Liberal Arts: The Practice of Thoughtfulness
St. Olaf is a liberal arts college, and that itself is a curious fact. In 1874, a small group of Norwegian Lutherans decided to incorporate a school to provide "higher education for the practical life." But it was by no means self-evident that "higher education"--or liberal education--was the most practical preparation for life in late-nineteenth century Minnesota. As late as 1870, only 17 Minnesota communities even had high schools, and they had produced only 117 graduates. Why, then, did a group of Norwegian-Americans in a small Minnesota town choose this particular form of education? Why did they think that liberal education was ultimately more practical than supposedly more practical alternatives like technical schools or agricultural schools or normal schools? How did they imagine that liberal arts ideals intersected with their religious commitments? Their collective choice in 1874 for liberal education, and the subsequent choices of countless Oles since then, have shaped St. Olaf College's distinctive identity. For 125 years, St. Olaf has responded to the evolving ideals of liberal education in characteristic ways, and, in the process, developed a distinctive understanding of its liberal arts mission.
Today, St. Olaf College faces questions just as daunting as those that confronted the founders. In a pragmatic culture, people ask about the practicality of the liberal arts. In an era of rampant individualism, people wonder about the relevance of liberal arts ideals like citizenship and service. In an era of interchangeable parts and people, critics ask if science (or art, or history, or economics) isn't just the same at all colleges. In an era of assumed American supremacy, some people wonder about the benefits of a global perspective. In a commercial culture where the words "free" and "freedom" sell commodities like cars and vacuum cleaners, it's hard to see the richer meanings of freedom embedded in the liberal arts. In an instrumentalist culture, why should we develop a passion for life-long learning? In a secular age, how should learning be connected to vocation or religious faith? In a changing economy of higher education, how is it possible to maintain class sizes that allow for deep intellectual relationships between students and faculty? When people ask, "Why the liberal arts?" and, more particularly, "Why practice the liberal arts at St. Olaf College?" we need to have a good answer. This is ours.
Our answer to these important questions begins with the development of liberal arts ideals in Western culture. It then traces some contemporary controversies and perspectives within the liberal arts tradition: the parameters and purposes of freedom in contemporary society, the practicality of the liberal arts, the necessity of a global perspective, and the best ways to accomplish the goals of the liberal arts. At the same time, it describes St. Olaf College's evolving engagement with these ideals, and the college's commitment to a culture of thoughtfulness, a culture in which people understand freedom as a commitment to the common good.
Liberal Arts and the Art of Freedom
Today, most Americans (and many of us at St. Olaf) are unsure about the precise meanings and purposes of liberal arts colleges. And some of our confusions are reflected in how the public talks about the liberal arts. Sometimes people contrast the liberal arts with technical and professional education, as if the liberal arts were somehow less practical. Students often say that they've come to a liberal arts institution to become well-rounded, and liberal arts colleges do provide lots of choices in lots of disciplines. But such characterizations tend to confuse aspects of liberal arts education with the whole of it, and often pay little attention to the compelling and shaping purposes of such an education. The dictionary defines the liberal arts as "academic disciplines, such as languages, history, philosophy, and abstract science, that provide information of general cultural concern, as distinguished from more narrowly practical training, as for a profession." This definition also exhibits some of the confusions that make it hard--but ultimately worthwhile--to profess the liberal arts in the United States.
For one thing, it ignores the history of the liberal arts, and the rooted meaning of the two words. The word "liberal" has many meanings, but the meaning most germane to the liberal arts is now listed in the American Heritage Dictionary as "obsolete." That meaning is "Permissible or appropriate for a free man." The "liberal" arts were, at one time, the arts appropriate for free men. At a time when there weren't many free people, the price of freedom was responsibility, and specifically the responsibility of leadership. Free men (and, at that time, it was almost exclusively men) needed to understand the world comprehensively, so that they could think clearly and compassionately about the public good. The liberal arts, then and now, were the arts involved in leadership and service, freedom and responsibility. A liberal arts college is, at its foundation, a freedom school, although, obviously, not all liberal arts institutions have acted that way.
The "arts" part of liberal arts also means something different than most modern meanings of the word. Today, the arts are those areas of human endeavor where people produce and arrange sounds, colors, forms, movements, and other elements to affect our aesthetic senses. But this is a contemporary definition of the arts, developed mainly in the nineteenth century. Before that time, the arts were those trades or crafts that applied principles and methods in the performance of all kinds of human activity. There was a builder's art, a baker's art, an art of diplomacy and an art of war. These arts could be valued for their aesthetic properties, but their purpose was more pragmatic. The arts were how you got things done. The liberal arts still are. They are how you free people.
Freedom is, after all, the main goal of liberal education, which values thinking for yourself. People need to know their own minds in order to be good citizens of a free society. We need to know our values, and why we value them. It's not enough to think like our parents or our pastor or our peers, although these people may be good people and good thinkers. We need to know how to evaluate the ideas that our parents and pastors and peers proclaim, and how to make them our own--or not. A liberal education, therefore, teaches us to think twice about everything. Its motto could be "Dare to think" or "Think again."
In the liberal arts tradition, we don't think in order to accomplish some simplistic goal--like building a better mousetrap. We think because thinking is good, and good for us--both individually and collectively. We learn to think broadly not because we want to become doctors or lawyers or professionals, but because we want to become better human beings (who can, of course, also be better doctors and lawyers and teachers and pastors). We learn because learning what's worthwhile is worthwhile. Cultivating curiosity and the passion to pursue our questions, we encourage a lifelong love affair with the arts and ideas. Endowed by our Creator with brains, we try to be creative and conscientious with them.
