Food for thought

Davis & Elkins College is a private, liberal arts, church affiliated, residential college. Each of these descriptors is of high importance to me. Of all these terms, liberal arts is the one that garners the most reflection. Recently, I encountered someone who challenged both our definition and the impact of liberal arts institutions such as D&E.

The President Emeritus of Davidson University, Dr. John Kuykendall, delivered the keynote address at the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities Conference I attended in New Orleans. Through this 500-word column, I will not even attempt to do justice to his remarks nor to his book titled “Lighting the Mind for Action,” but he did provide much food for thought.

In May of 1781 future U.S. President John Adams wrote the following to his son, and future U.S. President John Quincy Adams: “You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.” The centrality of this ethical and civic directive was understood to be the very heart of a liberal arts education in Adams’s time. In our day, Kuykendall argues, this emphasis is in danger of being lost.

The original concept of the liberal arts originates in ancient Athens as civic arts. The liberal arts referred not so much to specific subject matter but rather “… to three ‘discipline free’ uses to which language could be put – to argue, to persuade, or to comprehend the elements of persuasive argument.” Another way to phrase this would be logic, rhetoric and grammar. In its traditional sense, students graduated from liberal arts institutions and were sent into their communities to benefit not just themselves, but the whole of society. Liberal arts graduates were … and I would argue still are … a cornerstone of a healthy democracy.

Dr. Kuykendall went on to describe character development as a hallmark of a true liberal arts education. “We’ve witnessed a coach’s advice or example and a chaplain’s counsel alter the direction of a student’s life; we’ve watched as students modeled themselves after faculty mentors; and we’ve seen an honor system become so securely lodged in students’ souls as to last far beyond their college years.” Alarmingly, there are colleges today, even those affiliated with Christian denominations, that do not see character development as central to their mission.

Central to Davis & Elkins College’s mission and identity is our commitment to the liberal arts. Our ongoing reflection, dialogue and discernment will enable us to continually define the impact of this intentional direction upon the educational product we deliver and its long-lasting effect upon our graduates.

In a society that is increasingly polarized by our politics and divided by ethical and moral quandaries, a revisiting of the traditional liberal arts might produce a salve for the open wounds our society is suffering. America’s small liberal arts colleges provide great promise for developing civic leaders of character, ethics and integrity … a new generation to lead us toward a brighter and a more civil future.

“More than ever today,” according to “Lighting the Mind for Action,” “… America needs men and women who, by force of word and dint of character, offset the popular media, raise the level of public debate, and repair the civic fabric of splintered communities.”

The journey continues….