For All Our Worlds: Education in the Arts and Sciences

Frederick J. Antczak, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Spring meeting April 7, 2010


When we met in August, knowing we faced a challenging year, I told you “we must be giants” for our students.  And looking back on this year of remarkable accomplishment, I can only say to the faculty and staff of CLAS, you have been giants.  In the midst of the economic belt tightening, CLAS faculty continued to excel.  One of us, Karen Libman, was named Michigan professor of the year.  Two of us, Hermann Kurthen and Scott Stabler, won Fulbrights.  CLAS faculty and staff produced students who won national competitions. Our faculty published more broadly cited scholarship at an increasing rate, composed our “Strategic Positioning” Plan, produced and approved Standards & Criteria for Personnel Evaluation and the CLAS Inclusion Plan, hired new colleagues, undertook frank and productive self-assessment, made award winning films and gave inspired performances on stages here and abroad, became Inclusion Advocates and participated, from the heart, in faculty governance.  In the world of CLAS, in so many ways, this year was truly gigantic.  Today, we meet to celebrate that!

While you were doing the work of a vibrant college dedicated to liberal education, other worlds were turning, some wobbling precariously on what used to be firm axes.  Our society was engaged in some epic struggles over the future of our economy and healthcare and education.  Increasingly we felt outside pressure not only to do our jobs excellently, but to talk effectively with outside constituencies about why our work remains important, worthy of support and of continuing relevance.  Even as this went on, some of those same outside forces proclaimed education the best solution to what ails us, and added to their explicit expectations—and cut again the state dollars subsidizing this essential state function, this “public good” as President Haas is wise to call it.  Several of our Classicists just returned from a conference including a panel entitled “Tenacity of Purpose: Growing Classics in a Harsh Climate.”  Well, perhaps we have all spent a moment considering ourselves through a metaphor like drought- resistant plants.  This year we’ve looked toward sustainable practices and re-ordered priorities and dared to do things differently, because it was right and it was smart, but also because it was clear we had to.  Perhaps this is the year we came to accept a sort of fundamental academic climate change, and had to learn to think sustainably for all our worlds. 

As we continue our efforts to provide the sort of education that will sustain us—and our students, and our state—as we navigate the complex challenges of our future, we know we must think differently.  And let me propose that we must talk about it differently too.  Some discourse about our future happens in terms of the murky alphabet soup of acronyms that administrators can (and I ruefully admit, I sometimes) succumb to.  Other “Edu-discourse” slaps together, like refrigerator magnets that can slide anywhere for a sly semblance of meaning, the trendy catchphrases that sometimes dominate discussion of our work—does anybody quite know what the phrase “critical thinking” has come to denote?  Data about “retention” and “progress toward graduation” are relevant, but they should neither dilute nor decenter our commitment to the quality of education we offer.  Once more before we disperse for the summer, we need to reconsider what an education in the arts and sciences really means, how we (and the wider worlds with unimaginable futures for which we prepare our students) should talk about it, and how we can commit ourselves to making it better at Grand Valley.

  1. An Education in the Arts and Sciences

To go beyond acronyms and catch phrases, to balance what we can measure with the rest of what we’re really here for, that’s radical thinking—but in it, we wouldn’t be alone. For example, the History of the University on the Quinquagenary website indicates that way back in 1961, two years before Grand Valley had a single student, the bold thinkers who conceived our University were dedicating it to “liberal education, enduring truths, intellectual discipline and avoidance of vocationalism.”  The same thinking is now happening at other institutions around the country and has been playing out in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

For example, it was gratifying to read Diane Auer Jones, president of a consortium of university business schools who argues: “After all, a solid, rigorous liberal-arts education provides the best hope that the next generation will be empowered to solve the problems of tomorrow, which we can’t begin to anticipate today.”  Clearly, liberal education is the key to fostering what we might call “sustainable citizens.”

But not everyone is convinced that an education in the arts and sciences can prepare people for personal, social and professional worlds that change increasingly rapidly.  Sanford J. Ungar, President of Goucher College, found it necessary to write an article debunking seven currently prevalent misperceptions about Liberal Education. How many of these claims are familiar to you?:

  • A liberal-arts degree is a luxury, one that most families cannot afford.
  • Especially during a recession, college graduates are finding it harder to get good jobs with liberal-arts degrees.
  • The liberal arts are particularly irrelevant for low-income and first-generation college students.
  • One should not in this day and age, study the arts. 
  • The idea of “liberal” education is an attempt to indoctrinate our young people with professors’ biases.
  • Other countries, with more practical orientations, are running way ahead of us.
  • Liberal arts colleges are becoming irrelevant because they are unable to register gains in productivity or to find innovative ways of doing things.