Know Thyself: Serve Thy Neighbor
As a practice of freedom, liberal education today promotes the cultivation of character in a multicultural community, and independent thinking for an interdependent world. The goal of self-development complements the goal of community development. The liberal arts, therefore, accentuate the intellectual development of the self, and of the self-in-relation. Dating back to Socrates' injunction to "Know thyself," this ideal of liberal education emphasizes the development of identity, and of identification with community. It asks people to think about the good life, both for individuals and for their communities. What qualities of people promote the quality of community? What kind of community elicits good moral character? Knowing the self in this way is not an easy achievement; it's nowhere near as easy as calculus or rocket science or literary criticism. Students who wonder "Who am I?" and "What's the purpose of my life?" must consider all sorts of related questions: What's an I? What's a human being? What are people for? How does my society define the self? What are the self's psychological, social, spiritual and political dimensions? How much is the self self-made, and how much does society shape the self? What are the social obligations of a self? What's the connection between the self and the physical world? How did I get to be a person? Where did I come from and where am I going? What can I make of myself? As these questions suggest, understanding the self involves understanding the world, its people and places, its myths and texts, its characteristics and properties.
In the same way, we learn to think for ourselves in conversation with other thinkers. The cultivation of character and community means, at St. Olaf, conversations with people, dead and alive, who have grappled with the same big questions. "Martin," a contemporary student may say to Luther, "how did you make sense of all this?" "And Henry," she says, turning to Thoreau, "what's your perspective from Walden?" A curious student might ask Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth about the practices of freedom--and unfreedom. Others might ask Albert Einstein or Marie Curie about the implications of particle physics, or Watson and Crick about biotechnology, or E.O. Wilson about biodiversity. Eighty years ago, a St. Olaf student might ask in person, "Professor Rolvaag, can you help me sort out these ideas?" Today, students can still learn from Ole Rolvaag's perspectives on these issues. And so this tradition of questioning and conversation continues. Our students also place themselves in relation to the different voices of the women and men of their own time, becoming more aware of their own assumptions in the encounter with people of different beliefs and backgrounds. Our students ask great minds--philosophers, playwrights, novelists, artists, scientists, historians, faculty, roommates, parents, friends--to help them find and create meaning in their own lives. In many ways, in fact, a student's vocation is to place themselves within this convocation of provocative voices. And the faculty's vocation is to structure a curriculum as a catalyst for these ongoing conversations.
Within the framework of a liberal education, "know thyself" goes hand-in-hand with "serve thy neighbor." This emphasis of liberal education focuses on the interplay of identity and community, and on the cultivation of virtue for the community. This ideal was alive in Athens, and it also flourished in the medieval universities, where education occurred under the auspices of the church. This tradition in the liberal arts contended that the purpose of liberal education was to produce the moral values and mental disciplines necessary for leadership. If freedom was the goal of liberal education, then moral reasoning was its responsibility. People might be free to choose anything, but they should choose to do good. In America, at least until the mid-19th century, religion and moral philosophy were integrated to help students make conscientious decisions about their lives. Assuming that people were not naturally good, college leaders believed that people could learn to do better, and that colleges could assist in that ethical education. Believing that goodness could use some institutional support, they tried--intellectually and socially--to make it easier for people to act well in the world. We still believe these things. The liberal arts are an interrelated set of practices designed to help people become more thoughtful and sensitive to both intellectual and moral issues, and to become better human beings, both individually and socially.
The ideal of the liberal arts coincides with the Christian conception of vocation. Within a religious framework, we are all called by God to participate in God's work on earth. Vocation gives us a way of thinking about the cosmic and communitarian aspects of work, and it invites us to think about the gift of creation, the creation of our own gifts, and the ways in which our gifts might be applied to the purposes of creation. A vocation is a call from God, to use God's gifts in faithful service, for the good of the neighbor and the entire community, including the poor and dispossessed. A calling can never be purely private, nor can it be purely vocational in the narrowest sense of the word. A vocation is God's call to work in the world, not just at work, but in all of the settings of our lives. At St. Olaf, we teach this comprehensive sense of vocation, and we expect that a liberal education will help our students do good work in the world, both before and after graduation.
The ideal of the liberal arts also coincides with the democratic ideal of citizenship. Democratic institutions assume that citizens will know the issues facing their political institutions, will understand the complexity of the situation, will know how to formulate a constructive response, and will have the will to do something. Good citizens must think and act compassionately. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a passionate partisan of widespread public education, and a founder of the University of Virginia. Jefferson wanted people educated "so much as may enable them to read and understand what is going on in the world, and to keep their part of it going on right: for nothing can keep it right but their own vigilant and distrustful superintendence." In today's America, this means the development of education in and for a multicultural community in an interdependent world.
The liberal arts tradition generally assumed that education prepared people for positions of leadership within an established order, and so, ironically, this liberal education was often fairly conservative. During the Enlightenment, however, the academy also began to see itself as an independent estate, a voice of reason speaking against the less reasonable institutions of the state and society. It shifted the emphasis from the education of freeborn elites to the education of critical thinkers. This ideal envisioned colleges and education both as counterculture and as a force for progress, because new ideas could help reshape society.
Challenges to the Liberal Arts
During the nineteenth century, the American liberal arts tradition, with its emphasis on contemplation, character-building and service, faced challenges from outside and inside the academy. In some cases, liberal arts colleges succumbed to elitism, and became essentially finishing schools for wealthy young men. In other cases, a positivist focus on facts and knowledge undermined the broader emphasis on understanding and moral character, and on the public purposes of higher education. In still others, learning became more instrumental than exploratory: such colleges taught how the world worked, and how to work the world for individual advancement. The college degree increasingly became a credential certifying a person's readiness for employment.
