A Toolbox for Tinkering: An Angsty Teen’s Discovery of the Liberal Arts

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As I slumped in the back of the admissions presentation at the start of my college road trip, my mother eyed my lack of notetaking with a ferocity that it seems only she can produce. While she furiously scribbled every detail of the presentation and I half-listened to the speaker, one word caught my attention: holistic, defined as an approach to education that emphasizes the intimate interconnectedness of many different subjects as opposed to a single-minded focus on one. This word was later burned into my brain by every admissions counselor at every university I toured and was presented as though it made their institution unique, a fact I found rather ironic. The liberal arts ideal was repeated ad nauseum, and I accepted it as a cliché designed to make me feel good about my choice to go somewhere different. In a world where business and education are tied up by perverse necessity, I treated these presentations like the marketing schemes they were, and as an NCAA cross country and track hopeful, I was far more focused on the athletics side of the university process anyway. All the buzzwords and admissions counseling in the world did not matter. I chose Butler University as my holistic institution of choice because of the excellent cross country and track programs. Little else influenced this decision.

Upon arriving on campus as a freshman, I was excited about the opportunity to dive into my running and quickly became more athlete than student. I managed academically but if the opportunity to nap arose… Well, let’s just say I was more absent from class than I should have been. Despite my – probably unhealthy but desired – laser focus on the world of running, I felt off balance. Frustrated at my self-inflicted lack of intellectual exploration, I felt lost, seeing figments of patterns to important issues and theories in the world but not yet equipped to explore them.

During my sophomore year, my perspective began to change, and two truths revealed themselves:

 1.      If I continued down this path, my transcript might look fine, but I would waste away a chance at a great education.

2.     I wanted to express the deep love of learning that I had suppressed beneath the surface during my freshman year.

Realizing the importance of balance between my two lives – student and athlete – was my first lesson in the liberal arts. Balance broadens scope. I started reading heavily, wrote short essays on extracurricular interests, and began showing up to class with regularity and enthusiasm.

A course in ecology and evolution taught by Dr. Carmen Salsbury launched this shift. I was hooked from the first day as she combined science, environmental crises, and systemic social issues in ways that I had not considered before. She demonstrated the practical importance of the holism that all those admissions counselors had espoused. The idea that I might be able to combine the analytical sciences with fields like sociology, philosophy, English, and more rejuvenated my intellectual curiosity. Further, it planted a seed in the back of my brain that I could do something of importance in my life. It pushed me to dream.

As my love for learning snowballed into my junior and senior years, I took classes with professors in areas outside of my majors and requirements. I fell in love with the liberal arts approach to problem solving and sought courses that would challenge me and my perspective. I also began to ponder bigger questions. Why are we here? What does good and evil really mean? Does morality exist? Anyone who has thought of such questions know that this is dangerous territory with potential to lead the untrained mind towards dreaded existential spirals. Without some sort of methodological framework to hold the pieces in place, inquiry dissolves into incoherent sludge that is difficult to sift through.

Dr. Brent Hege’s courses in theology allowed me to see that there is a productive way to approach these depths. The golden ticket? Critical interactivity through the liberal arts: a questioning and re-questioning of concepts through the utilization of different perspectives, both personal and intellectual. In talking over the concept of god, my classmates and I referenced painting, photography, scientific literature, and more. This pluralistic discussion on complex ideas is critical thinking in process. This approach creates shared perspectives by granting participants the opportunity to step into (and challenge) a near infinite number of viewpoints using different intellectual filters. Discussions of this sort are the pinnacle of the liberal arts: a dedicated space that welcomes different perspectives with rigor and legitimate criticism.

In this age of endless information, there are many – particularly on the right side of the political aisle – who are calling for a revival of critical thinking, yet this liberal arts approach is not usually what they mean. Instead of a Socratic seminar based in pluralism, they typically mean whatever “critical” path they took to arrive at their own viewpoint (for that is the rational one of course!). The internet gives humanity a forum to debate endlessly, yet we fail to develop any real discourse. In fact, we cannot even seem to define the hazy categories of fact, truth, and opinion. The pandemic is an obvious case of pseudo-scientific information infecting every corner of the web. A popular saying among many during these troubling times is “trust the science” but often those asserting this rhetoric either know very little about science or have no interest in examining a technical methods section to assess the validity of a work. And frankly, I don’t know many people – myself included – who want to make this nit-picky pursuit their pastime. To say blankly “trust the science” is to dismiss the discipline’s extremely problematic history. How can one make such a sweeping assertion, especially to populations who have been historically used, lied to, and even killed because of scientific research deemed “fact?” The post-enlightenment age is ripe with arrogance. Stories like that of Henrietta Lacks – a black woman whose immortal cell line was taken without her or her family’s consent, profited off of, and is currently used in labs around the world – reveal that science does not exist in a moral vacuum. Eugenics, the racist study of human populations and genetic lines used infamously by the Nazi’s among others, is another horrific example of what goes wrong when humanity takes science as fact without thinking first. So then, what is fact? What is opinion? What is truth? And what on Earth should we believe?

