Jane T. Jakoubek
Fall Convocation Address
Hanover's Radical Bend in the River: The Point Serves as Metaphor for Liberal Arts Education
Fall 1999

This version of the address originally appeared in the Hanover Quarterly, Summer 2000.

{1}My subject this morning is the liberal arts, and while it is a large subject I want to be concise. My goal is simple. I wish to share some thoughts about the liberal arts - one metaphor and three assertions. First, the metaphor: a liberal arts education as a radical bend in the river, a bend that alters - dramatically - the course of what follows. It not only allows a change of course, but it encourages, demands, even creates that change. At a radical bend, there is no choice but to change direction.

{2}I can't imagine a more fitting location for a liberal arts college than this high tableland overlooking a radical bend in the Ohio. The bend inscribes in the geography of this place an image of the work we do.

{3}We can extend this metaphor by exploring three assertions. First, a liberal arts education must be a radical challenge to every aspect of our lives, including the wider culture. We are human beings whose lives are controlled and therefore limited by instincts, circumstances, habits, and ingrained ways of thinking; we are controlled by these unless something intervenes, unless something teaches us to challenge directly the very things that control and limit us.

{4}The kind of education that teaches us how to challenge these things is the liberal arts. It is a way of thinking that sets us free - free from reflexive responses, from the conditions in which we were raised, from biases and bigotry, from circumstances and habits. It makes us free to examine and question, and to shape ideas and ideals befitting our heritage - the heritage of persons whose lives are rooted in the wonder of this physical world, yet also reach unceasingly toward the divine.

{5}If we are going to be free - free to stand apart from the ideas that were handed to us or even imposed on us so we can choose for ourselves - then we need to stand back and question. Question everything - in the physical world, the social world, the world of ideas and beliefs. We have to challenge things we learned in high school and in church and from our parents and from television. One reason why study abroad has such tremendous impact is because it is a 24-hour-a-day challenge to everything we once knew. It is impossible not to see our own culture and ourselves differently after such an experience.

{6}This kind of education will feel unsettling and confusing at times. We're going to confront questions about ideas we've held a long time, ideas we are comfortable with. We may feel like we've lost our moorings and been set adrift. But an education that seeks change has to push us beyond the familiar and comfortable. It may help to remember that the river cannot navigate a radical bend unless it changes direction. A liberal arts education is only won by those who are willing to embark on a radical journey. We can only become free from the things that control us if we are willing to let go of the bank and set out around the bend.

{7}But a liberal arts education doesn't set us adrift aimlessly. My second assertion is that a liberal arts education is more about questions and how to answer them than the answers themselves. Our faculty members certainly appreciate it when students get the right answers. But their real interest is having students learn the questions and ways of reasoning which characterize their discipline. Learning a discipline is not about facts - you can find those in lots of places when you need them. Learning a discipline is learning a unique set of questions, lenses if you will, through which the world can be examined.

{8}A liberal arts education then is going to teach you how to think what questions to ask and how to answer them. This is going to lead to disagreement. In a culture where all ideas are considered acceptable, and "whatever" is an acceptable response to differing opinions, a liberal arts education says you can and should beg to differ with what others tell you. A liberal arts education says that ideas need to be challenged from different angles. A liberal arts education says that not all answers are equally meritorious. It says you can find meaningful and substantive answers. It says there is a valid road to truth.

{9}This faculty is profoundly committed to engaging students in the kinds of intellectual inquiry that are at the core of their disciplines. One of the best parts of my job is attending classes and watching disciplines come alive in the hands of a professor and students. I've seen members of this faculty from many disciplines pose questions at the start of class that stun everyone, not because no one had done the reading - Hanover students are very good about that - but because the question requires going beyond parroting the reading, beyond glib opinions, beyond the easy answers. Together, the students and their professor set to work, engaging in the thoughtful, rigorous, and often playful inquiry the question deserves. And even though many answers emerge from this work, if there are more questions at the end of a class than there were at the beginning, then you've gotten your liberal arts money's worth.

