Today Dr. Kieran Bonner returned to our campus to give a talk on First Questions (Why are we here? What is life for? How should we behave? What does it mean to be human?). It’s not surprising to have a conversation about this topic on this campus as it is one of the central concerns of a Liberal Arts education. Dr. Bonner spoke of his history at Augustana and how his time here helped shape his own fascination and engagement with First Questions.
Not all universities, it seems, ask these questions.
Dr. Bonner painted the bleak picture of the University in contemporary society. Billions of dollars in grant funding were awarded last year solely to projects in science, medicine and engineering. Universities are questioning the value of the humanities, and some are determining that it is no longer necessary for students to have any knowledge of some of the key historical, artistic and philosophical moments in human history. These universities argue that it is only the skills offered by engagement with the humanities that need to be retained: writing, reading, presenting and researching skills.
Even in his own school, University of Waterloo, there is a move toward a 2-course package that provides students with all they need to know of humanities. They get the “hard” skills mentioned above alongside a survey of the history of Western thought. Of course, a wave of shock and disgust rippled through the room! How could it even be possible that administrators would consider this sufficient engagement with the Humanities?
The problem is, the humanities do not do a very good job of defending themselves outside of the skills argument. As a society we do not hold a sense of wonder and exploration of the life of the mind as a high ideal. The young adults entering our university are certainly susceptible to this thinking and are more concerned with the type of job they will get at the end of their degree than they are with the type of education or understanding of life they will attain. There are those in administrative positions who agree and are making changes to the university as we once knew it.
Dr. Bonner spoke of the gift that students are given when they enter university: a 4-year exploration of thought, theory, beauty, wisdom, and joy. While it may seem that joy is very far away when we are awake late at night in order to finish a paper, the exquisite moment when insight is born is an experience that transforms lives. Many are too consumed with the very real anxiety of mounting student debt to enjoy the special physical and mental space offered by intellectual pursuits.
It is this discussion of anxiety that I find most fascinating as we look to the Millenials. Uncertainty is constantly around and every generation believes that the present problems are surely the most complex. I have learned, through both my academic training and my older friends who were present in the room today, that the treasure of sharing knowledge and story is knowing that you are not alone in attempting to solve the Wicked Problems of life. Somehow knowing that I’m not alone, and that better minds have failed, is comforting. It allows me to relax into life, and see possibilities that may not have become visible if I were stressing about the Right job, the Right community, the Right…. well… everything.
There were may other points in Dr. Bonner’s talk that I could discuss, but I’ll leave with a thought Dr. Milbrandt put forth: nothing worth learning can be taught (he said it was Oscar Wilde). While this may be true, nothing at all can be learned outside of relationship, so it is imperative that we strive, through teaching and learning, to prepare the mind for insight by preparing fertile ground for growth.
What do you think? As I said, I’ve been asking these questions for a long time..