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Monday, April 21, 2014

Why Teach?

Inaugural Symposium: Why the Liberal Arts?                                                       Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Randolph College

April 25, 2014






I deeply appreciate the honor of being invited by President Bradley Bateman and the Randolph College family to share a few ideas about the liberal arts, teaching and advising. The ideas are inflected by companion ideas regarding creativity and service, the subject matter of a slightly different discourse. Thus, I focus on what I have been invited to address.


In the antiquity of Greek imagination, liberal arts (artes liberals) were essential for citizenship. A citizen was obligated to master rhetoric, the art of persuasion and public speaking; to have skill in forensic science or the art of defense in court and in making juridical decisions; to render service military and otherwise. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the trivium) were valued. These were amplified in medieval Europe to include the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy/astrology). In later iterations, logic was subordinated to accommodate history and moral philosophy (ethics), and studia humanitatis ascended, becoming the foundation for what in contemporary thought is a liberal arts education.

In 2014, as if we are existentially obligated to replay the debates “between the upholders of antiquity and those of modernity in the seventeenth century” (Jones vii) regarding the rise of the scientific movement, we concern ourselves with STEM versus the humanities.  We hear the humorous noise of Jonathan Swift’s “A Full and True Account of the Battel Fought Last Friday, between the Antient and the Modern Books in St. James’s Library,” echoes of C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, and the dirges in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  Shall citizens who ought to be agents of history in a republic where critical thinking is valued become drones of a State where the supreme values are those of capital and relentless information technologies?  The possibility of such accomplished future shock makes the interrelated questions ---Why Teach? Why Advise? ---crucial for how we choose now to deal with destiny and retain some control of our lives.

Permit me to quote famous words:

“In this rapidly changing world, there is no better preparation than learning and to work with other people to solve problems.  It is also true that the world of work becomes more international and more complex every day.  A liberal education prepares you very well to see the world from multiple perspectives.  In this sense, liberal education is the ultimate ‘career preparation’.”

“I see Randolph as a leader in the national debate about the importance of liberal education in the 21st century.”

[Randolph-Macon Woman’s College Alumnae and Randolph College Alumni Bulletin 4.2 (2013): 22, 24]

In short, President Bateman was saying the liberal arts can reduce chaos to order.

My brief remarks are explanatory footnotes for Bateman’s ideas. In the bloodless warfare entanglement requires, teaching and advising are practices watered with morality, concepts of justice, and imagination; they are actions that bespeak citizenship and membership in global societies. For over forty years, the art and joy of teaching and the ethical onus of advising have my life. The imperatives of David Walker’s 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World and the grains of wisdom I have obtained from Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince, DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions have influenced my sometimes tense, often rich, and always rewarding   engagements with students and colleagues. My discipline is English, the study of language and literature with special interest in literary theory and criticism and African American literature. From David Walker I learned how the so-called wretched of the earth were obligated to destroy the material and psychological restraints on their freedom imposed by those who violated their minds and bodies. Plato taught me the difference between a statesman and a politician and the diverse outcomes of morality in social space. From Machiavelli I learned the value of being skeptical.  DuBois instructed me how best to use the strength and resilience of my soul so as not to be crushed by the uncertainties of secular power and the unfolding of histories. From Kuhn I learned the importance of empirical evidence, patience, and exactness in changing from one paradigm of cognition to another. I delighted in teaching and transmitting what I absorbed; life drove me to see my work as a vocation not a job. My vocation would have been incomplete had I not helped my students to identify their options for action and to retreat so they would freely assume responsibility of their choices.

Teachers of my generation who taught at Randolph were most likely as invested as I was in a pedagogy which maximized the importance of making connections between our chosen disciplines and those we chose not to pursue. I was transgressive and subversive with a purpose, determined that my students would at once master specific content and be conversant with what was emphasized in other areas of study and acquisition of knowledge. Walls between disciplines in the humanities, pure and applied sciences, and the human or social sciences are maintained for discursive convenience.  Those who live fully, who embrace a liberal arts education, boldly walk through them to go where they have never been.  I share President Bateman’s belief that a liberal education prepares us for multiple careers and meaningful lives.

WORK CITED:  Jones, Richard Foster. Ancients and Moderns: A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth Century England. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.




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