During the nineteenth century, the sheer increase in human knowledge also made it unlikely that any one person could master it all, and so specializations slowly developed. Increasingly, it became possible to be a professor of something so particular that it had little relevance to the inner life or the public life. The term "ivory tower" was coined to describe a place where the life of the mind was no longer mindful of its social and moral contexts. The trivium and quadrivium of classical liberal education became the numerous departments and subspecialties of the modern university. While scholars in such institutions would remain citizens of the world, they would generally profess their citizenship less holistically. By 1874, American colleges and universities were deciding how to reconcile this specialist model of narrowing (but proliferating) knowledge with the liberal ideal of broad understanding. Within two years, the establishment of Johns Hopkins University would mark the first American acceptance of the new paradigm of specialized research. But all of American higher education still lives with this tension.
The development of this specialist ideal often accompanied a secularization of the academy, and a subsequent loss of curricular coherence. Early American college presidents often taught the college's capstone course in moral philosophy. This course instructed students how to think carefully about moral questions, and (sometimes) what the right conclusions were. But the development of electives and specialized majors involved, almost inevitably, a reduction of moral and intellectual coherence in a college education. It freed students from the arbitrary constrictions of premature conclusions and narrow traditions, but it also freed them from the creative syntheses that had made some sense of a complicated world.
Throughout all the changes and complications, the liberal arts persisted, not just as a course of study, or a set of courses, but as an attitude about how to approach the world. Even research universities maintained colleges of liberal arts. But the liberal arts are not self-sustaining. Then and now, any college wanting to profess the liberal arts would need to be conscious and conscientious about its choices.
The Liberal Arts at St. Olaf
In 1874, then, the founders of St. Olaf had choices to make. How would they value liberal arts and technical skills? How would they emphasize leadership and learning for its own sake? Would the college be educationally elitist, or would it be open to all? How would their Lutheranism intersect with the "liberation theology" of the liberal arts?
By 1874, the liberal arts tradition was well established in America, even as it began to be questioned. The ideals of the classic liberal arts included human curiosity and questioning, love of learning in all its variety, disciplined practice of critical thinking, focus on moral reasoning, responsibility for service and leadership, celebrations of human expression, and, finally, a desire for wisdom and virtue. These ideals encouraged students to make meaning in their lives by making sense of their traditions and the world around them. Liberal artisans (to coin a phrase) assumed that human beings were complex and creative, and capable of many kinds of intelligence. They tried, therefore, to create an education that would cultivate the highest humanity of such creatures.
Embracing these ideals, St. Olaf College's founders decided that the most practical course for their learning community was a liberal arts institution. The school began as an academy--a high school more challenging and more religious than the public schools--and added a college course in 1889. All along, the founders assumed that their students would benefit from the open-ended learning of a liberal education. In making this choice, they made it clear that they intended liberal education to free people for leadership in their communities. At the dedication of the school in January 1875, President Mohn claimed that young people "must be instructed that they are not placed in the world for their own sake merely, but that every individual has a certain office to fill, a certain mission to perform, and although his position in life may seem insignificant in the life of the world, it is nevertheless necessary as a link in the greater humanity, and in this sense, just as important as the office of a prince and a monarch." A liberal education, thought Mohn, would show students "the harmonious construction of society," and would suggest that, "unless every part of it performs its function, the great machinery will be out of order. The student thus seeing his duty, must now be furnished with means to execute his charge. He must be educated in the different branches pertaining to his position in life, and instructed in their application, so that he can use them with readiness and ease."
The branches of knowledge pertaining to a person's position in life have always been construed broadly at St. Olaf. The academy offered courses in English, Norwegian, Geography, History (including U.S. History), Religion, Music, Mathematics, Algebra, and Penmanship. The early college favored classical instruction, with Greek and Latin, History, English, Norwegian, Logic, Physics and Chemistry, and Religion. A Scientific Course was added to the classical and English courses in 1900, and an elective system was established by 1914. St. Olaf won North Central accreditation in 1915, and a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa confirmed the college's academic excellence in 1949. Adopting many of the practices of American higher education, the college adapted them to its own ends.
St. Olaf is not just committed to a course of study, but to a kind of study--and a kind of teaching. For 125 years, the St. Olaf faculty have committed themselves both personally and professionally to the growth of their students. Faculty and students work out their vocation in their research and creative performance, in classrooms and labs, in recital halls and practice rooms, in studios and playing fields. The college produces outstanding graduates because faculty mentors challenge each student to accomplish just a little more than at first seems possible, and they provide resources--books, assignments, encouragement and time--to help students meet those challenges. This tradition of face-to-face, hands-on, whole-hearted teaching and learning has distinguished St. Olaf in the past 125 years, and it is still the heart and soul of our academic mission.
The Arts of Practicality
St. Olaf began as a college for outsiders and working people. In his 1925 history of the college, Carl Mellby noted that "one special aim of the new school would be to combat the fear of being inferiors and outsiders, which the Norse population was laboring under. It must emphasize the American principles of equal right and opportunity for every one and it was to stimulate self-confidence and ambition" in its students. The college founders believed that the children of Norwegian immigrant farmers, artisans and business people could benefit from an education that put the work of everyday life into a broader context. "Even if the young men and women, who had enjoyed the benefits of better training, chose to remain on the farm, the knowledge and the ability, which they had gained, could be put to excellent use. As leaders in church and neighborhood affairs, they would raise the standard of intelligence and efficiency in the whole environment. They would remove some of the burden of work from the shoulders of pastor and teacher, and help create the ideal American democracy of co-operative action and widespread responsibility."