Some of these misconceptions come from bad data, some from a lost sense of balance, some from an ignorant or willful misunderstanding of the word “liberal” in this context, and some from economic fear that warps or effaces all other considerations.  We should be wise enough, confident enough, to share our responses frankly with all the worlds that we live in, and that our students so successfully inhabit.  A good example was set when Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, described the paradigm underlying these critiques.  Its basis is in unquenchable thirst for economic growth, and Nussbaurm argued that it might be more productively replaced with one of a liberating sort of human development. 

What is important is what opportunities, or ‘capabilities’, each person has in key areas ranging from life, health, and bodily integrity to political liberty, political participation, and education.  This model recognizes that each and every person possesses an inalienable human dignity that ought to be respected by laws and institutions.

The argument about the economic worth of education, however, ought to be subservient to that concerning the stability of democratic institutions, since a strong economy is a means to human ends, not an end in itself.

I read that, and I think we still need philosophers, historians, masters of language, political scientists, literary theorists, anthropologists, poets, filmmakers, artists and the students taught by them---whether those students are going to be teachers, scientists working to cure spina bifida or cancer or Alzheimers, lawyers prosecuting crime (whether by violent gang leaders or voracious investment bankers), exercise physiologists, nonprofit directors, nanotechnologists, visual artists, plant biologists, web designers, Mars explorers and—I love this term—“content providers”; or maybe several of the above at different stages of their careers.  To assure the value of each person, the world still needs the liberal arts and sciences—needs us, in fact, now more than ever.  But many of our worlds don’t know it.  So to express that need adequately, we must go back to our roots to change two things in how we talk about, how we represent, liberal education. 

2. Communicating the Value(s) of the Arts and Sciences

Now more than ever, we need to explain the aims and excellences of this education to audiences from worlds different from the one we work in—explain to the legislator who is trying to value our work against other priorities for diminishing public resources; to the parents across the table at orientation who, like my folks, have never known the benefit of college themselves; to the neighbor who hears we teach only 9 hours a week, and doesn’t see us up to all hours preparing our classes, overseeing internships, doing experiments or studio work, and reading tests and papers (when I was at Iowa, I loved to try to flummox such critics by saying “hey, you’re a farmer, so you’ve got it even easier, you’re only in the tractor for a few weeks in the spring and in the fall—and you have all winter off!”).  While that might not have been completely effective, we must search for ways, grounded in  practice, to convey the notion that we are providing an education broad enough, and innovative enough, for all the worlds that each student, each emerging person and citizen, might encounter and might want to inhabit. 

But in describing the need for an education in the arts and sciences, now more than ever we cannot leave unchallenged the “entry level job” scope of evaluation.  Look, we know our education is “useful” in that sense; in a time of double digit unemployment, 96% of GVSU graduates are either employed or in graduate studies.  But we need to make our case with lifelong scope: CLAS students are prepared not just to fit a first job in the working world, but to shape and change those professions, and to enter and engage realms of family life, neighborhood service, social relationships, politics, technology, and culture, all of which will during their lifetimes be affected by influences that are impossible to predict today.  Our students today will only be in mid-career when the population of the world is projected to hit 9 billion souls.  The challenges they will face aren’t going to get smaller or simpler or fewer.  They will need scientific understanding, logical and ethical grounding, artistic creativity, political sophistication, historical precedent, and communication abilities.  So we must be willing to make to all sorts of audiences—respectfully, but with confidence—this kind of argument: we teach the intellectual traditions by which a person may become more at liberty to think for herself in any situation, in any future world—the ideas and the methods in terms of which knowledge may be acquired, and assessed, and advanced.

I won’t kid you today: the challenges are great, and they may become greater as Michigan writhes through the growing pains of its transition from its factory-built past, which required interchangeable parts and workers, to an entirely different, knowledge-based economy, which will require the sustainable citizens we educate.  Now, I know that some term-limited legislators can make shortsighted, politicized cuts in state support, and in the same breath admit that without higher education Michigan can have no viable future.  But the fact is, Grand Valley has always had to do without its fair share of state support, and frankly we have emerged the stronger for it.  Part of the reason for that success is great leadership, and I particularly want to thank today two trustees retiring in December who have done so much to build the GVSU we are today: Dottie Johnson, and Lucille Taylor.  In Dottie’s case, this will end an extraordinary 40 year run during which a member of the Johnson family has served on GVSU’s Board.  I have worked with these excellent people in different contexts, activities and searches, and I can tell you sincerely that Grand Valley is blessed by the best Board I’ve ever seen, people who lay down their preconceptions to really learn about us, and then take up our standard with spirit and heart. Lucille and Dottie have exemplified that.  Though they aren’t with us today, I’d ask for a round of applause for our retiring, and remaining, Trustees.

