September 05, 2013
Communications and Marketing
What, exactly, are the liberal arts? And what impact will a liberal arts education have on my life?
These are some of the questions that biology professor Eric Berry answered for the Class of 2017 in a lecture on the third day of the academic year. It was an introduction to the distinctive kind of education they will receive at Saint Anselm College, an education that fosters intellectual community and prepares students for a career once they graduate.
"This is the introduction lecture I wish I had received when I was a college freshman," he said. "Looking back, it would have been very helpful if someone had explained to me the larger purpose of my education. I could have better appreciated and taken advantage of those opportunities my college provided."
Berry, who is the director of the core curriculum, told students that the liberal arts education he received had a profound impact on who he has become and how he lives his life. While he chose to become a botanist, he was prepared for any vocation because he was educated to be reflective, curious, and creative.
He pointed out the fact that 98 percent of the 2012 graduating class quickly found employment, entered graduate or professional school, or became involved in service. Yet, he said, "For our lives to be full, we need success in our personal and social lives every bit as much as in our professional lives." A liberal arts education offers this broad foundation for a meaningful life.
In the phrase "liberal arts," liberal refers to the education that free-born citizens received in ancient Greece (as opposed to the specialized education given to slaves and servants). The word arts does not refer strictly to subjects like painting and poetry, but rather the different branches of human knowledge. The term liberal arts, he explained, is the study of subjects and skills that are essential for the education of a free person, conducted in the spirit of free inquiry.
"Even today," Berry said, "in order to be truly free, one must develop the intellectual depth and critical thinking ability that are the means to living a full and thoughtful life.
The college's core curriculum recently was revised and strengthened after a lengthy, multidisciplinary effort on the part of faculty and administrators. A key part of the new curriculum is a shared learning experience, or the "core of the core." Called "Conversatio," it is a carefully designed freshman course centered on "the individual, the community, and the divine."
"Life's big questions do not fit nicely within the confines of a single discipline," Berry pointed out, "so we'll begin to tackle the big questions that revolve around these three overarching themes.
The first text is Antigone, a classic Greek tragedy that involves the timeless struggle between individual rights and the demands of the state. Additional readings include Into the Wild, the true the story of a young man fleeing society in the Alaska wilds, and the writings of the desert fathers, a group of early Christian monks.
Berry also explained the meaning of the word "Conversatio." For the Benedictines, it means conversion to a monastic way of life, for it is within the monastic community that Benedictine monks seek truth. Here, he said, it means conversion to the way of life of an academic community.
A shared learning experience is important because of the emphasis on community in the Benedictine tradition, Berry said. "We value community so we make sure we have a course that fits that ideal."
- Download and listen to Eric Berry's lecture