Learning Includes What Really Matters
Winter puts me in a philosophical mood. So does my inept golf game, but that
is another matter. During this indoor season I have been thinking about
the unique mission of liberal arts colleges. They are a distinctly
American invention, yet they are often misunderstood in their home
country. Some people still mistakenly equate "liberal learning" with
"liberal politics." In fact, however, liberal learning is intended to
liberate students from the fetters of dogma and prejudice by developing
their capacity to think critically and independently.
misperceive liberal arts colleges as being academic "ivory towers"
separated from the "real world," serene sanctuaries of learning where
bright students prepare for graduate or professional school and have
little contact with or interest in the larger society.
mythic image no longer fitsif it ever did. Today, liberal arts
colleges prepare students to pursue a variety of careers immediately
upon graduation, and their students are heavily involved in the
surrounding communities. But liberal arts colleges do much more. Not
content simply to confer competence or hone intellectual skills, they
are committed to helping students engage in self-discovery. In this
sense, liberal learning is as much a moral and spiritual enterprise as
it is an academic endeavor. Small classes and close relationships with
professors and other students not only facilitate learning; they also
help broaden horizons and provoke the kind of self-reflection that
prompts students to refine their character and embody their faith.
is an especially timely subject, for we live in an age bereft of
purpose and hungry for meaning. In recent years, Americans have grown
justifiably concerned about the unraveling of the nations moral fabric.
The evidence is pervasive: violent crime, rampant alcohol and drug
abuse, teen pregnancies and illegitimate births, casual divorces, and
television talk shows that celebrate vulgarity and deviancy. Perhaps
most disheartening is the ethical corruption evident in government, in
business, and in schools. Newsweek
recently reported that a Chicago teacher provided his high school
students with the answers to a national standardized test they were
about to take, explaining that "Everybody cheats. Thats the way the
How do we reverse such an erosion of morals and
manners amid an irreverent age? One obvious way is to encourage young
people to reflect more seriously on the origin and nature of their own
values and to reinforce those elusive qualities of character that give
young men and women the potential to have a real impact on the world.
How to spend a day nobly, Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his journal,
is the essential problem to be solved.
For many years, Furman
and other liberal arts colleges have challenged young people to live
nobly within a community of learners where young people can grow and
express themselves freely, where people know and care about others and
are known and cared for by them, a place where students are encouraged
to develop a personal style and design a way of life in the process of
gaining knowledge. In short, they are colleges where history, civility,
and concerns of the spirit and social justice still matter.
practice, this commitment to liberal learning means fashioning
opportunities for students to assess who they are as well as what they
want to be. To help encourage reflection along these lines, we encourage
students and faculty and staff members to share with one another the
values they most cherish.
One of the most important of these
forums at Furman is the L. D. Johnson Lecture series. It is named for
the beloved former university chaplain and minister of First Baptist
Church who alerted students to the daily relevance of moral principles
and spiritual anchors.
Those invited to deliver the L. D. Johnson
lecture are asked to speak about "what really matters" to them. It is a
daunting assignment. Talking in public about what really matters makes
one feel exposed and vulnerable, like a snail without a shell.
such an effort to express our selves as spiritual and moral beings who
profess values and seek virtue is ultimately an uplifting enterprise.
However imperfect, however clumsily expressed, our presentations about
what we most value gives substance and ballast to this community of
Of course, our main difficulty in leading a good life
is to strike a balance between contending claims and conflicting values.
In this regard, life is a continual negotiation, a perennial compromise
between competing desires and demands. Maintaining the right balance
requires first knowing ones own center of gravity.
We hope that
all Furman students will take with them from this special place a more
mature sense of their own moral and spiritual foundations and a more
engaged sense of civic and social responsibility. Too many students
arrive at college uncertain of their core beliefs and values. Like the
poet Denise Levertov, they feel themselves unready for soul-baring:
more of the night before I open
eyes and heart
to illumination. I must still
grow in the dark like a root
not ready, not ready at all.
large measure, liberal arts colleges exist to convince students that
they are ready to end their adolescent hibernation. By exposing them to
the light of public discussion and personal profession, we try to
enliven their intellectual curiosity, accelerate their maturity, and
nurture their spiritual and moral growth. Wish us well.