RENEWING THE LIBERAL ARTS FOR A GLOBAL CENTURY
President S. Alan Ray
Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel, November 8, 2008
Welcome and Introduction
Members of the board of trustees, students, faculty, and staff, distinguished guests, members of the Elmhurst community, my friends, and my family: Thank you for coming here today to help celebrate and inaugurate the next chapter in the history of Elmhurst College. To those who have traveled far, and to the Native American members of the Anawim Center of Chicago, a special thanks for joining us. In Cherokee, ulihelisdi nigadv, welcome everyone.
Diagnosis of the Present
In the following remarks I will attempt to offer a sketch of the situation in which we find ourselves, a diagnosis, if you will, of the present. Then, I will offer some thoughts on where we go from here, where “we” is Elmhurst College, but you friends can come along, too.
Let’s begin our diagnosis of the present, by starting from an unlikely place. In 1919, nine years after Reinhold Niebuhr graduated from Elmhurst College, the Czech fiction writer Franz Kafka published “An Imperial Message,” and it goes like this:
Kafka’s classic parable can be read as a philosophical meditation on our hubristic tendency as human beings to imagine that we can achieve perfect transcendence over time and history, that we possess the power to effect whatever we will, at a moment’s notice, when in fact dense, frustrating, grungy life stands in our way at every instant.
An aphorism attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr makes a similar observation on human nature from the perspective of a version of the Christian doctrine of original sin. Niebuhr is quoted to say, “Original sin is that thing about man which makes him capable of conceiving of his own perfection and incapable of achieving it.”
One can read “An Imperial Message,” then, as an existential judgment: because of human nature or original sin, we are incapable of achieving perfection—“Nobody could fight his way through here”—but we can conceive of our perfection; in fact we routinely “sit by the window” and “dream it to ourselves.”
Kafka and Reinhold Niebuhr make an interesting paring, don’t they? But these interpretations from philosophy and theology do not explain the specific way in which we experience the limits of our transcendence today. For that, I invite you to consider conclusions coming from a different direction, namely, the critical-historical perspective.
According to that perspective, Kafka’s parable can be read as a critique of Western cultural dominance—its “imperialism”—and our experience of the gradual, fitful dislocation of European and Euroamerican institutions as worldwide centers of power and knowledge since the 19th century. That reading places Kafka’s Imperial City as a worthy successor to the famous strand in Matthew Arnold’s 1851 poem, “Dover Beach”: a place where the “light” of European civilization, shining from France across the English Channel, “gleams and is gone.” In Kafka’s words, we dream the dream of inevitable Western progress to ourselves “as evening falls.” Lights blinking out—twilight descending. Colonial powers beginning to buckle beneath their own weight. And normative Christianity on the wane.
Enter Reinhold’s younger brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, Elmhurst Class of 1912. After he returned to serve as our sixth President in 1924, Niebuhr, who aspired for Elmhurst to become a completely modern American institution, called for the College to dedicate itself to the transmission of Western science and culture. Historian Melitta Cutright tells us that Niebuhr, writing in 1925, “addressed the debate over whether [Elmhurst College and the Evangelical Church] should try to hang onto their German roots.” Niebuhr advocated that the College contribute to “its students and through them to an ever widening circle...the best elements in that culture which its founders brought to America.” Niebuhr urged that German science, literature, philosophy, music, and religious thought enrich and “fructify the soil of America as other national cultures have fructified it” so that the College “will seek to be ever more America.”
It is not surprising that Niebuhr, like most Euroamericans of his time—or now—did not consider that “the soil of America” was already “fructified” by its millions of indigenous inhabitants and their millennia-long complex cultures. Niebuhr’s project was, after all, one of attempted recentering, a deployment of Euroamerican scientific and cultural resources in the service of the College, its students, and those within the College’s “ever widening circle” of influence. What went before was simply a terra nullius—a barren land waiting to be “fructified” and filled with new cultures and Christian denominations from abroad, meaning Europe. In time, H. Richard Niebuhr would become a Christian advocate for world religions and their associated cultures, a proto-pluralist, but when he assumed the Elmhurst presidency in 1924 at a mere 30 years of age, his perspective was considerably more constrained.
Niebuhr the President pursued his project upon a familiar model. Elmhurst College, like all institutions of liberal education in the United States, had constructed itself conscious of British and European antecedents. Put simply, this meant the delineation of disciplines performed within departments associated with the so-called liberal arts: the fine and performing arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Such a liberal arts education, set within a college-system or a central administrative structure, became the foundation of higher learning in America. And for Christian church-affiliated schools like Elmhurst, this foundation had to be squared with religious commitments aligned with the denominations and their own social forms and economic needs.
