Thriving in the World: Liberal Arts for the 21st Century
By Erin Hemme Froslie
As Dr. William J. Craft formally accepted the 11th presidency of Concordia College, he did so at a time when higher education is, if not under fire, questioned for its worth.
Consider a handful of recent titles that have garnered national attention from both academic and general audiences: “Academically Adrift,” “How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids” and “Crisis on Campus.” Believe the sentiment behind the titles, and you might be forgiven for believing colleges and universities are failing.
Craft passionately believes otherwise.
An articulate advocate for the liberal arts, Concordia’s president used his inauguration April 28 to uplift the tradition known for developing students who think coherently and communicate clearly, and work together for the greater good.
“Now is the time for liberal arts,” he said during his inauguration. “No form of learning can better cultivate the habit of asking searching questions about human being and purpose than ours.”
As he shared in an editorial written for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead newspaper, a liberal arts education benefits its graduates and the world they enter.
At Concordia, 98 percent of graduates report that they are employed, in graduate school or in full-time volunteer assignments like the Peace Corps within six months after Commencement. Concordia ranks in the top 12 percent of all U.S. colleges and universities – regardless of size – in the number of graduates who go on to earn doctorates. Concordia also shares first place among Lutheran colleges in the number of graduates who become ELCA pastors.
That’s only part of the story.
“Concordia educates the whole self, cultivating an examined life in which students ask who they are and what they are called to do as professionals, citizens and people of faith,” he wrote.
In short, the liberal arts matter.
Cultivating Our Heritage
Craft’s inauguration ceremony opened with an academic procession of faculty, students, administrators and distinguished guests led by Concordia’s international students carrying flags of their home countries. Also present were delegates from other colleges and universities.
Nearly a dozen greetings were delivered from dignitaries representing deep ties to both Concordia and Craft.
Dr. Thomas Flynn, president of Alvernia University in Pennsylvania, described Craft as a collegial and collaborative leader who has the “wit and wisdom and willingness to support what is right.” He represented the Council of Independent Colleges, but worked with Craft for many years at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland.
“We used to talk about our dreams for the future, and now you are president and servant-leader at a place that is so perfect for you,” Flynn told Craft.
Flynn’s observations have already been observed by members of the Concordia community.
“We live out the vocation we’ve chosen, rooted in faith,” Kristi Wieser ‘84, president of the National Alumni Association, said during her greeting. “You have claimed and embraced our mission. Let us go forward, seeking together.”
Dr. Linda Keup, secretary of Concordia’s faculty, noted that Craft is working with the Concordia community to create a place “in which all have the freedom to reflect, to question, to understand self and others, to take intellectual risks.”
It was all a preamble to Craft’s inauguration speech, where he laid out his hopes for Concordia in a time of challenge. He referenced a parable from the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus tells about the servant who hid his one talent rather than investing it.
“Anyone who has paid attention to the challenges of 21st century higher education knows that this parable applies emphatically to private colleges,” Craft said. “Our heritage is our faith – in learning, in beauty, in the love of God. Will we hide it away, sell it short, or, trusting in our freedom, take the risk to invest it?”
Then he laid out his argument: “Concordia College is a communal act of faith, a heritage not to barricade or to give away, but to cultivate so that we and all our graduates become responsibly engaged in the world.”
Even with real threats to the liberal arts, Craft reiterated that education is more than gathering information. It is an opportunity for students to take on challenges, fail and regroup with the mentorship of faculty who practice the same intellectual risks and invention. It’s an opportunity to take on more freedom and responsibility.
Concordia was founded to move the sons and daughters of the prairie into a larger world, Craft noted. It’s a mission that continues, although the sons and daughters of the prairie have now grown to include students from places like Tanzania and Israel - more reminders that the world is shrinking.
To end, Craft shared a clip from the movie “Sweet Land.” Adapted from a story by Will Weaver, it is set on the Minnesota prairie after World War I. It shares the story of a three-generation narrative that starts with a Norwegian farmer named Olaf who has arranged a bride to come from his homeland, only to discover that Inge is German – and therefore, they are forbidden to marry.
