Charged for the Liberal Arts

imagesLast May at the 2011 Commencement ceremony, Dr. Graeme Bird, associate professor of  linguistics and classics, received the College’s Junior Distinguished Faculty Award. Gordon tradition invites the recipient of the award to “charge” the students at the first chapel service of the following academic year. This morning, students, staff, faculty and Gordon’s new president, Dr. D. Michael Lindsay, gathered for chapel and heard Graeme’s talk on the value of a liberal arts education at Gordon. Below is the text of his talk:

Matriculation, Wednesday, August 24, 2011, By Graeme Bird

Good morning. According to the program, the title of my talk is “Charge.”

Should this be a noun or a verb?  It’s probably not the financial meaning that is intended here – hopefully you (or your parents) have taken care of tuition matters.

It’s probably not the verbal meaning – that would require an exclamation point, and would convey the meaning (#22a in the Oxford English Dictionary):

“To rush against or upon, with all one’s force, in a hostile way; to spur one’s horse against at full gallop; to bear down upon, make a violent onset on, attack or assail with impetuosity.”

No, I think a more timely definition is meaning #12 as given by the OED:

OED: 12. A task or duty laid upon one; commission, trust, responsibility . . .”

Thus I feel a sense of duty today, to share with you part of what I see as your responsibility while you are here at Gordon College.

So – why are you here?  Why are we all here?  What is Gordon College?According to our website, “Gordon College is a nondenominational Christian college, committed to excellence in liberal arts education, spiritual development and academic freedom informed by a framework of faith.”

I want us to think about the “liberal arts education” part for a few minutes.

“Christian liberal arts education.”  An arts education for Christian liberals?  Just kidding.

The problematic word “liberal” . . .  Why so provocative?  What does it mean??

It appears that much of our concept of the liberal arts may in fact go back to Pythagoras – that slightly eccentric ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician, who, according to one legend, upon discovering the amazing theorem that now bears his name, sacrificed an ox in honor of the occasion.  Of course, the fact that he was also thought to be a vegetarian is a rather inconvenient detail.

But, although Pythagoras himself did not leave behind any written record of his teachings, others wrote about him, and one account describes him as having been perhaps the first person, at least in the Western world, to encourage the concept of a “liberal education, with the study of first principles and ultimate ideas, involving abstract and purely intellectual investigations.”

So part of what makes a liberal arts education is the study of abstract and intellectual ideas – not just learning and memorizing facts, but thinking about reasons, causes and effects, relationships, the ways in which two apparently unrelated things are in fact connected, if we step back and look at the “big picture.”

So for Pythagoras, it is not just 3-squared plus 4-squared equals 5-squared in one particular right triangle, but in any similar right triangle, and also 5-squared plus 12-squared equals 13-squared, and it by no means stops there, but rather there are an infinite number of different patterns for right triangles.

Also, as Pythagoras is said to have discovered, if you pluck a violin string (or for him, presumably a lyre string) of a certain length and hear the note that we know as A 440, and then you “halve” the length of the string (i.e. “cut the length in half” – but don’t cut the string!), you get the note exactly one octave above, or A 880.  So we have a connection between music and mathematics (one of many), which fascinated Pythagoras, as it does me, and I hope some of you as well.

But now why did Pythagoras, and we here today, call it the “liberal arts”?  Another way to translate the phrase “liberal education” is “the study appropriate to a free person.”

Now we are all technically free, as opposed to being prisoners or slaves, but let’s think of this freedom as something positive, to be celebrated, rather than the simple denial of some sort of bondage.

In ancient Greece and Rome, one of the marks of a free person was having the opportunity, the leisure, to study areas of knowledge, not primarily for their usefulness, but more for their fascination, in the delight that comes from exploring something simply because it is there.  Curiosity, excitement, the yearning to understand, to unravel enigmas (refer back to the passage from Proverbs that we heard read this morning) . . .  These are desires that God has put into us, and in some real sense we are incomplete until we fulfill these God-given urges.

Why does a painting move us?  A poem speak to us?  A piece of music make us weep?  And what a loss if we are so busy with those things that we feel bound by, that we miss out on those things that are waiting to be freely enjoyed and explored.

An important part of the liberal arts is an appreciation of the art, the creativity, the beauty of a poem, a song, a painting . . .  and this appreciation and enjoyment may well lead to you yourself exploring your own God-creativity in music, art, or literature.

One of my passions is jazz improvisation, both listening to it and attempting to create my own. It seems to me that it is a wonderful way of freeing yourself to be both creative and spontaneous.

This same sense of creativity (and maybe also spontaneity) can be seen in the ancient Greek poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, where manuscripts have been discovered that contain quite different versions of parts of the story.  It seems that it was OK, in fact quite normal, for the poet to tell his story in different ways, depending perhaps upon his audience, or his own. He could express his creativity in the heat of a performance.

This sort of thing can also be witnessed in some of the poetry of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament: for example when I read Psalms 14 and 53 side by side, I see subtle variations that might remind me a bit of a jazz musician playing two versions of the same song.  This reminds us that the Bible was composed by human writers who were both inspired by God, and also empowered to use their full creative faculties; so that as we read, we absorb divine truth by means of such literary devices as metaphor, simile, formulaic structure, chiasmus, to name just a few.  Some of my colleagues here – and I hope you take courses with them – are passionate about such things.

As teachers, we want you to be enthusiastic about your studies and your time here.  The word “enthusiasm” originally meant in the time of the Greek philosopher Plato “being possessed by a god”; like many other English words its meaning has unfortunately weakened over the years . . . but how about reviving some of its original force – let’s approach our studies in a state of being possessed by God . . . with all of the mystery and majesty that evokes.

