Sunday, November 24, 2013
It has become something of a standard paradigm for critics of contemporary higher education or those who favor particular educational reforms to lambast the liberal arts as irrelevant indulgences that do not prepare students for the realities of today’s workplace. All of us can undoubtedly recall some news report or dinner conversation where someone jokingly references some seemingly silly academic study about why people blush or where some unfortunate student who obtained degrees (often multiple degrees) in the humanities is mired in unimaginable debt and struggling to eek out a living and pay off their loans working three jobs in the service sector. Indeed, recently, some state legislatures have debated the merits of charging a higher tuition rate for “extraneous” disciplines such as Philosophy, Art History, or English. Why encourage students to waste their time (and money), the argument goes, in classes that will not prepare them for the world of work? Such thinking, I would contend, is both shortsighted and ill informed. “Of course you’d say that,” I can hear many of you mumbling. “You are the Dean of a college of liberal arts. What else are you going to say?” I’d respond this way no matter the context because I absolutely believe in the value of a liberal arts education as do most of the nation’s employers. Year in and year out, surveys of the nation’s employers reveal that they are seeking potential employees who can think critically, who can communicate in both written and verbal form, and who are comfortable with ambiguity and creative problem solving; the precise skills that the liberal arts inculcate within our students. Working in messy disciplines where definitive answers are impossible to identify and having to marshal evidence and carefully construct and articulate a thesis are at the heart of what we do. When I think back upon my own academic training (I am an historian) and professional life, I know that these are exactly the skills that have enabled me to adapt to, and navigate, any number of widely diverse circumstances. They are also skills that I employ daily. It gives me great pride to know that the students in CASL are being provided with these necessary skills and that the college is positioning them to thrive in their professional lives. So like Henry David Thoreau, I would encourage all students who are considering a liberal arts education to “go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life that you have imagined.”
Thursday, August 29, 2013
Not being a particularly profound thinker I was more than a little intimidated when I was approached about blogging in my new capacity as CASL Dean. Still, I thought, I should give it a try so I sat down to blog. My first attempt was worse than feared as I took the easy bait and began to pound out the standard paean heralding the beginning of the new academic year; complete with trees festooned in bright reds and oranges and the standard encouraging of students, staff, and faculty alike to embrace the new beginning that the academic year marks and to relish the excitement and the feeling that everything is possible. While all fine and good that cookie cutter approach just didn't seem right for a first foray into the world of blogging. My next attempt bordered on the absurd as I engaged in mental gymnastics and tried to make meaning out of an erudite piece of doggerel I stumbled upon in a letter I had stuffed in a dusty file marked, "erudite doggerel to structure obscure talks around." Well ok, the folder is actually labeled "future research projects" but I sometimes wonder what I was thinking when I put such things in the folder. Needless to say, blog draft number two quickly joined its older sibling in my trash bin. Finally, I decided to "keep it real" and to be true to who I am and what I am comfortable with. So here goes… As I have embarked upon any number of new chapters in my life I have always held close something an aunt once said to me. Before I reveal her pearl of wisdom, though, let me set the stage. It was sometime in the late 1970s and I had been invited to stay with my aunt and uncle in northern Michigan. My uncle had just retired from the Rouge plant and he and my aunt had moved into their dream house on twenty secluded acres near Boyne City. I absolutely loved that summer and will forever be grateful for the opportunity provided for a city kid to experience the north woods. One particularly stunning summer day my aunt and uncle decided to take me over to Lake Michigan. I was excited beyond belief at the prospect of seeing a body of water that I could not see across. My first reaction to seeing the lake, however, was completely unexpected. As we gazed out at the vastness of the lake, I noticed a lone individual slowly paddling a canoe out on the horizon. Beyond the fact that the scene conjured up memories of Hemmingway’s Nick Adams short stories that I so loved (also set in northern Michigan) I recall standing on the shore looking out at that individual and feeling utterly overwhelmed, anxious, and fearful. "It's so big," I recall saying, "how can anyone know which way to go out there?” “I wonder,” I mused, “how many people have been lost out there?" I know that I have felt that way on any number of occasions as I have embarked upon a new venture: beginning college, deciding to go to grad school, getting married, watching the birth of my two daughters, becoming dean, starting a blog (just to name a few). How do I find my way in this unfamiliar and boundless environment? Will I become lost as I try to navigate these waters? My aunt’s reply was perfect. A simple woman of great faith, compassion and hope, my aunt, who never even attended high school, put her arm around me, squeezed my shoulder and said, "maybe a better way to think about what you are seeing is to focus on the possibilities that the lake holds. Anything is possible out there. There is nothing to prevent you from going any direction you want to go or from trying anything that you want to try." I felt a calming sensation move over me at the moment and my outlook was forever altered. I'll be the first to admit that new situations still trigger a great deal of anxiety, fear and self doubt but I also know that they bring with them tremendous opportunity and possibility. I look forward to my own paddle and I wish you much success and enlightenment in charting your own course this year.