Timothy Austin Keynote Speech

The following prepared remarks were delivered by Dr. Timothy Austin, Provost of Duquesne University at An Academic Symposium on the occasion of the Inauguration of Dr. Steven R. DiSalvo. The tenth president of Saint Anselm College on Wednesday, October 16, 2013.

Dr. Timothy AustinI want to begin by thanking the College, and more particularly Fr. Augustine, for inviting me to join this celebratory symposium today - the opening act, so to speak, of what promises to be a festive three days, marked by solemn liturgy, impressive ceremonial, and speechifying of various kinds.

Indeed, as many of you are already aware, this will be very first event of its kind in the history of this institution - an observation that may remind the over-60 crowd in this room (as it did me) of the stand-up routines made famous by the late comedian, Red Buttons. You can still catch the good Mr. Buttons on Netflix, starring in a number of undistinguished Hollywood disaster movies, including the granddaddy of them all, the original Poseidon Adventure. But during the 1970s, he was at least as well known for the speeches he delivered at a serious of celebrity "roasts" broadcast on national television, in which he affectionately poked fun at individuals like George Burns, Frank Sinatra and even a pre-White-House Ronald Reagan. Buttons would begin each of these orations by asking with mock indignation why the other celebrities of the day should have been brought together to fete the individual in the seat of honor at the head table when many, many great women and men over the centuries had never, ever had a dinner held to mark their singular achievements. 

The same approach, it occurred to me as I prepared these remarks some weeks ago, might be readily adapted to fit the context of this afternoon's symposium. I am fortunate to have known Dr. DiSalvo for longer than most of you in the room today, our paths having crossed some two decades ago when we worked as colleagues for a while at Loyola University Chicago. I also like and respect Dr. DiSalvo. All the same, to paraphrase Mr. Buttons, distinguished figures from many walks of life have built unmatched reputations in their fields without ever being honored at an inaugural symposium such as this one.

Pioneer aviator Orville Wright, who said to his brother Will when they landed on the beach at Kittyhawk, "We were only in the air for twelve seconds; how the heck did our bags end up in Cleveland?" ... Orville Wright was never honored with an inaugural symposium!

Joe Torre, the nine-time All-Star, who was too chicken to play catcher and therefore moved to first base despite that fact that it meant going through the rest of his life being known as the Chicken Catcher Torre ... Joe Torre never received an inaugural symposium in his honor!

William Shakespeare, the most famous dramatist of all time never to pass the SATs because he always arrived at the testing center with the wrong kind of pencil (as he later remarked, "2B or not 2B?") ... William Shakespeare was never honored in this way!

And even our much admired and respected Father Jonathan, the Order of Saint Benedict's benevolent - and restrained - answer to Chef Gordon Ramsay ... even Father Jonathan received no inaugural symposium like this one today!

So why, I ask you, why are we honoring Dr. Steven DiSalvo in this very special - and indeed (for Saint Anselm College) unique - fashion?

It's a question that deserves a thoughtful response, and this afternoon I intend to offer such a response based on a three-part argument. First, I shall outline why I believe that the future of the liberal arts as an intellectual field of study is bright (the assertions of certain naysayers notwithstanding); next, I will argue that we can be similarly sanguine about the prospects for a sustained focus on the liberal arts as a highlight of American higher education; and then, in a final turn, I will suggest how Saint Anselm College, under Dr. DiSalvo's leadership, can and should play a leading role in ensuring that our aspirations for the continued health and prosperity of the liberal arts are fully realized.

Let us begin, then, by stepping back - back from the comparatively small world of a specific college or university campus, back even from the domain of higher education at all - to consider our topic, "the future of the liberal arts," in the broadest possible sense. Some five years ago, author Maggie Jackson published a provocative book in which she lamented what she viewed as contemporary society's declining ability to engage in deeply engaged and focused thinking. The book's title was Distracted, but the gloomy picture that Ms. Jackson painted was more clearly signaled in its subtitle: "The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age."[1] One can readily find other recent essays and monographs that adopt similar perspectives to Ms. Jackson's, and, as we shall shortly see, I by no means agree with all her conclusions. But I do recommend Distracted as an enjoyable and challenging read. Ms. Jackson's journalistic skill is evident in her deployment of illustrative examples drawn from many areas of life and she is a refreshingly honest debater, taking great care to acknowledge even evidence that runs counter to her major thesis. But, in the context of this afternoon's discussion, we very much need to assess the strength of that thesis, because if Ms. Jackson is right, it is precisely the "future of the liberal arts" that is imperiled by the forces that she detects at work all around us.