{10}One meaning of "radical" is "pertaining to the roots or origins." My final assertion is that a liberal arts education is not a random bend in the river, but a radical bend, a bend toward home. This bend points us to what we have in common with persons whose lives were shaped by different times and places than our own. One could argue that the defining characteristic of what it is to be human is the presence of reflective thinking, the act of contemplating our own lives and circumstances. The conditions and details of our lives vary, but the questions remain the same: What meaning does my life have as I live as one lone individual among many on this planet? What does all my effort and striving and struggle add up to? To what should I devote this life I've been given? Or to frame the question in it most classical form: how then should I live?

{11}The liberal arts will accompany us well beyond four years of college. One question I am often asked when people learn that I am a dean is whether I teach. It's a hard question to answer, not because I don't know, but because it's an evolving and a complicated answer. Although I came to higher education to teach, I choose not to teach at this point. At first, there were the demands of a new job, among other concerns. But over time, I came to realize that I had outgrown the discipline I had spent more than half my life mastering and professing. I was trained as a clinical psychologist, an applied social scientist. And for nearly two decades, I brought deep convictions about the importance of my discipline to the students I taught.

{12}But increasingly the questions that engaged me could not be answered by my discipline. Let me give you one simple example. I know a lot of research about how different methods of child rearing would affect my daughter, but that research can't tell me what kind of life I should seek for her, what values to instill, what kind of person I want her to be. Should I raise her to be ambitious or cooperative? Independent or connected to others? To value change or value tradition? I was hungering to explore questions that I couldn't answer through the discipline I was teaching.

{13}It was serendipity and grace that led me back to the classroom once again as a student. The arts and humanities speak most clearly to me now. For the past three terms, I have explored the Holocaust, the Bill of Rights, and the Reformation in the company of some gifted faculty and students. This fall, it is the language of poetry as a vehicle for understanding that engages me. I am one of seven students who have joined Dee Goertz to begin a semester's study of the works of Yeats and Eliot.

{14}I do not wish here to imply that the social sciences are not a valuable and important part of the liberal arts. We would all do well to draw on their contributions in many situations. As I know it, truth is decidedly larger and more wonderful than any of our individual disciplines alone can grasp.

{15}My point is that the liberal arts bend in the river is a lifelong bend. It's a journey that continually seeks to connect us with questions and ideas and ideals larger than ourselves and our experiences. It is a journey that continually points us toward home. Time and circumstances vary, but the questions that engage us as human beings and the principles on which our existence is based are enduring. It is the enduring questions to which the liberal arts can speak most resoundingly.

{1}To the members of the class of 2000: you better than anyone else here today should be able to understand what I'm saying. You can see clearly the bend in the river you've been navigating these past three years. You know from experience that it's not an easy bend. You know that classes engaging substantive ideas aren't comfortable and certainly aren't effortless. You know something of the time and risk it has taken to gain a foothold in this kind of education. But you also know the possibilities and rewards that liberal arts education offers. I suspect that you would agree with me in saying that if you're not different when you leave this college from when you came, you've no right to claim a Hanover education. May your last year be nothing less than a continuation of that process, as you prepare to enter a world desperately in need of the best that the liberal arts can give you.

{17}Let us come full circle, back to this place, the bluff of a farm purchased 150 years ago this fall to be the new campus for a small but growing college. On the edge of this bluff, at the top of those stairs that today lead to a wide grassy space, the College built its first Classic Hall. It had a view of the river as wide as its view of the education it sought to provide.

{18}Today, the Point continues to overlook that radical bend in the river and continues to be the most sought-out location on campus. It is truly the heart of this college.

{19}May the education we seek here be nothing less than that radical bend in the river, a thoroughgoing change in the direction of our thinking and our lives, a return to fundamental questions that have engaged humanity for all times. For this is, after all, the point.

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