one side is the fundamentalism of the right – led sadly by some evangelical fundamentalist Christians, orthodox Jews, and fundamentalist Muslims. On the other side a fundamentalism of the left that says we humans can know the whole truth through reason and science. Left-wing thinking says the enlightenment makes us God – or a bunch of little gods. Right-wing fundamentalism says we can know the mind of God and can speak for Him.
You know how the battle lines of this culture war have been framed:
- Pro-choice vs. pro-life
- Pro-gay vs. anti-gay (gay marriage, gay church issues)
- Evolutionary science vs. creationism or intelligent design
- Stem cell research vs. embryos as the unborn
- Fluid, self-actualized sexual identity vs. biblical, Koranic, or biological determined identity
- Active euthanasia vs. non-interventionism at the end of life
The list goes on….
The vast majority of Americans today are turned off by both extremes. The vast center feels uncomfortable. Many people feel conflicted and paralyzed. They believe their voices are lost and their pleas for reason and understanding go unheard. Some of us fall on one side of the culture wars on one of these issues and on the other side in the case of another issue. The winds of life experience tempers straight-ticket voting on these complex and deeply personal moral issues.
Most of us feel our voices are lost as the media and political parties push everyone across battle lines into politically correct camps. Those who do not pass tests of purity are ritualistically cast out by the left or the right.
What does this have to do with the liberal arts?
Liberal arts colleges committed to the education of the whole person – human fulfillment through developing the mind and spirit – are our only hope for a way out of this ideological impasse where there is no voice for compromise.
Students that come out of Hendrix and our sister schools give me hope because of their grounding in notions of tolerance and liberty and their sense of the truth of our historical place as fallible humans. This does not mean that our students graduate with the idea that there are not better and worse ways to live a life. They learn there are better ways to live a life – more spiritual, more fulfilling ways to live. Nor does it mean that Hendrix students learn to believe that there is nothing worth dying for or that war is never justified. But, the sensibility of the tragedy, imperfection, and complexity of life that students at Hendrix learn cultivates humility. Our students learn that life and reality are rarely black and white, but are more often gray. They learn that in the fog of uncertainty we must reach conclusions, make decisions, take a stand, and take action. But they learn this must be done thoughtfully, sometimes painfully, but always with the humility that we might get it wrong.
The sensibility of this potential for human tragedy prevents an arrogant hubris that, as the Greeks taught us, will always lead to our nemesis if ignored.
For three hundred years, the leaders of this country were educated in the liberal arts tradition. Out of this education came leaders whose thoughts gave rise to our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. This education produced the ideals of liberty, privacy, equal protection, the bill of rights, and a minimalist state with an extended commercial republic.
But in the last 85 years, the leadership of liberal arts college has been assailed by four major developments.
The first challenge came from the creation of the major research universities. These institutions were developed in our rush to enhance our global competitiveness and in our attempt to prevail over the Soviets in the Cold War. This was not all bad. But these demands led us to focus students’ educations narrowly, particularly in the sciences, without grounding students in a broad exposure to history, religion, moral philosophy, and literature.
Recall that some of the 9/11 terrorists studied engineering at some of these research universities.
The second wave of challenge to our type of liberal arts college came approximately 40 years ago when flocks of Bible institutes in the fundamentalist movement across America began to call themselves colleges or universities. These schools have specific ideological and fundamentalist convictions. These schools have challenged liberal arts colleges related to mainline churches by claiming that their Christian colleges offer an academic program guided by biblical truth.
These schools study liberalism, pluralism, and other faiths as the antithesis to their truth. They teach from a framework of friends on one side and enemies on the other.
Theses fundamentalist colleges claim through organizations like the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities that they are now the true standard bearers of Christian higher education and that all others have lost their way.
The third wave of challenge to our type of liberal arts college came during the 1960s. Many liberal arts colleges that were related to mainline churches broke ties with their founding denominations. Some did so because they had become captive of left-wing fundamentalists who rejected the possibility of the limits of reason or science. These leaders feared any spiritual faith at all. The arrogance of the left in the 1960s was no better than the arrogance of the right over the past few years. Michael Moore is the mirror image of Karl Rove. Move.on.org and the Moral Majority both see themselves as the holders of unqualified moral truth. Liberal Fundamentalism is the ideal of the Enlightenment where man on his own can hold the whole truth concerning good and evil – right and wrong – through reason and science. Furthermore, many of these people believe that they can bring the City of God to earth through state designed public policies.
The fourth and current challenge to our liberal arts college has been an even more complex competitive horizon with well-funded honors colleges at state research institutions claiming they can do what liberal arts colleges do and proprietary schools who push not education of the whole person, but technical-training for immediate marketability. Some of this is driven by the general public’s legitimate concern about rising college costs.