How many times, after all, have we heard "critical thinking skills" and "clear and persuasive communication" named as key outcomes of the intellectual training provided by the liberal arts? Well, these are precisely the intellectual skills about whose long-term survival Ms. Jackson expresses the greatest skepticism. Or, if you prefer, think of our internalized image of "college life" - an idyll that probably never existed, here in Goffstown or anywhere else, yet lives on in our imaginations to resurface whenever we sit around discussing our own "college days." In that idealized setting, eager and articulate undergraduates stay up late into the night, passionately discussing the finer points of some literary, philosophical, scientific or theological classic. Now, subtract from that scenario the capacity of the participants to read complex texts analytically, their capacity to focus accurately on the most important elements of those texts, and their capacity to redeploy those elements in conversations with other equally engaged peers - subtract those capacities and what remains is no different from a casual conversation about the latest episode of The Kardashians or the outcome of the latest Patriots game. It is imperative, therefore, that we review the premises of Ms. Jackson's argument and determine whether, taken together, they support her prediction that the dark clouds of Mordor are spreading across Middle Earth.

Ms. Jackson constructs her case by examining some key twentieth- and twenty-first-century developments that have contributed to the "distracted-ness" of today's generations.

She invites us to consider, for example, how interpersonal relationships have become devalued in a world in which technology has, ever since the advent of the telegraph and the telephone, increasingly robbed us of an appreciation of time and space that is anchored in the here and the now. As a result, she suggests, we increasingly believe that hundreds of friends-at-a-distance can substitute for half a dozen friends-around-the-corner - or, for that matter, for the members of a nuclear family gathered around the dinner table.

Our myriad devices, hand-held and otherwise, encourage us to engage in constant multi-tasking - this despite incontrovertible evidence that human beings are simply incapable of managing this feat (or at least of doing so with any degree of practical success).

The ease with which we can now monitor the actions of another person - whether that person is the babysitter whom we left at home with our toddler or the suspicious stranger lurking outside its gate - has left us confused about the role trust should play in adult, mutually respectful relationships with our fellow human beings.

And in the realm of the word - of books and letters and documents - digitization, for all its benefits, has inflicted unsuspected collateral damage. On the one hand, it has led us to view reading as a process characterized by almost limitless breadth (or quantity) but minimal depth (or quality). On the other, digitization has also brought us to believe that our intellectual and cultural heritage is now secure, stored safely in the cloud or in multiple copies on multiple servers, immune to the kinds of natural catastrophe that reduced the records of past civilizations to ash, to shreds, or to mounds of sodden, inky parchment. Unfortunately, she informs us on the basis of some thorough and thoroughly unsettling research, this is very far from the case.

A common thread, of course, unites the case studies that fill the pages of Distracted. In each instance, Ms. Jackson points to a technological innovation richly endowed with what seems at first blush tremendous promise for the betterment of humankind; when she digs just a little deeper, however, she uncovers each innovation's unsuspected downside potential. And while that downside potential differs in detail from one example to the next, it turns out that her case studies share one vital feature: invariably caught in the cross-hairs of technological progress, Ms. Jackson claims, is the all-important capacity of homo sapiens to commit sustained attention - whether to the task at hand, to an individual with whom one has a relationship, to the logic undergirding an argument, ... or, I guess, to the speaker at an inaugural symposium. (OK, I was just testing you there. I guess you're still with me.)

To be fair, in the closing paragraphs of her book, Ms. Jackson leaves open the possibility that we may escape successfully from our current distracted state. "We are [both] on the cusp of an astonishing time," she writes, "and on the edge of darkness. [...] The choice is ours." But an open-minded reader does not come away from this book, I believe, with much doubt that Ms. Jackson's money is riding on the more pessimistic outcome.

If I line up on the other side, on the optimistic side of this speculative dispute, it is because I view the technological advances that Ms. Jackson cites - all of which, as it happens, occurred in my lifetime - I view these advances as only the latest and therefore to us the most remarkable in a string of such developments that stretches back over centuries, even millennia.

