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By William A Stahl
For thirty-three years I have been listening to (and giving) commencement addresses. They are usually full of platitudes, such as:
“The torch has been passed to a new generation.”
Or: “You now embark on a glorious future.”
But this is 2012, and these are dark days. The time for platitudes is past. The world is in the midst of the longest and deepest depression since the 1930s. The days when a bachelor’s degree was a ticket to affluence are over. Your generation is the first in 200 years whose standard of living will be lower than that of your parents.
In part because of these unhappy facts, liberal education is under attack. The mass media and the corporate oligarchs deride the value of the liberal arts, mock degrees in the humanities and social sciences, and call for universities to do nothing more than job training and product development.
Here at Luther we have guided you on a different path. This morning, I would like to reflect on the value of the liberal arts. The liberal arts are (as the Newfoundland group Rawlins Cross sings) about Head, Heart, and Hands. Or, as the motto on the Luther College web page puts it: “Think deeply. Act passionately. Live faithfully.” Let’s reflect on each of these.
First, the liberal arts are about the Head, the call to think deeply.
The corporate model of education says that going to university is all about getting a job. It says that what is important is training for what the labour market needs TODAY. Of course, all this emphasis on job training can’t deliver the goods. Instead, we get cycles of boom and bust, while today’s jobs will be gone tomorrow.
Studying the liberal arts, quite frankly, does NOT guarantee you a job. Rather, our aim is to teach you HOW to think rather than WHAT to think. We teach you about the world and how it works, our traditions from the past and our trajectories for the future. The liberal arts educate people to engage the world, to create, to transform. The goal of the liberal arts echoes Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Second, the liberal arts are about the Heart, the call to act passionately.
The liberal arts are practical, but in a deeper way than just “getting a job.” Where the corporate model of education talks about jobs, the liberal arts talk about a “calling.” This is the difference between having a vocation and being a drone. The corporations want drones to staff their bureaucracies and develop products, but who never question the way things are. For drones, life is something you do on weekends. Vocation, by contrast, is dedication to your life’s work—something that you do because you love doing it. Without passion you cannot achieve, you cannot excel, you cannot—in the long run—find meaning.
Third, the liberal arts are about the Hands, the call to live faithfully.
The word “liberal” in liberal arts is from the Latin word that means “freedom” or “liberty.” But it is freedom understood in an active sense, as in the freedom of the citizen who engages with others to build the common good. But in our consumer society, freedom is usually defined as “choice.” In contrast with the active freedom of the citizen, choice is a passive freedom, that is; the freedom to choose passively between options offered by another. It is the difference between being free to build, to create, and being free to choose between brand X and brand Y.
When we say “live faithfully” we say that the meaning of your life is in what you do, not in what you consume. Even more, living faithfully is not JUST what you do, but what you do for others.
So the liberal arts, then, is an education for head, heart and hands. It is education for the whole person. We here at Luther cannot guarantee that your degree will quickly deliver you a high-paying job. But we hope that your time with us has given you more: the ability to think deeply, to act passionately, and to live faithfully. Or, as the scripture says, “What does the Lord require, but to do justice, and love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”