In this environment, the only answer is to know who you are, to stay true to who you are, and to know your calling.
So, in this landscape, what difference do we make in the lives of students? Why are liberal arts colleges like Hendrix necessary in today’s world?
Liberal arts colleges are needed in today’s world because the values we hold out to our students and to society are critical to the survival of our democratic culture.
What we do here at Hendrix guards against the forces of hatred, bigotry, intolerance, resentment, and barbarism we are witnessing all around us in the world today.
At Hendrix we are showing tomorrow’s leaders what it means to be human and why it is critical that we recognize ourselves as citizens of the world. We require our students, no matter their major, to get outside of themselves, outside of their comfort zone, and in defamiliarizing the familiar (as Hegel said), they learn the intractable moral dilemmas of human life.
This summer I thought a lot about the true mission and calling – what I call the soul – of Hendrix is. Being in some places of past human brutality deepened my reflection.
I climbed the great hill at Waterloo; I walked the trenches in Flanders Fields; I stood on a bridge in the Arden Forest at the Battle of the Bulge; and I visited the Gestapo prison of Dombeeck in Belgium. At Dombeeck, a tour guide told me a story that has haunted me: The prisoners of Dombeeck felt a deep sense of community at first. But things changed one day. There was a boy named Andre who was imprisoned there who cried a lot. The Germans worked these prisoners in a rock quarry, many of them to death. Andre constantly cried for his mother and his fellow prisoners at first consoled him. But to no avail. One day, Andre slipped and fell into the cold water around the quarry. He could not swim and could not get out. He cried for help. But not one inmate moved to save him. Then, one of the guards picked up some rocks and began to stone Andre. After a few moments, a number of the inmates also picked up rocks and began to throw them at Andre. He disappeared beneath the water. The camp was never the same again. Brutality escalated.
This story struck me because it drove home for me again the thoughtless and callous nature of human brutality. These moments of human ugliness were, of course, repeated a million times before and such moments of brutality happen over and over again everyday. Yes in Iraq, yes in Lebanon, yes in Afghanistan, but all over the world in the Congo, in Darfur, in Little Rock, in Conway. It happens when humans lose mercy and empathy. It happens when a person or group of persons believe they are the center of the universe – like on 9/11.
We all lash out under the pressure of terror. We feel like responding to terror with terror. We hope none of our students has to face such dehumanizing horror. Yet it is our job, our calling, our responsibility to help prepare them for what life puts before them and to teach them to respond as thinking, empathetic human beings. It is our job to teach them to lead while being grounded in humility. Especially when we find ourselves and our community concerned with our own security, even when we have fear, and when we have the threat of terror. Easy answers, our students learn, may feel good but that does not make them the right answers. This is true even when dealing with detainees, enemy non-combatants, the use of torture, and the issue of habeas corpus.
Hendrix knows that voices around today’s young people push for reactionary action, hatred, resentment, and claims of absolute truth. Muslim youth, Christian youth, Jewish youth – all are assailed by these voices. The truth is easy, they hear. But it is not. More times than not it is the tragedy of our best guess.
Hendrix brings thoughtful order into the lives of our students. We give them the space and encouragement to, as one of our recent graduates phrased it, “look at the world from behind another’s eyes.” The ability to see things from a different point of view is a valuable a gift; it can be life changing. Leaders with the gift of emphathy can change the course of history.
Liberal arts colleges like Hendrix have an urgent role to fill in today’s troubled world. This goes beyond helping students to master a skill and acquire a knowledge base – though that is central. We have a responsibility to cultivate thoughtfulness, civility, and empathy in the face of terror. Thoughtfulness, civility, and empathy – not weakness, appeasement, and inaction - but measured moral courage.
This year’s freshmen were born in 1988. The headlines have been filled with war, terror, and genocide since they were old enough to read.
Who among us can predict what the world will look like when they graduate? We cannot see the future, but we know the critical and analytical skills required to succeed. We know that to make sense of the present and the future we have to understand the past. We know that to be heard our students will have to communicate effectively and clearly. They will have to write well. They will have to be prepared to learn for a lifetime in a knowledge economy.
With the skills developed through our academic rigorous academic program and the empathy, humility and understanding nurtured by our emphasis on values, Hendrix graduates will be prepared for lives of meaning and service in their communities and the world.
Liberal arts colleges aren’t powerful enough to end war; they aren’t rich enough to stop hunger; they aren’t big enough to shelter all the homeless. What liberal arts colleges like Hendrix are uniquely positioned to do is prepare tomorrow’s leaders to face these problems with useful skills, nimble minds and sound values, supported by empathy, humility and moral courage.
Liberal arts education can change the lives of those with the ability to lead in troubled times. Such leaders will change the world. That is the power and the promise of the liberal arts.