3. A Foreshadowing of Commitment: Making the Arts and Sciences Even Better Next Year

I think there are two more things that CLAS’s “grassroots” traditions demonstrate:  leadership does not have to come only from the top of a flow chart, and it does not have to come only in administrative forms.  In our world, leadership can and regularly does come from ideas.   We know that good ideas can be kindled by any one of us, faculty or staff.  We’ve seen that again this year. It’s why this year was, against the odds, so very good.  Certainly the service awards our faculty and staff have won, a few of which will be presented today, demonstrate that we have led by example.  And it’s why next year can be even better.  But in the immediate term, it seems to me, we must try to be still smarter and more nimble with the resources available to us.  So I have an idea for next year.

In CLAS forums like the remarkable Out of the Box consultations, we’ve been inspired—and very well served—by the success of what comes from faculty working together across disciplinary lines.  We have seen what can be learned and what enterprises may be joined in groups like Evolution for Everyone.   In the next year, I will want to see if the College can help develop similarly productive groups, let’s call them “Topical Clusters,” that can spark our imagination and collaboration across disciplines.  I imagine a Topical Cluster on, say, the various forms of computational research we do that involve mapping, and another on computational aspects of genomics.  It’s easy to imagine a Cluster examining the teaching and scholarship we do (not just in sciences but in history, ethics, sociology, and communication) to integrate and understand all the issues of health.  We hope another Topical Cluster can be designed to bring together those scholars we fondly call “the Wet People” (from Muskegon boats to Nicaragua research, you know who you are), and another to convene “the Dusty People,” whose work revolves around archaeology. And we’ll ask you in the fall what other cross-disciplinary conversations might be worth a brownbag to explore—in order perhaps to pool resources, to write grants together, to share best practices, to identify speakers to bring in, to find collaborations around campus and beyond, to help each other stay current, or to dream up opportunities for our students.  The College will facilitate the first meeting of each such Cluster, we’ll even provide the cookies and drinks, and where you go from there is up to you.  We’ll report back on how this experiment fares at this time next year.

As you know, this isn’t likely to be a period in which we can hire or spend our way out of problems, or into opportunities.  But we can think our way forward, by finding ways to streamline and focus, and some such efforts are already underway. The College is working on a resource guide for our adjuncts.  Thanks to Jim Seufert and Jim Visser, our art studios are safer than they’ve ever been, even with more instructional capacities than they’ve ever had—and of course they’re still oversubscribed.  This winter we had some very productive meetings of unit heads and other faculty to discuss and prioritize such physical resource needs.  This discussion will help, has already helped, the College to present our case to the University planning meetings. Thanks to Aaron Perry and his team, the labs are finding ways to productively share what they have; it helps the departments to have an overview of the resources we might be able to share, extrapolating even further CLAS’s policy of “shared functionality.”

 And I’m proud to announce another way in which CLAS is leading the University towards fuller achievement of its goals.  On the Monday before Thanksgiving we will introduce a new Teaching Showcase mirroring today’s Sabbatical Showcase, to give our college a fun and productive way to celebrate and to share teaching expertise.  You’ll be hearing more about this, but please do bookmark the Monday before Thanksgiving.

I don’t think my optimism about these efforts—our efforts—is misplaced.  This year we did one small thing differently, we found a better way to deliver grant announcements to you, and now University grant writing is up by 40%, with CLAS providing almost that whole increase.  One person who deserves credit for that announcement delivery, for doing triage that can be tedious and always does require knowledge and respect for our faculty work, is our excellent Director of Communication and Advancement, Monica Johnstone. 

Two CLAS Data to Raise Your Eyebrows and Broaden Your Smile

Up by 40%--that one raw number means nothing by itself; but it is translating into faculty being more able to pursue their projects, and their potential—that’s enormous.  But even as we experienced markedly greater success in the grant world, CLAS faculty brilliantly fulfilled our primary mission of teaching.  As usual, a number of our faculty won teaching awards, but let me provide a couple different data.  Some may think of internships as something they do in Engineering, or in Seidman; but more than half of the University’s undergraduate internships were done in CLAS!  Ostensibly, the whole university is committed to undergraduate research; but on Student Scholarship Day, fully 82% of the faculty sponsors will be CLAS faculty!  This all goes to show one important thing: CLAS has the numbers that show how innovative scholarship HAS supported excellent teaching in our College.  That’s something to be very proud of!  And as this year of gigantic improvements comes to completion, we know we have only just begun.

So congratulations on an exceptional year.  This spring and summer, refresh, revive and recharge yourself, so that when we come back together, we can do it all again. We together (we happy few, we band of… colleagues) can offer an education useful in, relevant to, powerful and necessary for all our worlds: an education in the Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Page last modified July 11, 2017