From the beginning, as this passage suggests, St. Olaf College admitted women, assuming that the benefits of a liberal education were by no means restricted to one sex. In the early years, in part because of limited housing, men greatly outnumbered women. But women also sought the benefits of a college education, and many early female students prepared for the teaching profession, so that by 1925 almost 300 St. Olaf women were teaching in public and private schools. Today, St. Olaf is notable for the number of women studying math and science. And one of our residence halls is named for the college's first female graduate, Agnes Mellby, who graduated in 1893.
St. Olaf College's historic open admissions policy was based on the assumption that the disciplines of liberal education were a practical preparation for any person's life in the world. Today, St. Olaf attracts students from different ethnic groups and different classes, and the college's need-blind admissions policy and its active recruitment of multicultural students continue St. Olaf College's moral commitment to equal rights and opportunities. This assures that liberal education is not merely for economic or cultural elites, but for all people committed to values of clear questioning and complex thinking. Currently, about 20 percent of our students are first-generation college students.
At St. Olaf, we still offer "higher education for the practical life." We believe that liberal education is still practical for farmers, for women, for majority groups and minority groups--indeed, for all of our current students. The liberal arts disciplines offer their practitioners transferable analytical skills--the ability to interpret and integrate diverse source materials; the ability to express and evaluate reasoned arguments; the ability to test theories applied to culture and nature; the ability to think about the causes of cultural change and natural processes; the ability to assess the impact of natural and cultural factors on human institutions and activity; and the ability to compare cultural patterns to enhance understanding. These are eminently practical skills. Empathy and understanding are essential tools in a world inhabited by human beings. Knowing how cultures work and how they change can be useful in a real world of social beings. Critical consciousness helps in business and in life, while creativity and imagination can transform a variety of situations. The ability to make meaning in a world of much meaninglessness is a practical talent.
Indeed, one of the main practicalities of the liberal arts at institutions like St. Olaf is to show some of the impracticalities of the so-called "real world." Too often in modern societies, the push for practicality is a call to conform to the world the way it is, not the way it ought to be. The practical world sometimes accomplishes so much because it encompasses so little, setting aside whole dimensions of the human person--aesthetic, spiritual, ethical, and sometimes even political. The liberal arts reject this narrow definition of practicality, and remind us of the fullness of our humanity. By keeping our minds critically engaged with the world's presumed practicality, they free us to wonder how, practically, we might become as good as we could be. At St. Olaf, therefore, when we teach students practical skills and knowledge, we also teach them ways of evaluating their use in the world.
In the debate over liberal or specialized education, therefore, St. Olaf elected the liberal course, choosing to educate students broadly instead of training them narrowly. Over time, though, the college has chosen to use specialized knowledge within an institution committed to the broad purposes of liberal education. This has never been easy, and it's a tension we still experience. As early as 1887, St. Olaf employed a graduate of Johns Hopkins, and today virtually all of the faculty have Ph.D.s or the highest degree in their field. The college assigns university-trained specialists to its departments, and invites them to extend their knowledge in a wide variety of interdisciplinary and general education programs. The college employs specialists, and asks them (and not teaching assistants) to teach the whole person. The specialization of the faculty is meant to be a means to the general and liberal education of students. The college encourages such liberal specialists in its practices of recruitment and faculty development, in college-wide programs like Writing across the Curriculum and Ethical Issues and Normative Perspectives, and in general-education programs like the Great Conversation, Asian Conversation, and American Conversations.
When we offer technical subjects--like computer science or accounting or nursing or management studies--we teach them liberally. In any discipline, teaching liberally means teaching for freedom. Teaching liberally means teaching contextually, with a sense of the incompleteness of our own discipline, and the necessity of placing ideas in conversation across disciplines. Teaching liberally means exploring the broader implications--including the ethical implications--of ideas and action. At a church-related school, teaching liberally can mean wondering whether religious ideas about nature and human nature affect the ways the disciplines think about causality and purpose. Teaching liberally means teaching students to evaluate the status quo, including the status quo of the disciplines, utilizing critical perspectives within the discipline and from other disciplines. We teach economics and accounting not just for the bottom line, but for a full appreciation of the implications of the bottom line. Students in economics can examine not just economic activity, but the objectives of economic enterprise. They can ask if the self-interested individual serves as an adequate account of human nature, and they can consider the ethical implications of unconstrained individual choice. We teach science not just to discover facts and theories, but to encourage a sense of wonder and amazement and responsibility. Students can study social work at a variety of academic institutions, but at St. Olaf they learn it in the context of a whole institution focused on service for others, and especially service for the most vulnerable members of society. At St. Olaf, we try to give students not just know-how, but know-why.
At St. Olaf we believe that the specialized developments in American colleges and universities have enriched American education by focusing inquiries, and by challenging faculty to participate in the creative work of their fields. At St. Olaf, this ideal means that we expect the college not just to pass on the knowledge of academic communities, but to contribute to it. The faculty of the college are not just good teachers; they are also scholars who practice their academic disciplines, and artists who perform and practice their arts. Although some of her colleagues surely disagreed, St. Olaf History professor Agnes Larson contended in the 1950s that "the most vital people in a faculty are those who do research with an eye to publication." The artistic and scholarly endeavors of the faculty--the ways that they pursue truth and beauty and make it public--are an essential element of the college as a community of interconnected professional communities.