Elmhurst College clearly came of age under H. Richard Niebuhr. Niebuhr saw that the scientific and historical life-world of America in the early 20th century was increasingly centering upon ideals of material and political progress that competed with the tenets and institutions of Western Christianity. An excellent administrator, Niebuhr experienced this displacement in the rather blunt form of declining Synod financial support for the College: the market test, as it were, for ministerial preparation. Niebuhr would attempt in his scholarship and administration to resolve the dilemma of two centers for life, one modern and Western the other religious and Christian, with a strong emphasis on the transcendence of God over all human constructs.
But can “the center”—either center, Western or Christian—“hold,” as W.B. Yeats put it, in his poem, “The Second Coming”? Can the Emperor’s message ever arrive?
My answer is “no.” Kafka’s Emperor, you will recall, is now “a dead man.” My diagnosis is that we live in a time when neither normative Western culture nor normative Christianity can “hold,” can claim to be an absolute center, either for our public discourse, or for us in higher education who would prepare students for lives in the public square.
Today the public square, like Kafka’s imperial capital, is crowded with action, noisy to a fault, competitive by any means and by all. German is not our language at Elmhurst College. We are proud of our heritage in and affiliation with the United Church of Christ, but we struggle to define what mutual obligations that affiliation may impose. We celebrate the Niebuhr brothers and are proud to hail them as our alumni—no one more than I. Yet we may not take their legacy for granted but must recover it anew, if we can, for a time of radical pluralism, for an age after empire, which I call a global century.
And we celebrate that pluralism and this global century. Look around in this marvelous venue. Or recall the scene in Chicago’s Grant Park, four nights ago, when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. As in Grant Park, so here you will see around you persons of many religious traditions and none. Persons of faith and those who are seeking and those who are not. You will see the indigenous peoples of this continent, Native Americans and citizens of First Nations from numerous tribes and bands, and people who descend from Europe, Africa and Asia as well as Central and South America. Among you are citizens of the United States but also citizens of other countries. I wonder if H. Richard Niebuhr in 1925 could have imagined such a gathering!
Certainly he would be surprised to learn that, like many colleges, some 60 percent of our students are women. In 1919, the same year that Kafka penned “An Imperial Message,” the College declined to consider the request of the New York district of the Synod that we admit women—apparently another “message” that could not fight its way through the outer palace and the capital city. Indeed, the admittance of women to the College would not be approved until 1929.
As much as we rejoice in the rich opportunities we are offered by such a diverse and diversifying community, we are challenged to make sense of it, to facilitate order without reinscribing ideologies and disciplines, to build community without uniformity, and to innovate and compete without yielding to a crass economic model of education.
There is another dimension to our situation. This time of radical pluralism and decentering of Euroamerican culture and institutions coincides with an onslaught of technologies that excite our brains even as they exacerbate the disconnectedness of our minds. In the absence of robust consensus values and social norms, and in the presence of thin norms around technology, information explodes while social cohesion and organization falters and fails.
In 2007, the late fiction writer and essayist David Foster Wallace called our current situation a “tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective that constitutes Total Noise.” Ours is a world, as Kafka put it, “crammed to bursting with its own sediment.” Wallace claimed that we consume information at a rate,
Wallace continues, “Such basic absorption, organization, and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, a.k.a. an informed citizen—at least that’s what I got taught. Suffice it here to say that the requirements now seem different.”
What, then, is our responsibility as educators, administrators, trustees, and students? What can and should Elmhurst College do to provide, in Wallace’s words, a “triage of saliency and values” in the face of “Total Noise”? How do we conduce to the formation of “an informed citizen”? In the presence of radical pluralism, how do we grab hold of pluralism’s humanizing possibilities and avoid the worst of its deracinating effects? The way forward, I believe, requires us to do nothing less than to renew the liberal arts for a global century.
At his inauguration as President of the College in 1972, Ivan Frick had observed, “the most important issue before colleges today is renewal. The key question is: Is higher education able to revitalize itself: its programs, institutions and structures?”
Today, for a global century, we at Elmhurst College will renew the liberal arts through our highly intentional focus on two things. First, the self-formation of our students as beings possessed of potentially rich, complex, and compassionate interior lives, coupled with, second, their early, intensive and comprehensive preparation for meaningful lives of service and professional success, however they define it. Allow me to elaborate on this vision for Elmhurst College.
A Vision for Elmhurst College
For many years under the leadership and insight of Bryant Cureton, my immediate predecessor, Elmhurst College challenged its students to “think deeply, connect broadly, serve usefully, and live faithfully.” In his 1994 inaugural address, President Cureton said, “Liberal education and preparation for life’s work desperately need each other.”
These two hallmarks were kept in mind when the College began a broad-based strategic planning process last July, which included students, faculty, administrators, and trustees, and will soon extend to alumni and alumnae, employers, UCC members around the Great Lakes region, friends of the College, and Elmhurst community leaders. Although the process is not yet complete and the approvals of faculty and trustees must be sought, I am excited to share with you the shape of our collective thinking and my own aspirations for the future of this distinguished institution.