At Gordon College, you have the freedom to explore different areas of knowledge – a freedom that you may never have again to such a degree.  So please don’t waste it!

The freedom inherent in the word “liberal” does not mean free to be sloppy, lazy, or careless; it means thinking deeply, discussing thoughtfully, reading closely, practicing hard, getting into the mind and heart of the characters in a short story, in short, being the best student you can be.

“Liberal” means the freedom to explore, to follow the trail wherever it may lead. At what other time will you have this same freedom?

By the way, we all know some of the reasons people give for wanting to have a good liberal arts education – it makes you sound “smart,” it gives you a way of impressing people at parties, with words such as “asymptotic” or “pre-antepenultimate.” But on a more serious note, the benefits are lifelong and profound.  How do you measure the value of becoming a better, more thoughtful Christian, a more involved and aware citizen, a more resourceful human being?

But, you might say, I need to get a job when I leave, and that’s going to be my focus while I’m here.  Indeed some of you may know without a doubt what you want to do with your life.  But I suspect that most of you have more of a vague idea that you sort of like History or Mathematics or Psychology, and hope to have this interest strengthened over the next few years.

There may even be some of you who have little or no idea of what you want to major in while you are here.  And we do give you some breathing room in order for you to make up your mind, as well as space to change your mind.

And I think that breathing room, that space, is part of what we mean when we talk about “liberal” arts.

By the way, how did the word liberal come to have such negative connotations, at least for some people?

Well, you’ll just have to take my course “History of the English Language”; in it we do look at just how words change their meanings over the centuries – and this tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the words themselves.  And this is what the liberal arts are all about – the study of the human person (hence its other name – the humanities).

This brings me to one of the ways in which Gordon College, and indeed most if not all American colleges, guides you into making sure that your studies are not too narrowly focused on one small field that will hopefully get you a job when you leave.

When I did my BA back in New Zealand a few years ago, I took pride in making sure that I only took courses in one department, namely the Classics department.  I came out with a decent Classics degree, but it was I think one of the narrowest degrees possible!  I have in some sense spent the rest of my life trying to broaden my education.

Here at Gordon College you have the opportunity, or we might say the responsibility, to avoid making that sort of mistake.

Gordon gives you what I think is a unique opportunity to explore subjects that you may know little about, but may become fascinated by being introduced to.

So although you may be a Chemistry major, you will take a course in Philosophy or Sociology or Literature; although you may be a Music major you will take a course in Mathematics or Political Science or Psychology . . . and it does happen that students in one major sometimes end up changing their major because of a course they took that opened their eyes to a totally different subject area – just as long as it doesn’t happen in your last semester.

I personally know of students who have switched their majors after taking a Core course – especially such subjects as Linguistics, Sociology and Bible, which you don’t usually study in high school.  How would they ever have known about such areas of study if they had not been “required” to take an intro course?

So I encourage, or rather exhort, you – don’t treat the Core as something to be “gotten out of the way” somewhat like an annoying insect that is buzzing around your head and needs to be swatted away. Treat it rather as a not-likely-to-be-repeated opportunity to explore a part of God’s creation that you may never get the leisure of studying again.  The Core is at the heart of what liberal arts are all about.

Human life is a brief and fragile thing – as one Greek poet put it some 2,500 years ago, we are but “a dream of a shadow.”

We can perhaps compare human life to a musical performance.  While the musicians are playing, there is life and joy and power and emotion.  But then it ends.  You may have a recording of the performance, but a recording can never capture all the life and energy of the “live performance.”

Let’s make sure that this “live performance” – your whole life, but more specifically your time here at Gordon College, is full of life and joy and power and emotion.  To quote some lyrics from a song that has become dear to me over the past few months, “here’s to life, and all the joy it brings!”

And don’t forget the world outside.  Over these past few days, the country of Libya is in the process of shaking off a tyrannical ruler, and its people are daring to hope that maybe, after over 40 years, they too will be able to enjoy the freedoms that we dare not take for granted.  You can hear the cautious joy in some of the voices of the citizens of Tripoli.

It is true that it is never too late to learn.  This past summer I taught a wonderful group of adult students – people who have already done some pretty interesting things; one man is a Marine Blackhawk helicopter pilot; one woman was in charge of a Coast Guard ship; another woman is a Palestinian who has spent much of her life helping refugees traumatized by the civil war in Sudan – and she is blind.  And these people, with all their achievements, want to continue their learning.  I was inspired by their determination and privileged to be their instructor.

I was also inspired at the recent funeral service of retired Professor of English Peter Stine, with whom many of you will have had the privilege of studying.  The service included both scripture passages and a dramatic reading of a wonderful poem that had been dear to him.  And while the biblical passages spoke to us of timeless truths from God’s perspective: Psalm 1 comparing the faithful believer to a tree planted next to streams of flowing water, and John chapter 11 describing the humanity of Jesus, weeping over the death of his dear friend Lazarus, the poem “Ulysses” by Tennyson spoke to us from the very human perspective of restlessness, of a deep yearning to continue to explore, to travel, to seek answers to the mysteries of life.  Professor Stine was a man who had a deep love for the liberal arts, and for English poetry in particular, and you could see how this love had helped shape the person he was.

But you are still young!  Once again, I charge you to immerse yourselves in the liberal arts, and relish to the full the freedom you have been given – freedom of thought, of speech, of worship, freedom to explore the whole universe of God’s creation and man’s God-given creativity, all within the framework of faith.

Comments are closed.