Learning Communities: Local and Global
Over time, this college has consistently challenged many of the instrumentalist and individualist assumptions of much of American higher education. We believe that the main goal of education should be the freedom of the individual and the cultivation of the individual's character. But we don't see how that happens happily outside of communities, where inner life encounters outer life. We do believe that the truth can set you free, but we also believe that people are most free and most fulfilled in community, and in service to one another. The statement of "Aims and Objectives" in the 1936-37 college catalogue, for example, contended that the college "strives to develop a high grade of active and intelligent citizenship, a sense of social responsibility and personal integrity in its students. It aims to substitute the ideals of service and cooperation for the prevailing struggle for personal gain, power, and distinction." At St. Olaf, therefore, we still practice the liberal arts in a residential community, under the tutelage of faculty who are active contributors to a wide variety of academic and artistic communities. And we expect our graduates to use their freedom to identify human needs and to contribute to their communities.
Entering the twenty-first century, of course, we have an expanded sense of those communities. In 1874, there were no cars or planes, no telephones or televisions or radios, no computers or internet or e-mail. Transportation and communication enforced a largely geographic sense of community. Even in the 19th century, however, the college maintained connections with the wider world. Many students and faculty still had close relatives in Norway, and other countries of Europe. Many graduates and faculty took part in mission work, which gave them a broader perspective. One of the distinctive traits of St. Olaf College's place in the world has been the synergy of small-town Midwestern values with a global perspective.
Although the college's early international emphases receded somewhat with the assimilation of Norwegians into American culture, St. Olaf College's commitments today are even more global. We live in a global village, where people and products flow continually across national borders, where our morning cup of coffee connects us economically, ecologically, politically, and morally to people we have never seen. We need a sense of community that respectfully includes women and men of different races, classes, and nationalities, and a sense of community committed to global justice. We also need a sense of community that considers the whole creation. We live on a living planet that is affected by every move we make. We inhale oxygen that comes in part from the rainforests, and we exhale gases--from our bodies and our machines--that affect the biosphere. To be responsible for ourselves, we need to know how the world works, and how we can work responsibly in the world.
St. Olaf is committed to a global perspective and to the thoughtful practice of world citizenship. The liberal arts tradition has long understood the world as a series of concentric circles, widening from self to family to locality, from city to country to all humanity. When asked where he came from, the Greek philosopher Diogenes Laertius replied, "I am a citizen of the world." The liberal arts today require not just the capacity for critical examination of the self and the particular cultural traditions that have shaped the self, but the capacity to understand and empathize with alternative ways of being human--and of being free. And few things are as freeing as foreign study. Because some other peoples aspire to American freedoms, and because American freedoms now depend on continuous interactions with the world, a global perspective is in many ways a precondition of responsible freedom in the 21st century.
The college currently requires each student to complete two units in Multicultural Studies: one course exploring world cultures outside the Western tradition, and one component considering cultural diversity in the United States. In these courses, students learn that there are many good ways to be human, and, in addition to critical thinking, they practice skills of empathy and imagination. This coursework--both international and intra-national--offers students insights not just about other cultures and values, but also about their own. Beyond courses and course requirements, the college offers other programs that enhance students' understanding of the world. With the four other Norwegian Lutheran colleges of the Upper Midwest, for example, St. Olaf sponsors the annual Peace Prize Forum, honoring Nobel Peace Prize laureates, and investigating a wide range of global problems and peaceable solutions.
The St. Olaf language departments shape our students' global perspective in every class, because the emphasis is on cultural analysis and content learning through language, and not just the memorization of vocabulary and grammar that is still the predominant model of language instruction in American higher education. The college's pathbreaking Foreign Languages Across the Curriculum program allows students to use their language skills in a wide variety of classes on campus. Such applications make language learning more than a mere requirement, and enrich the college's commitment to global perspectives and integrative study.
But the college is committed to a far more pervasive global perspective than is possible on Manitou Heights. In several off-campus urban studies programs, St. Olaf students learn how cities work; they also learn about the historic exclusions of the American community, and about efforts to heal the wounds of those exclusions. St. Olaf College's international studies programs send students into the world, and bring them back more informed and engaged with people in other places. Each year, about twenty-five percent of our students take advantage of study opportunities off-campus. Some of them travel to the ends of the earth on programs led by St. Olaf College's own well-traveled faculty--the Global Semester, and terms in the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and Germany. Each interim, students study under the supervision of our own faculty in places as diverse as England, Italy, Ecuador, Cuba, and South Africa. Students study health care and environmental problems in South India, Australia, and Costa Rica. St. Olaf education majors can do their student teaching in India and Hong Kong and Korea, while the major music organizations tour regularly in the United States and overseas. St. Olaf sponsors programs at Oxford, Cambridge, Lancaster and Aberdeen. St. Olaf students also take advantage of our historic relations with the Oslo International Summer School.
St. Olaf faculty are engaged in work throughout the world, and scholars and students from throughout the world come to St. Olaf. Several faculty have served in the Peace Corps; many others have continuing institutional and intellectual connections overseas. We have an ongoing relationship with East China Normal University, and professors from that institution are on campus almost every year. There is a constant flow of foreign scholars using the Howard and Edna Hong Kierkegaard Library. Students from all over the world choose to pursue their educational goals on Manitou Heights. And many of our graduates pursue Fulbright and Rhodes scholarships to continue their international education.