To take just one example closely linked with today's symposium, the history of a form of technology closely associated with liberal learning, the book, is a long and spectacularly winding one. Yesterday's hypertexts and today's Nooks and Kindles look, feel and respond differently to their forebears, to be sure. But it is not as if the technology surrounding the creation, distribution and consumption of written text had remained static for very long at any point in its evolution. And if, as Ms. Jackson herself concedes, the way in which we relate to the written or printed word has evolved - messily, non-linearly, and erratically - through periods of great innovation and periods of comparative stagnation - it is equally true that one can readily enough find commentators in all of those eras who spilled quantities of ink lamenting the implications of each change for the future of civilization, for intelligent human life as we know it - that is, in effect, for "the future of the liberal arts." Plato, of course, famously worried that writing on a wax tablet with a stylus - the new technology of his day - would erode his ability and that of his less able contemporaries to memorize complex thoughts. Twenty-five hundred years later, Ms. Jackson and many others like her are equally concerned about where we are headed. I simply cannot share their alarm.

I prefer to believe in the ability - indeed, the determination - of the human race to adopt, if necessary adapt and apply with skill and insight whatever technology brings us. It may take time, I concede, to overcome the less desirable high-glitz-and-glamour side-effects, the bells and whistles of the technologies that admittedly dazzle and distract us today. But I am confident that we will find ways to do so and that we will instead, put those new resources to work in the service of our innate and irrepressible drive to learn, to explore, to analyze and to understand. Let me offer a quartet of very brief examples to support my point - examples that I have selected based on my own first-hand experience as a teacher, scholar and administrator. I suspect that each of you can, without too much reflection, come up with four, or six, or a dozen equally exciting and inspirational illustrations of your own.

Example 1. Classicists at Harvard, at Holy Cross and elsewhere are collaborating to apply sophisticated imaging software to the fragmentary texts that constitute our only access to the works of Homer. In a traditional, printed edition - certainly the only kind available when I first encountered the Iliad as a teenager - the editor must prioritize one version of the text and then relegate all of the many variants found in other fragments to a series of complex footnotes where only the most diligent reader will encounter them. The Homer Multi-Text Project, by contrast, gives scholars all over the world instant and interpretively priority-free access to all versions of a given passage in facsimile, leaving each reader free to read among and between them in a way arguably more representative of the oral tradition in which the Homeric poet composed his tales.

Example 2. Most of you, I imagine, heard or read this summer about the "outing" of Harry Potter creator, J. K. Rowling, as the author of a crime novel, The Cuckoo's Calling. That news broke just as I arrived in Pittsburgh in July and created an especially lively buzz locally because the scholar responsible for creating the computer program that confirmed Rowling's authorship teaches at Duquesne University. Of course, Patrick Juola did not develop his open-source software with targets like The Cuckoo's Calling in mind; his primary focus was - and remains - the many texts that literary critics have either attributed to that most prolific of all authors, "Anonymous," or assigned to some more or less plausible figure from the appropriate historical era but with what one might characterize as less than total confidence. When I was a Ph.D. student in literary stylistics some forty years ago, I and my fellow students at the University of Massachusetts looked forward to the day when the anticipated explosion in computing power would enable such studies of authorship. This summer, evidently, that day arrived.

A third example. If the development of the photo transparency revolutionized the study and the teaching of art history for my generation - and it most certainly did - then the development of massive, searchable online databases of high-quality digital images such as ArtStor represents a second amazing advance. This affects not only art historians, by the way, but scholars in all of the disciplines that are either touched by, or contribute to, the fine arts. If, some day, I return to teaching my beloved British Romantic poets, I look forward to being able to bring into the classroom images drawn both from high art and from the popular culture of that period, so that Blake's London, Byron's Italy and Wordsworth's Lake District can come alive for my students - especially those who are primarily visual rather than verbal learners.

And a fourth and final case in point. In my younger days, almost all students of evolutionary biology relied on textbooks, illustrated either with line drawings or with photographs. Some might have access to a limited array of fossils on their campuses or in area museums, but only those who attended major universities as undergraduates or went on to pursue advanced degrees would be likely to encounter the rarer specimens. Manipulating an intact or almost intact dodo skeleton represented a foolish daydream, since only a handful of them exist and access to each is understandably restricted so as to limit the risk of damage to the fragile remains. Today, however, thanks to work by Holy Cross professor Leon Claessens and his colleagues - and thanks in an even more dramatic way to the development of the 3-D printer - students at any institution in the world will soon be able to print out a perfect replica of the best dodo skeleton ever found, delicate bones digitized in a Mauritius museum and available "in a lab near you" at the press of a button.

