Liberal Arts As The Soul Of Higher Education

On what turned out to be a beautiful spring evening in Washington, D.C., my husband and I made our way through downtown to the fabled National Press Building and up the elevators. From the13th floor, we looked down on the White House. But it was not the view we went to see — we went for the new president of Butler University.

Alumni in D.C. and current students participating in internships in the area were invited to take part in an evening of conversation with new President Jim Danko. He’s on an inaugural tour across the country entitled, “Imagine the Possibilities,” and the event was billed as a way to share information and gather thoughts. While the tour is not done for the sole benefit of the alumni (the school is surely imagining the possibilities of donors in the audience), I felt that the time and effort President Danko and his staff took to make just this one event, let alone others from New York City to Fort Wayne, Ind., possible represents the dedication he has to ensuring a connection between the university, its past students and its future.  I digress — relationship building between alma mater and alumni is another post entirely.

While President Danko took a requisite amount of time to rev up the audience with a video from Jimmy Fallon’s Super Bowl show and then to shape his message and share his prepared thoughts (he’s only been on Butler’s campus for a few months, but already, he speaks the Butler Way well), he also took a generous portion of the event to answer questions from the small crowd. As anticipated, dorms and student parking sprinkled their way into conversation, but for all intents and purposes of making an impression on this alumna, the conversation on liberal arts was most important.

A key (paraphrased) question: Can you blend a liberal arts background with the technical skills needed to get a job today?

And a key (paraphrased) answer: Yes.

President Danko was most recently the dean of a business school. We liberal artists have a tendency of doubting the critical thinking skills, passion, curiosity, writing abilities and day-dreaming capabilities of the business school type. And yet, it is incredibly clear that President Danko is committed to ensuring that Butler students will continue to have a liberal arts background. Turns out, he was a religious studies major as an undergrad, which made his comment about how the body can change, while the soul remains the same, make much more sense. Yes. Butler will change. Core curriculum will change, buildings will be built, professors will retire. But the soul of the university — the liberal arts — will not change. It will remain. President Danko specifically mentioned examples such as the dance major with a business minor as succeeding, though the examples of an education with a liberal arts soul and a modern application are endless. Particularly at Butler.

President Danko also explained his suggestion that the education industry has not changed dramatically over time like others. He pointed out that Borders had seen a boom and bust in less than two decades; the book industry has undergone changes rapidly that forced those within the industry to change the way they did their work. Education, he maintained, does not change. Sure, technology may have more of a hand in what we do now, but the overall act of transferring knowledge from the professors and institution to the students and future will not fundamentally change.

Liberal arts, in my eyes, is not going to go the way of Borders. The opening of the mind will not be shuttered by technology. I believe the curiosity and pursuit of knowledge will keep it going.

Where we learn or what we learn may change. How we use what we learn will definitely change, as we see careers that didn’t exist a decade ago. However, liberal arts, our souls, our desire to transfer knowledge will not go away.






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