It would be an enormous task to make a pass at defining these words and establishing the boundaries between them. It would also be the wrong approach. If the unhinged nights of existential spiraling that I endured prior to Dr. Hege’s collective framework taught me anything, it is that truth cannot be grasped. It, like everything else – science, morality, theology, etc. – is a fiction of our own creation. There seems to be no way to separate our perception from the perceived as it is. The key here is that this representation of truth in its truest form, Kant’s phenomenon, is still important even though it may be inaccessible. Just the idea that truth exists – regardless of whether or not it actually does – provides us with hope, allowing us to lead lives with direction towards something we deem good.

But alas, herein lies another conundrum. What is meant by good? The entire conscious history of our species is shadowed by “good” ideals turning out to be very, very evil indeed. Hindsight is 20/20. Ironically this sentiment itself reflects a contemporary morality, one that will certainly be exposed and criticized by future generations. Welcome to the great impasse of relativism, where is the way out?

The path through the spiral lies in one critical assumption: truth exists. Philosophers may debate all day long about the existence of such a concept as truth, but it is this writer’s opinion that belief of truth is essential for human life on this earth. Such an assertion is not a belief in truth but rather a belief of truth. The former rigidly indoctrinates while the latter allows space for growth and discovery. Truth is like a cool breeze on a hot summer’s day. You cannot see it, but you know it is there. It refreshes your skin, tousles your hair, tickles your nose, and crisps the tip of your tongue. When breathing, it nourishes blood with oxygen the body craves. It incorporates. Truth, both as moral theory and everyday practice, is unseeable and infinite, but by utilizing a complex intellectual structure of great diversity in the same way that many senses combine to approach the concept of air, we might too approach truth insofar as we can. The mechanism – the tools – are the way out. By breaking open the liberal arts toolbox, we may avoid many of the dangers that powerful and rigid institutions – churches, governments, etc. – have had. By constantly questioning and modifying our understanding of truth as a collective, a society’s ethic is shaped by the people who live in it. We do not have a moral imperative to grasp truth, for that is impossible, but we do have a responsibility to get as close as we can.

Recently, I’ve been hearing the phrase: “the liberal arts are dead” in reaction to a stifling of funding to the arts, humanities, and general education. Countless people – my teenage self included – deem the holistic liberal arts an impractical ideal that will not lead to meaningful success in the material world. How many times have I heard the classic: “that [insert non-STEM field here] degree is worthless?” In a world where value is equivalent to money – where return on investment is used as the indicator of educational quality – the prior statement is par for the course. Even though it may be applicable, this mentality is dangerous, creating an environment of steep polarization where one cannot understand the other. In the long run, the fetishization of economic value over all – and the systemic implementation of this ideal – produces “educated” individuals that lack the necessary tools to understand different points of view. By opening our minds and hearts through educational institutions that emphasize critical debate, conversation, and the collective pursuit of truth, we may develop a society that maximizes the benefits of truth while minimizing the pitfalls of static ideology.

The drama, name calling, and hate present in much of today’s discourse is rooted in a simple lack of training, a systemically caused inability to see the world from other perspectives. The education system must emphasize this pursuit by giving students the intellectual tools that they need to navigate a post-structuralist world, one that questions endlessly. The death of holism as an intellectual framework for wonder, curiosity, and learning is not yet something to mourn. The liberal arts are something to fight for, and fight for dearly for the sake of ourselves, each other, and the world. We are not just morally obligated to approach truth as concept. We are also called to support, defend, and enable the frameworks that make its pursuit possible, for all.

And so, to the kid sitting in the back of an admissions room rolling their eyes at the marketing, the hype, and the holism… don’t be too quick to judge. Take the opportunity to learn, explore, challenge, and be challenged. There might just be something to this whole liberal arts thing after all.

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Nick Robie is the founder of The UJ. He studies biology and Spanish (with a healthy helping of the humanities on the side)! Nick enjoys reading, writing, and sparking conversation.

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