Examples such as those I have just described are actually surprisingly commonplace. As the pace of technology has increased, we academics have become as blasé as our students about what it allows us to do, both as scholars and as teachers. But when those of us who are, as they say, "of a certain age" step back for a moment to reflect, we can hardly fail to be amazed at the gulf that separates the knowledge base and the array of tools in our respective fields today from all that was known and all that could be done when we entered the profession two or three or (in my case) almost four decades ago.

I firmly believe that this forward progress will be sustained, given the creativity and the determination of scholars like Patrick Juola, Leon Claessens, and the classicists involved in the Harvard Multi-Text Project. As I suggested a few minutes ago, I do not deny altogether the concerning symptoms of "distracted-ness" that Maggie Jackson cites in her book. I see them, however, as challenges we need to overcome - and can overcome - as we learn how to manage the immense power for good that contemporary technology has placed at our fingertips.

So let me move now to the second "leg" of my argument this afternoon: to a brief discussion of the future of the liberal arts in the context of the American system of higher education. And as a point of departure for that discussion, allow me to refer back to a late winter afternoon, some four and a half years ago, when I had the privilege of addressing the 2008-2009 class of inductees from Saint Anselm College into the honorary society Delta Epsilon Sigma.

In my remarks that day, I discussed a topic quite similar to the one selected for this afternoon's gathering and - if I do say so myself - I mounted a pretty darn spirited defense of the liberal arts. Such a defense was critical, I argued, in the face of the pernicious efforts of certain professions and their associated professional schools to "reform" undergraduate education - that is, quite literally to re-form it, to re-make it - in ways that served primarily their own ends. If those efforts succeeded, I suggested, then institutions like Saint Anselm and like the College of the Holy Cross (my employer at the time) would become little more than academic minor league clubs honing the skills of eighteen- to twenty-two-year old women and men so that they might earn the right to try out for the majors - that is, for medical school or law school - where, it was being suggested, they would receive their real education.

A few weeks ago, in thinking about what I should say today, I reread the text of that address. Somewhat to my relief, I found little in it that I would want to retract or even modify today, while arguments supporting my thesis that afternoon continue, it seems to me, to accumulate. The breadth and flexibility that characterize the typical American baccalaureate education - as opposed, for example, to the more specialized model common throughout Europe - better suits what we now understand about the still maturing intellectual abilities of students in their late teens and early twenties. And that same breadth and flexibility also better prepare today's young women and men for a world in which change will be constant and rapid, cultural sensitivity will be critically important, and mankind will face challenges of extraordinary significance, the solutions to which will demand teamwork, creativity and insight. In short, I see no reason to back away from my earlier insistence that the liberal arts provide the best possible preparation for a fulfilling and rewarding life in this millennium, whatever one's ultimate career path.

Fortunately, it is not only members of the academy who are making this case these days. A very recent study - conducted by Northeastern University and FTI Consulting in the summer of 2013, published just last month, and reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reviews the most appropriate path for U.S. higher education to pursue in the near term. Entitled Innovation Imperative: Enhancing Higher Education Outcomes, that study reaches five major conclusions, one of which speaks directly to our topic for this symposium:

Despite the recent focus on STEM degrees, most Americans and particularly business leaders say it is more important for graduates to be well-rounded and possess broader capabilities such as problem solving and communication skills.[2]

In fact, the study's panel of corporate leaders voted 60%-to-40% in favor of that position, while they broke even more decisively (73%-to-27%) in endorsing the even stronger statement that "[being] well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry expertise because job-specific skills can be learned at work." This is not to suggest that the same panel did not also want the student of tomorrow to gain practical workplace experience through internships (they voted by a whopping 4-to-1 ratio in favor of that idea). And alas, they also came out against one or two key elements of a liberal arts education when those elements were presented to them individually: cultural awareness and study abroad, for instance, garnered a distinctly depressing 42% score. But the fundamental message still comes through loud and clear: the skills that we in the Academy claim are fostered by the liberal arts are precisely those valued in the workplace.

Whether we who work in American higher education look for guidance to our own belief in the value of what we teach and how we teach it, in short, or whether we rely on arguments grounded in blunt pragmatism, we find ourselves pointed in the same direction: towards providing for those who choose it a training in the liberal arts that will fit them well for whatever career path - or, more likely, paths [plural] - they ultimately pursue.