These connections liberate liberal education at St. Olaf. Our students can get a fine education on the St. Olaf campus. But they can get a superb education if they also participate in the international and off-campus study that connects the words of books and classrooms with whole worlds of experience, or if they take part in the global conversations that occur almost daily on Manitou Heights. Roughly 85 percent of St. Olaf students spend at least one term off-campus, so that the campus is always infused with the fresh insights of people who have seen different parts of the world, and now see the world with new eyes.
Three Kinds of Thoughtfulness: Disciplinary, Reflexive, Empathetic
Over the years, St. Olaf has expressed its convictions about liberal education, and we've tried to live up to them. As a result of our tradition, therefore, when we practice the liberal arts at St. Olaf, we have several things in mind. We want to help students become thoughtful in three different ways: disciplinary, reflexive, and empathetic. First, we expect students to learn and practice disciplined thought. Each of the disciplines of the college is a way of thinking developed and developing over time. These powerful communities of inquiry have helped human beings to make sense of their lives and their world for centuries. At St. Olaf, we introduce students to the characteristic questions, theories, methods, and practices of a wide variety of academic disciplines. We expect that the perspectives and practices of each discipline free students, at least for a semester, from the ordinary perspectives they brought to school with them. In pursuit of academic excellence, we require that they master one of these disciplines in a major. We expect them to become, in short, good thinkers.
Because we expect students to become actively engaged in the world, we give them a lot of practice. In foreign languages, professors insist on the persistent practice of the language, as well as an understanding of how the language both makes and conveys cultural meanings. In music, St. Olaf students perform in recital more than a hundred nights a year. In the sciences, our professors routinely engage in research with St. Olaf students, and one chemistry professor teaches all of his classes and labs in small group, role-playing models that emphasizes real world skills of communication, division of responsibility, and small group dynamics as an integral component of the practice of science. At St. Olaf, we're not satisfied with students who study the disciplines, or appreciate the arts. We want students who practice the disciplines, and perform the arts. And we mentor them carefully to accomplish these goals.
The second kind of thoughtfulness is reflexive, asking students to think about the patterns and purposes of their thinking itself. The 1974 Identity and Mission statement contends that "liberal education in its broad sweep confronts the student not only with various disciplines, but with the pervasive cultural consequences of dominant modes of thought." Today, when all Americans are politically free, the liberal arts exist not just to show us how to lead other people, but to evaluate the conventions that still bind us, and to free us to enrich the communities that, in turn, enrich us. This reflexive quality of liberal arts education helps us to ask essential academic (and practical) questions like "Why?" and "So what?" It helps us to understand, as one scholar says, that "in knowledge as in the economy, our root problem now is not production, but ecology--which means more conscious concern for making fresh connections among existing things; more looking outward to the wider consequences of our information; more serious attention to questioning why we're doing what we're doing; . . . [and] more effort given to structuring all this productive activity into humanly manageable forms." This constructive deconstruction of the academic life makes us think twice about ourselves as thinkers. It keeps us wondering, "What good is this education? What in the world is it good for? What good is it for the world?" And it guarantees that, even though we're already pretty good at the practice of liberal education, we'll keep looking for ways to get better.
It also means that we show students how to look for the applications of knowledge in the so-called "real world." Up until World War II, half of St. Olaf College's graduates were licensed to teach. These days, we still produce capable teachers. But the annual practicum in Mathematics also engages students in the application of math to real world problems. And students in the Political Science research methods class regularly engage in research about genuine social issues. The Psychology department emphasizes student research teams. The Music department offers a Church Music Practicum that considers church music as vocation or call through readings, discussions, guest visits, and case studies designed to stimulate discussion of the challenges facing people serving the church today as church musicians. Internships are a regular feature of Urban Studies programs. The Finstad Center for Entrepreneurial Studies facilitates the study and practice of entrepreneurship as both an economic and a service activity. And internships in a variety of fields are a regular part of the St. Olaf curriculum. We maintain a few professional programs--in nursing and education and social work--because they provide our students with opportunities to do good work in the world. As a result, employers and professional schools seek our students for their skills and knowledge, and for their work ethic, their initiative, and their community-building talents. And St. Olaf College's Center for Experiential Learning helps our students do well by doing good.
Liberal education at St. Olaf teaches students to be thoughtful in yet a third way--to be considerate, caring and kind. This kind of thoughtfulness suggests that higher education is not merely a matter of mind, but also a matter of morals. The life of the mind and liberal learning depend on a variety of virtues, which should carry over into life after college. Positivists notwithstanding, academic life is not value-neutral. Intellectual inquiry demands, for example, the virtues of honesty, justice, courage, persistence, consideration (or attentiveness) and humility. The community of scholars, when it is paying careful attention to what it's doing, cultivates these virtues carefully. Even within the secular academy, such virtues are necessary for the practice of scholarship. When scholars pursue their research, we expect them to be courageous, doing justice to the truth wherever it leads. We expect them to be persistent, and to consider a variety of interpretations before settling on one. In the sciences and social sciences, we expect curious questioners to value careful questioning and observation, precision and straightforward presentation. In the humanities, we expect empathy and consideration, and attentiveness to details. We count on good scholars to practice humility, subordinating their own ideas and assumptions to the truths they discover. And we expect scholars to be charitable to one another, correcting errors in a spirit of collective endeavor. In short, we expect scholarship to model many of the virtues that we ask of people in the wider world. And we expect that the practice of these virtues in academic inquiry affects the whole life of practitioners like our students.