First, what is our mission, our purpose as a College? We have answered: “Elmhurst College challenges its students to engage in intellectual and spiritual self-formation and to prepare for meaningful work in a global society. Learning from the communities that sustain us, we serve as a vibrant cultural and intellectual resource and live out our commitment to the social and ecumenical values of the United Church of Christ.”
Second, what is our vision, our self-conception in action? Again, we answer:
While the final form of our planning for the College’s future remains to be decided, it is clear that we will respond creatively to what I have diagnosed as the decentering of normative Western culture and normative Christianity. This response is underway, as our faculty renew the liberal arts by continuing to embrace cultures, pedagogies, and other social constructs which were formerly “at the margins” of higher education. We do so not to install these knowledges at the center previously occupied as of right by the traditional disciplines—we renounce the transcendental center, we renounce Kafka’s Emperor—but to expose our students and the faculty themselves to a multitude of life-worlds and ways of knowing, to enrich, indeed to fulfill the potential of, liberal education itself.
But we must not only raise up subjugated knowledges. We must become increasingly interdisciplinary. Let’s identify social and natural phenomena and study them together in all their complexity, never simplifying for the sake of disciplinary orthodoxy. Such academic cooperation, I am happy to say, is already taking place at Elmhurst College, thanks to the collaborative and innovative spirit of our faculty and students. The wonderful student and faculty presentations celebrating this Inaugural Week amply demonstrate my colleagues’ commitment to meeting the world in all its complexity with a sense of curiosity and humility.
Finally, we must renew the liberal arts by introducing new voices to the conversation. The same people asking new questions is not a bad thing. But better are new voices asking new questions in new ways: voices previously subordinated to those of our dominant society, voices from other parts of the United States and from other countries. Diversity on campus, study and research abroad, and greater international student and faculty engagement is required. We renew the liberal arts for a global century—but in truth the global century is already renewing liberal education here at Elmhurst.
Renewing the liberal arts in a decentered world must occur not only within the faculty. The task requires us to ask our students to take up what I have elsewhere called, “the exquisite work of the self,” which here implies students’ responsibility for constructing their lives around the core values of the College.
We have identified these core values as, first, consistent with the living commitments of the United Church of Christ, the development of spirituality in its many forms—religious and nonreligious—and the exploration of life’s ultimate questions through dialogue and service; second, intellectual excellence and the meaningful integration of liberal learning and professional preparation; third, community and the celebration of cultural diversity and community members’ concomitant responsibilities; fourth, social responsibility on the local, national and global levels; and fifth, stewardship of our human, fiscal, and physical resources on this thriving and beautiful campus.
Our core values—spiritual self-formation, intellectual excellence, diverse community, social responsibility, and resource stewardship—will inform the lives and work of our students during their days with us. Our goal is simple to state and difficult to realize: to graduate students who are both deeply thoughtful about life and their place in a world with shifting borders, and able to step into meaningful careers or graduate school in a world of intense competition. While we will never minimize the challenges of the latter, nor shall we forsake the goodness of the former—the world has enough driven careerists and technocrats without Elmhurst College contributing to their number.
In conclusion, I would like to say, first, what a joy it has been to begin my service in this community, this wonderful Elmhurst College. I share with many of you an expectancy that great labors lie ahead of us. But unlike the imperial messenger, we are up to the task, because we no longer live in the imperial city, we live in a place of our own making and it is a very good home.
As we begin to reform and reorder this home and assist our students in their vital self-transformations, I ask us to regard the possible from the perspective of the poet Wallace Stevens. In his poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” Stevens describes a walk on a starry night with a friend, Ramon, along the city’s old harbor. What might our irrepressible desire to make sense of this world, to diagnose our present situation in order to draw out its finest possibilities, tell us about ourselves and our origins? Listen to the poet’s words:
In Cherokee, wado, thank you.
Cureton, Bryant. “Designing the Doors of Learning,” November 5, 1994 (Inaugural Address). In Bryant L. Cureton, The Doors of Learning: Reflections from a Presidency. Elmhurst, IL: Elmhurst College, 2008.
Cutright, Melitta J. An Ever-Widening Circle: The Elmhurst College Years. Elmhurst, IL: Elmhurst College, 1995.
Elmhurst College Strategic Plan 2009. Draft of November 1, 2008.
Frick, Ivan. “Educational Renewal: The Need of Our Time.” April 23, 1972 (Inaugural Address).
Kafka, Franz. “An Imperial Message.” In Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories. Nahum N. Glatzer, ed. NY: Schocken Books, 1971.
Stevens, Wallace. “The Idea of Order at Key West.” In The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. NY: Vintage, 1982.
Wallace, David Foster. “Introduction: Deciderization 2007—A Special Report.” In The Best American Essays 2007. David Foster Wallace, ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2008.