Let me pause here for just a moment to reflect on a phrase from that last sentence that may or may not have attracted your attention: that is, the phrase "for those who choose it." An enquiring mind might find that phrase a little puzzling. Why would I have added that tentative rider? Why pull the punch on my rhetorical upper-cut? Why not marshal all the forces at my disposal and - mixing my metaphors now with wild abandon - press for a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and a liberal arts education as the birth right of every free-born American citizen?

The more skeptical among you may suspect that the answer lies in my personal story. The last time that I addressed this topic on the Saint Anselm campus, after all, I was speaking from a position of unimpeachable ideological purity - as the dean of a leading Catholic liberal arts college in Central Massachusetts. But Life - with a capital "L" - has an interesting way of complicating one's perspectives, and today, I stand before you instead as the provost of a leading Catholic research university in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In this new role, I certainly relish every opportunity I get to trumpet the educational and research achievements of Duquesne's McAnulty College and Graduate School of ... Liberal Arts. But my new job description also calls on me to devote equal care and attention to supporting the talented and hard-working students in our eight professional schools, including some enrolled - gasp! - in our five-year doctoral program in pharmacy and others pursuing similarly accelerated paths to a J.D. or an M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology. "Aha!" I hear that skeptic muttering from the back of the room. "Not so easy now to stay true to those high principles, is it?"

Well, one's personal situation does of course color one's views; it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. But it would be equal folly, I believe, to maintain that the only way to educate students in the liberal arts is on a campus exactly like this one. Indeed, if, as I argued earlier, curricular breadth at the baccalaureate level constitutes one major strength of the American approach to tertiary education, then another is surely the variety of the institutions at and through which that curriculum is delivered. No one type of college or university can meet the needs of every student, and so it is not only appropriate but indeed inevitable that the liberal arts should play a different role within the wide range of educational models on offer. At Duquesne, for example, the liberal arts college enjoys a special status as the oldest and largest school at the university. What is perhaps still more significant is that all students, regardless of the school into which they matriculate, must complete a university-wide core curriculum that includes many of the elements that also characterize the new core here at Saint Anselm College: philosophy, theology, literature, quantitative and communicative skills and the arts. If, at Duquesne, the liberal arts constitute the warp to which a pre-professional education is for some students the weft, I can assure you that my faculty colleagues on that campus would vigorously defend our commitment to them as the heart and soul of the education we offer.

All this having been said, though, I have not come here today to belittle, let alone to deny, the leadership role played by liberal arts colleges in particular (by colleges like Saint Anselm, and Holy Cross, and Bates, and Amherst) in sustaining and delivering "for those who choose it" what one might call a classic liberal arts education." This will be no easy role in the years ahead. The litany of potential obstacles is daunting indeed: the declining number of high school graduates, for example, especially in the northeast; increased - and increasingly costly - government regulation; public skepticism about the underlying value proposition, (despite all that I said earlier about the validation it received from those corporate CEOs); the need to pump ever more resources into financial aid to ensure that the education provided remains broadly accessible; and philanthropic wariness in the wake of successive shocks to the economy. Many experts believe that the pressures created by these factors in combination will likely overwhelm a number of this nation's more vulnerable liberal arts colleges - those perhaps that are less responsive, less creative, less secure in their understanding of their mission. I see no reason to quarrel with that assessment. While I remain confident that the model itself will survive whatever challenges lie ahead, I can with ease imagine a world in which the landscape of higher education is populated by considerably fewer exemplars.

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, that is finally the answer to the question with which I began this afternoon - the question of why we would be honoring Dr. Steven DiSalvo with an inaugural symposium this afternoon. Make no mistake about it: Dr. DiSalvo comes to the presidency of Saint Anselm College at a crucial time. To his new role, he brings, I believe, a clear-sighted vision for this institution as a leading liberal arts college, as is immediately evident in his choice of the topic for today's inaugural symposium. Our role this weekend, as faculty, staff, trustees, parents, alumni and friends of Saint Anselm is to affirm his belief in the College's future and to commit ourselves to helping him bring it about

Thank you.

[1] Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008).
[2] Northeastern University and FTI Consulting, Innovation Imperative: Enhancing Higher Education Outcomes (digital slide presentation, September 17, 2013), slide 3; emphases added.