‘Thinking What We Are Doing, or Liberal Arts Education in the 21st Century’

Editors’ note: Following is the text of a speech given Sept. 21 by Dr. Marisa Kelly, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, at a ceremony marking her investiture as the founding holder of the Al and Mary Agnes McQuinn Distinguished Chair in Arts and Sciences. Kelly joined St. Thomas on July 1. For the announcement of her appointment, click here. You also can view a streaming video of the address here.

By Dr. Marisa Kelly

I am honored to be the founding holder of the Al and Mary Agnes McQuinn Distinguished Chair in Arts and Sciences. Thank you very much to the McQuinns for their generosity, to the university for giving me the opportunity to join this wonderful community, and to my family, especially my husband, Tom, for supporting me in this and all my endeavors as a member of the academy.

Years ago, before I began my doctoral program, still searching for my vocation, I for the first time began to study the words and thoughts of Hannah Arendt, a significant if controversial 20th century political philosopher. I was taken by a statement in the prologue of her work, The Human Condition. She wrote, “What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”1 On its face this seems to be such a basic common sense notion that it would not be worth repeating. But too often, especially as a society, we do not engage in this practice.

All those years ago, this struck me as the quintessential purpose of a liberal arts education: to help develop citizens who will think what they are doing. To this day it remains for me a guiding principle that underscores my commitment to the educational enterprise. However, I have more recently come to see this statement (admittedly taking it somewhat out of context) as not only a summary of what we want our graduates to be prepared to do, but also as a guiding principle for our pedagogies.

It has always been the case that reading, thinking, and talking about ideas in the vast array of disciplines that make up the arts and sciences are critical to the development of educated persons. But, graduating students who understand and can negotiate in and contribute to a world that exists as shades of gray rather than black and white, for today’s student also requires doing. This has always been a good idea, but it is quickly becoming critical. These students (at least those we label “traditional”), are members of the so-called Millennial or Net Generation. They are, as Don Tapscott has written, “spending their formative years in a context and environment fundamentally different from their parents” – from most of us here today.2 They have grown up in an interactive world of video games, the Internet (where children don’t just observe but rather, participate3), and at least in many of our K-12 institutions, with an emphasis on group work. They have always existed in a world of engagement. We cannot hope to make them enthusiastic learners as undergraduates if we provide for them only opportunities to listen to us as “sages on the stage.”

We must engage students in their education by allowing them to continue to learn by doing, experiencing, and serving. This does not mean that they cannot engage in critical thinking and the careful reading of texts. Indeed they can and must be expected to do so. This also does not mean that we should use technological gadgets just for the sake of looking up to date or pandering to students who are not serious, as some faculty across the nation fear administrators who discuss these ideas are advocating that we do. Interactive education is only to a degree about the use of technology. It is or should be much more about doing more generally, so that we develop as Stephen Bowen has written learners “who complement and interpret what they learn from others with direct knowledge based on personal experience, who develop appropriately complex understanding situated in relevant contexts, and who recognize learning’s moral implications and consequences.”4

Learning by doing within a strong academic framework is not new. What is new is the need for such opportunities to be ubiquitous on our campuses, available for all students in all fields and at all levels. What doing can and should mean will vary by discipline. Undergraduate research, study abroad, internships, service learning, and yes even video games such as the still under development game called PeaceMaker where students must assume the role of a Palestinian or Israeli leader and find nonviolent steps to deal with the issues presented by the game5 – are all appropriate. In chemistry or geology, careful scientific research in the lab or in the field should be a part of every student’s program. In history, students might design their own projects by determining their own questions and doing actual archival research to find answers. In sociology, political science, or art history students might “do” the work of their professions as interns. In music, of course, doing in the form of playing, singing, or composing is at the heart of the enterprise. Students in Catholic studies and beyond can learn much about Catholic social teaching and the diversity of our local and global communities through service learning. And, of course, experiential learning initiatives that cut across disciplines, such as Yale’s Sustainable Food Project6, where students are involved in growing food, preparing food and studying the economic, social and political dimensions of food, have enormous educational value.

All of these methods can be used in all of the arts and sciences disciplines. But they should not be reserved for only those most advanced in their study of a particular field. While juniors and seniors might be most easily engaged in some of these approaches, freshman and sophomores should not be left out. We can reach and transform students’ own sense of educational possibility if we incorporate a whole range of interactive pedagogies into our lower level courses. This means that we must build on our strong tradition of experiential learning at St. Thomas – witness the whole range of Bush grant activities, the Changing Faces of Minnesota initiative, or the work of our student journalists, to mention just a few – to infuse such engaging activities throughout not just our major programs but across the core itself.

There are, in my view, several responsibilities that fall to the arts and sciences units of our universities – excellence in our majors and the community and professional engagement appropriate to our range of disciplines, pre-professional and in some areas professional training, partnerships with our K-20 colleagues to help ensure access and success for students from diverse backgrounds, and the general education of all undergraduates. All of these are important, perhaps equally so, but certainly none more important than the latter. As faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences it is imperative that we ensure all St. Thomas students whether majoring in music or mathematics, business administration or engineering, social work or education, receive the best liberal arts education possible. It is our responsibility to assist all students in the develop
ment of both their intellectual skills and their moral sensibilities. We should celebrate this dimension of our mission. And if we believe, as I know we do, that exploring and seeking to understand human behavior, faith, science, and the diversity of human communities, among other things, are important, then we must design our core courses to truly reach our students as they come to us in the 21st century – expecting and needing to both think and do, to read and to listen, but to do so in reflective dialog with action.

We cannot hope to continue to educate the whole student so that she or he leaves St. Thomas ready to “Change Our World” if we are satisfied that experiential learning takes place primarily in our major programs. The core at St. Thomas has transformative possibility – let us work together to ensure that possibility continues to be met. To ignore the need for us to embrace interactive pedagogical approaches – from those aided by technology to those aided by the community – is in the long-term to risk the irrelevance of the core and ultimately our institution.

The College of Arts and Sciences has the human capital to meet the varied dimensions of our mission. We also have the generous support of members of the larger St. Thomas community, people like the McQuinns who believe in the critical importance of the liberal arts enterprise. Let us thank the McQuinns not only in public forums such as this, but in the decisions we make each day that can give us the ability to meet the needs of our 21st century students and ultimately, as a result, the larger community of which we are all a part.

Thank you.

End notes

1 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press , 1958, p.5.
2 Don Tapscott, Growing Up Digital, McGraw-Hill, 1998, p.15.
3 Ibid., p. 25.
4 Stephen Bowen, “Engaged Learning: Are We All on the Same Page,” Peer Review, Vol. 7, No.2, p.7.
5 Robert Janelle, “Making Games for a Cause,” Suite 101 (http://videogames.suite101.com), July 20, 2006.
6 Troy Duster and Alice Waters, “The Vertical Integration of Food for Thought,” Liberal Education, Vol.92, No.2, pp. 42-47.