A good liberal arts college also nurtures disciplines and virtues that are not simply academic or intellectual. At St. Olaf, for example, we appreciate our embodiment in a variety of ways. The physical activity involved in the curriculum and the extracurricular life of the college reminds us that while we are mindful, we aren't just minds. Courses in Physical Activity integrate disciplined understandings of health and wellness with principles of fitness, nutrition, stress management and relaxation. And sometimes--at one of the few liberal arts colleges with majors in Art, Music, Dance and Theatre--this physical activity is combined with artistic acumen. Dance, for example, embodies both artistic and kinesthetic intelligence in its performances. And the creative arts embody a kind of intelligence that's not just in the mind. We expect our artists--both students and faculty--to express more than ideas, in more than words. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it's not, in fact, translatable into any thousand words. And these artistic practices also have their virtues. In the arts, we value integrity and inspiration. In our music ensembles, we value commitment and collaboration and painstaking practice. On stage, we ask students to practice both empathy and expressiveness.
A good liberal arts college also nurtures the application of moral virtues in the world--both the world of the academy and the world beyond. For this reason, as St. Olaf College's 1974 Identity and Mission Statement says, "a consideration of questions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, about justice, integrity, goodness, and love, should be inescapable within the frame of liberal learning." Good liberal arts colleges don't just pose the questions that already have easy answers; they pose the enduring questions that complicate and enrich human life. And they confront students with some of the enduring answers that previous generations have propounded. The goal of this kind of thoughtfulness is not mere knowledge, or even understanding, but wisdom.
Standing in the long tradition of the liberal arts, St. Olaf expects that liberal education involves the cultivation of virtues (intellectual and otherwise) in community, and for community. In short, we expect liberally educated persons to be of service to society. The measure of our success is not just what students know, but what they do with what they know--both now and in their later lives. This suggests one of the ways that a liberal arts education can be distinguished from other approaches to higher education. In the United States, one of the primary purposes of higher education is to train students for a job. At St. Olaf, we believe this is important, because work is one way that people serve their neighbors. But we don't think that this "hire education" is nearly enough. We expect that liberal education will cause students to think about vocation comprehensively--to consider the meaning and purpose of work, but also the meaning and purpose of family, of neighborhood, of citizenship, of leisure, and of global and ecological responsibility.
Doing the Liberal Arts: Depth, Breadth, and Coherence
At St. Olaf, the faculty has crafted a liberal education characterized by breadth, depth, and coherence. A liberal education is the antithesis of narrow-mindedness, so our first requirement is breadth. As Wendell Berry says, "To think about one thing is not to think at all." Therefore, we expect all students to practice disciplines in the liberal arts, not only because the disciplines themselves are inherently valuable, but because they reflect the capacious capabilities of the human mind. We want each student to experience the interplay of disciplines, and of different ways of knowing. We want students to see the world the way a sociologist does, the way a musician does, the way a physicist does. We want them to think like theologians, and philosophers, and novelists. We expect them to learn a variety of languages: English, and a foreign language, but also the languages of mathematics and science and the social sciences. We want them to have words to describe the world they need to know, and to express the thoughts they think. We want them to experience the beauties and challenges of music and theatre and dance and the visual arts. We want them to experience these disciplines separately, and together. We want to free them from any narrow prejudices that they may have brought to college, and we want to free them to serve their neighbors, near and far.
Our second requirement is depth. While breadth has its virtues, it's not always enough in a society that needs competent and conscientious specialists. And so we require students to select a major course of study, a field that they can probe in depth. In part, this is because we want students to be prepared for post-graduate work--either in the workplace, or in advanced academic or professional study. But we also want them to practice the advanced skills of a single discipline because we want them to be confident of their competence not just in that specific area, but in any particular area they might subsequently choose. Having mastered one discipline, they should know that they can do it again--and again, and again. In a time when many of the jobs our students will hold haven't been invented yet, this is a useful skill.
Finally, we expect a liberal education to cohere, to make sense out of the depth and breadth of experience, academic and otherwise. In The Aims of Education, Alfred North Whitehead condemned the "fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of our modern curriculum." There is, he said, "only one subject matter for education, and that is Life in all of its manifestations." And this simple unity, Whitehead claimed, was different for each student.
Coherence can't be taught, although it may be suggested. If liberal education is in part about the cultivation of character and identity, then no external principle of coherence may be enforced. Each student at a liberal arts college must make the connections that make meaning for them, teasing out the threads that connect their different learning experiences. Each student will ask in a History class, for example, "What does this mean?" and "What does this mean for me?" And all of the answers may be different; this self-examination is the kind the faculty can't grade. In creating the curriculum and revising it, in advising and academic practice, the faculty and the college can suggest essential questions and a variety of thoughtful answers. Each course at the college is a partial answer, implicit or otherwise, to the question "What does it mean to be human in a particular place and time in the universe?" Each professor and staff member is also an implicit answer. The student's major suggests another way of making sense of the world. The college challenges students with the concept of vocation, and provides tools of theological literacy and moral reasoning to think about an individual calling. Faculty advisors can help students to see how the universe of curriculum choices can be unified. But ultimately students must come to their own answers to their own questions. Each student finally needs to decide personally what they know, what they value, and what they intend to do about it.