But when his friend Frandsen’s farm is threatened by foreclosure, Olaf takes a stand, and the community unites around the young couple, finally accepting Inge as one of their own.
Likewise, Craft said, the work of the college can’t be done alone.
“No one of us has the resources – in money, in labor, ideas – to sustain our sweet land. But together we do,” Craft said.
A New Era for Liberal Arts
The fate of liberal arts lies in this ability to labor together.
As part of the inauguration day events, Craft invited guest speakers Dr. John Churchill, secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and Dr. Earl Lewis ’78, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs at Emory University, to lead a morning seminar on the role of the liberal arts in a global age.
What Churchill and Lewis revealed is that, while the liberal arts can help make sense of an ever-interdependent world, the tradition also needs to adapt.
“The question is not whether we will accept globalization, but whether we will accept and work productively within the myriad ways in which it will shape us,” said Churchill. “We can shape our response to globalization or have it shaped for us. There can be no question which course to choose.”
A liberal arts education prepares students for sympathetic imagination, the ability to ask questions and analyze answers to understand different viewpoints - and to understand how those viewpoints were formed, Churchill said.
Students must be prepared to interact with all sorts of diversity. This is best accomplished by studying how others in the world think, talk, structure societies, create art and wealth. Understanding these systems can provide deep and wide influence, Churchill said.
“This dimension of the project of the liberal arts and sciences is not a frill, not a decoration,” he said. “It is as serious as the difference between war and peace, between justice and exploitation, or between there being, or not being, a future.”
In her response to Churchill’s comments, Dr. Susan O’Shaughnessy, professor of philosophy at Concordia, challenged her colleagues to consider how they can help students who study away in the U.S. and abroad to “value the surprise, self-examination, and creativity of playful world traveling,” a nod to an essay by Dr. Maria Lugones, a philosopher at SUNY Binghamton.
She also encouraged Concordia to be more open to how others see it.
“Concordia College has a long tradition of hospitality. We believe in the transformative power of liberal arts education and study away. We can congratulate ourselves for this, and we should, but let us not rest,” she said. “Let us really learn to see ourselves through others’ eyes.”
Still, while the liberal arts are beneficial in a diverse world, taking risks is necessary.
“We will have to be bold and courageous and willing to ask questions that may make us uncomfortable,” said Lewis, who was recently elected the next president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York City.
Lewis encouraged colleges like Concordia to own the liberal arts and to think about what that education might look like 25 years from now.
“Everything is understood to be on the table, and there are no prescribed safe harbors,” he said as he challenged liberal arts institutions to re-examine everything from structure of departments and programs to pedagogy.
He acknowledged that the obituary for liberal arts has been crafted often and prematurely. But he also argued that the Morrill Act, which introduced large, state-supported land grant universities, changed the landscape of higher education. As a result, he encouraged liberal arts colleges to write their own futures.
“Is now not the perfect time for us to self-confidently and boldly tell the world, after a period of internal reflection, that we are prepared to bet on our version of the future?” he asked.
In response to Lewis, Dr. Linda Johnson, professor of history at Concordia, noted that this moment has come “not because liberal learning is an impaired or failed approach to higher education. Rather, it is the very capacities of critical analysis and reflection that have enabled the colleges and universities in which liberal arts education has thrived, to creatively reinvent ourselves.”
Using Concordia as an example, she pointed to three resources – place, purpose and integrity – that can be used to embrace new opportunities and challenges afforded by globalization.
“In this time and place, liberal learning is neither frivolous nor an extravagance,” she said. “Owning the liberal arts is the means by which we become our truest selves in a global setting.”
As Craft stated in his inauguration speech, no form of learning can better encourage students to embrace difficult tasks, struggle and regroup again. It is the students’ ability to reflect, inquire and solve problems that will bring benefit to an ever-changing and diverse world.
Photos: Sheldon Green/Concordia College Archives