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Chronicle Messages

Teaching and Learning for the Long Run
Fall 2000
PDF Version

The best education is meant to endure. Lessons aimed at the moment evaporate, well, momentarily. A good way to determine the value of an educational program is the staying power formula that takes into account the time that must pass before an entering college freshman reaches one's own age. For instance, it would take an 18-year-old Berry freshman 40 years to become as old as I am today. What should we teach freshmen in the year 2000 that will guide and direct them in 2040? At Berry College, we believe it is a liberal arts education that has staying power.

The Greeks invented liberal education 2,500 years ago, and the Romans perfected it. A liberal education in those days was limited to males within the ruling class, and it was thought to be the best way to prepare future leaders. For more than 700 years, Oxford and Cambridge continued the Greek and Roman educational program with the goal of producing men who would run the church, the military, and the government. The democratic educational revolutions of the modern era expanded the scope of liberal education to include women as well as those previously outside the ruling class. Based upon the thought that all citizens ought to share in ruling, liberal education became the path for social and financial mobility.

The earliest Berry curriculum was vocational in character. During John Bertrand's presidency, the college went through a number of changes that transformed Berry into a liberal arts college with professional programs in business and education. A liberal arts education does not train students for a particular job but rather prepares them to follow a variety of career paths. This is an education that confronts change.

Today's general education requirements at Berry recall the seven liberal arts of the Romans. They studied grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Berry requires writing, speech, philosophy or religion, mathematics, fine arts, and the natural and social sciences. It is really quite remarkable that we persist in requiring subjects that have been required of future leaders from the time of Pericles, Julius Caesar, Queen Elizabeth I, Thomas Jefferson, and John F. Kennedy. What is it about this form of education that makes it so enduring?

A liberal education teaches us that the basic human problems and concerns -- those concerning faith, justice, virtue, love, and death -- have persisted from earliest times. Pope Julius II, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Robert Oppenheimer all confronted issues that continue to confront us today. Their responses to enduring questions help us gain perspective upon them. Thus liberal learning includes a sense of history and the recognition that we have much in common with distant people as well as much to learn from them.

We also learn that community responsibilities must be balanced by the interests of individuals. One size doesn't fit all. People who are quite different from us nevertheless have equal claims to certain rights. James Madison argued that an effective constitution would balance the goals of special interest groups and the state so that a minority would not be persecuted by a majority or that an aggressive minority could not work effectively against the community as a whole. Madison formed his ideas out of a reading list that resembles elements of required reading at many liberal arts colleges today.

A third great lesson from liberal learning is that we must rid our minds of unexamined thoughts and unquestioning allegiance to the dictates of others. From time to time, in fact, we must bite the hand that feeds us. If Frederick Douglass had settled for the life into which he was born, he would have lived out his days as a slave. If Martha Berry had accepted family expectations, she would have married, produced heirs, and dismissed her dream of carrying out an educational revolution. Not every protest is valid, nor does every rejection of conventional wisdom make sense. Nevertheless, history teaches that occasional rejections of what we have been taught are vital to the health of the culture.

Life in a democracy is never smooth. Good people can disagree, and often do. And not everyone is good. Sometimes the claims of the community do indeed override the interests of small groups, and then again, the opposite can happen. And while most of what we are taught at home and in school is valid, we are sometimes taught nonsense. In the past, some people have argued that African-Americans were better suited to slavery than to freedom; that women lacked the brains to own property or to vote; that Jews were behind Germany's problems in the 1920s; and that poor people in fact prefer poverty as a way of life. Over the years I have heard such teachings -- and others that are equally absurd -- in church, at school, in public forums, and alas, even at home. It is no minor paradox that I also encountered some of the most enduring and morally uplifting lessons of a lifetime in those very same places.

How does one sort out such things? The best way is to compare what one is thinking to what people have thought for the past 2,500 years, to hold to the conviction that community interests must be balanced with individual interests, and to be ready to question what one is taught. Questioning actually makes one a better student and a better citizen, and it even strengthens one's religious convictions. How else can we sit on a jury and effectively render justice? Or vote wisely in elections? Or raise our children for a future that will surely be quite different from the familiar past? Indeed, how can we take the walk of faith unless we choose our own steps and refrain from following what could be a wayward path suggested by the misguided? As different as we are from fifth-century Greeks, Romans during the reign of Augustus, and Oxford and Cambridge students of 100 years ago, we nevertheless must make our way through a sometimes confusing world. A liberal education is a tried and true guide. It is an education for the long run.

Dr. Scott Colley
Berry College President

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