In addition to a student's own synthesis of an educational experience, there is also a kind of communal coherence to a St. Olaf liberal arts education. The word "college," after all, comes from a Latin root meaning "chosen to serve with another" or "partner." People don't generally arrive at the meaning of life in solitary confinement. The collective coherence of a college comes from the peculiar patterns of campus culture, both academic and extracurricular. Each student is the nexus of a number of academic outlooks and associations. The senior Chemistry major sings in a choir, and is a member of the student congregation. She traveled to Asia in her junior year, and she plays intramural basketball. She's doing research with one of her professors, and she plans an internship during second semester. She shares a room with an English major just back from the term in the Middle East, a violinist who works in the Library. Last year, this friend was a Junior Counselor, and she has maintained a "big sister" relationship with many of her young charges. She met her boyfriend in the Great Conversation: he is a Psychology major and wants to go into counseling. This year, he volunteers at the Laura Baker School, an institution for mentally challenged children. And he's working with Amnesty International. For each of these students, and for other students like them, each of these associations leads a person out of the self and toward community. Each organization embodies its own coherence, and all together, they incarnate the interconnectedness of college life in real students.
These associations occur at every college in the country, but the "pattern of patterns" is different at each one, and leads to a different kind of communal coherence. St. Olaf is distinctive for its campus plan and location, for its outstanding teaching faculty, for its residential life program and its Junior Counselors. It has strong academic programs, with historic emphases on math and science, the humanities, and music. The student congregation, the daily chapel service, and the college religion and ethics requirements are distinctive. The college demonstrates its unusual trust of students with an honor system (in place since 1911) for academic work. It's extraordinary for its touring music organizations, and for the number of students studying overseas. The college, in short, cultivates a distinctive set of intelligences among its students and faculty and staff.
No one of these academic outlooks or associations is unique to St. Olaf. But all together, they are a mark of St. Olaf College's distinctiveness. A student at this institution encounters a different set of coherences than students at other institutions, even at other liberal arts colleges. The interconnections and interdependencies of individual students is like a jazz chart. We're making music together, but we're improvising individually at the same time. It's coherent, even when no two of us are playing the same notes at the same time. And the coherence isn't static, but dynamic, changing--like music--in time, and over time.
Finally, if a student's liberal education consists of the conversation of identity with community, then the conversation itself can be a principle of coherence. A college like St. Olaf hangs together in its common questions and disciplined conversations, and those conversations help individual students to see how their ideas and values hang together too. Where there are conflicts, the conversations can show how ideas and values exist in tension too. It's important to remember that an ongoing conversation coheres not just in its conclusions, but in the fact that it's not conclusive. A good conversation, open to new tangents, new ideas, and even new participants, coheres by the commitment of participants to the conversation itself. A good conversation encourages conflict and contradiction, and works to use those conflicts creatively in rational and civil argument. A good conversation embodies a commitment to the practice of learning by careful listening and thoughtful speaking, to the practice of discerning important questions and trying to answer them.
Coherence may be serendipitous, but it's not accidental. St. Olaf College commits itself to coherence, therefore, not by a fixed course at the beginning, or by a standardized examination at the end, but by provoking conversations throughout. This happens both individually and institutionally. Individually, faculty, especially advisors and mentors, should feel free to ask students about the meanings of their courses, their experiences, and their lives. Students should feel free to discuss their big questions among themselves. The speakers in daily chapel services should challenge community members to reflect about the meaning of life on a small planet, as well as offering resources and examples that can help in making our own lives faithful. We should act as if we were exemplary for each other, because often we are.
Institutionally, the college promotes coherence with its general education curriculum, a set of skills and disciplines that synthesize the traditions of the liberal arts embodied at St. Olaf. The Great Conversation, the Asian Conversation, and American Conversations are distinctive learning communities that exemplify the coherence of general education. The college also promotes coherence by promoting interdisciplinary studies, which model the connections that bring coherence. Like American Studies, for example, these programs celebrate "the connecting mind." From the 1930s on, practitioners of American Studies have tried to connect different disciplines, to connect past and present (and sometimes the future), to connect theory and experience, to connect different types of Americans, and to connect students and their society. Other interdisciplinary programs have similar aspirations. Recently too, the college has committed itself to a new Center for Integrative Studies, which will assist students to bring their own diverse ideas together. The college encourages coherence by requiring an upper-level seminar in Ethical Issues and Normative Perspectives as a way of asking junior and senior students to learn about different moral outlooks, and to consider how their college experience is affecting their moral reasoning and vice versa. Both Academic Internships and the Center for Experiential Learning help students to see the creative counterpoint of the college and the so-called "real world." Every once in a while, also, the college promotes coherence by appointing a committee to reflect on the mission statement to cause community members to think twice about their values and their vocations, and how they come together.
At St. Olaf, we're interested in what the liberal arts do. We're interested in how the persistent practice of different disciplines creates disciplined thinkers who can recognize people's presuppositions (including their own) and work out the implications of certain ways of thinking (including, again, their own). The liberal arts have always entailed critical thinking and problem solving, writing and speaking skills, self-discipline and strong work habits, an appreciation for culture and the arts, and a deep respect for others. When students graduate from St. Olaf, we expect that they can evaluate information critically, and respond imaginatively. We anticipate that they can understand and interpret a variety of cultures--foreign cultures, diverse American cultures, even different business and organizational cultures. We expect that they can learn to do many things that they haven't yet learned. Faced with virtually any problem, we count on them to say "I can figure out a way to be useful." And in their acts of usefulness, both large and small, we expect them to change the world.
St. Olaf College's commitment to the liberal arts is the foundation of its academic mission. It gives students, in the words of historian Agnes Larson, a "love for learning, a sense of curiosity that will cause a student to continue the search for truth which has been fostered during the undergraduate days." The purposeful and passionate engagement with ideas frees students from the assumptions of their times, and frees them to serve their communities, and change the world. Instead of encouraging students to adapt mindlessly to the 21st century, a St. Olaf education helps students mindfully adapt the ideas and institutions of their culture to the enduring visions and values that are part of our cultural inheritance.