Bingham-Young Professorship inspires conversation
by Lori-Lyn Hurley
“Liberal education can become an honorific,” said political science professor Jeff Freyman, “like ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’—you’re supposed to like it. My goal has been to get people to see beyond the superficial and really understand what liberal education is because there’s so much that’s wonderful about it.”
This was the impetus behind Freyman’s two-year Bingham-Young Professorship, which concluded at the end of the 2008-09 academic year.
The professorship was based on the establishment of the Center for Liberal Education at Transylvania, an endeavor that was ultimately about conversation. There was the national conversation on liberal education that took place at summer seminars hosted by Transylvania, the conversation that took place at seminars and symposia for faculty and staff, the on-going conversation of the classroom, and the continued conversation about the mission and purpose of Transylvania.
“Jeff’s professorship was built on the extension of the national seminars on liberal education held on Transylvania’s campus each summer,” said William F. Pollard, vice president and dean of the college. “We wanted to create a conference that would attract faculty from liberal arts colleges across the country. We thought it important to sponsor a national conversation about liberal arts education in the twenty-first century. Jeff, along with philosophy professor Ellen Cox and classics professor John Svarlien, have given form and substance to just such an enterprise, bringing to our campus outstanding colleagues from the nation’s best liberal arts colleges.”
He added that the Center for Liberal Education is an umbrella organization that encompasses a range of ideas and activities beyond the national seminar, which has been in place for four years.
In the fall of 2005, Freyman, along with biology professor (and now associate dean of the college) Kathleen Jagger and former religion professor Trina Jones, were invited to give presentations on liberal education at a conference sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society and the American Conference of Academic Deans at George Washington University. In preparation, they invited Transylvania colleagues to join them for a campus seminar.
That seminar, the subsequent conference, and Pollard’s original idea led to the creation of a national liberal education seminar on Transylvania’s campus. Twenty-first Century Liberal Education: A Contested Concept was first held in the summer of 2006 and has become an annual event.
“One thing we try to do in choosing participants is select people who may have impact on their campuses,” Freyman said. “Several have written back to say that they have begun to encourage their own faculty to think along the lines of the seminar and revise their academic requirements.”
With the national seminars a successful model of discussion, Freyman’s professorship included the creation of a series of seminars on the liberal arts for Transy faculty and a staff vocation workshop, What is Liberal Education? Why Does it Matter?, sponsored by the Lilly Project at Transylvania. These seminars had the broad goal of answering the question, “What is liberal education?” and the added purpose of deepening the Transylvania community’s understanding of self and vocation.
Following the format of the national seminar, the faculty seminars and staff vocation workshop had participants read and respond to texts such as Cultivating Humanity by Martha C. Nussbaum and Engaged Learning and the Core Purposes of Liberal Education: Bringing Theory to Practice by Donald W. Harward.
Religion professor Paul Jones said he believes the practical consequences of the seminars will be visible at all levels of the university due to the creation of a shared language and vocabulary for the faculty to engage in its mission of liberal education.
“You cannot address a common issue unless you have a common vocabulary and a common story,” he said. “Jeff has helped the faculty galvanize that necessity.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that everyone is in agreement about how to define liberal education. “In one of the seminars, we each wrote a definition of the liberal arts at the beginning and then again at the end to see how much it had changed,” said psychology professor Melissa Fortner. “Even by the end, there was a wide disparity among the group in how we were defining the liberal arts both in goals and practice,” she said. “And that’s a good thing. We weren’t being invited to conform to a norm, because that would be the antithesis of self-reflection.”
Fortner also sees this dialogue as having practical implications. “In these seminars, we’re really examining what we do and why we do it,” she said. “As a result, I’ve been more transparent with myself about my motives and goals; I make sure that the practices I use are fulfilling my goals.”
She remembers that in one of the seminars, someone asked the question, “When you’re asked, ‘What do you do?’, how do you respond?”
She realized that as a direct result of this discussion about the liberal arts, she had moved from defining herself as a psychologist into defining herself as an educator.
“I started to see myself much less in terms of teaching my discipline and more as teaching a way to figure out the world and figure out the self,” she said. “There is a set of skills that psychology has to offer, but teaching psychology directly is no longer my primary goal. I teach psychology in the service of liberal education, and that really is because of the readings that we did and the discussion we had.”
Freyman said the seminars present a vision of liberal education that is inspiring. “Liberal arts education is the act of inspiring our students to become fully human, to seek to become flourishing,” he said. “We’re not here to train people for specific careers; we’re here to cultivate human beings. A lot of colleagues went into education because they were inspired and they seek to inspire. The problem is, over time, with the routine, you lose that enthusiasm. These seminars rekindle that.”
Fortner said this discussion has also impacted the way she interacts with students. “I’m much more open about why we do what we do,” she said. “Now I can articulate to the students, ‘Here’s the worth in being able to read an article and summarize. There’s a skill here that you are developing.’”
During the professorship, which spanned the 2007-08 and 2008-09 academic years, Freyman invited speakers to campus who were able to give embodiment to the language of the workshops at both small gatherings and public lectures.
|• Leading social critic, author, and Paterno Professor in English Literature and Science, Technology, and Society at Pennsylvania State University Michael Berube delivered a lecture titled “The Humanities and the Boundaries of the Human” in October 2008.|
|• In January 2009, Eva T. H. Brann presented a lecture titled “Dangers to Liberal Education.” Brann is a senior faculty member and former dean of St. John’s College, known for its “great books” in the Western tradition curriculum.|
|• Well known public intellectual Todd Gitlin presented “The Future of Enlightenment” in February 2009. A professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, Gitlin has written widely on the mass media and cultural politics in America.|
|• In March 2009, Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and and Universities in Washington, D.C., delivered the lecture “Liberal Education and America’s Promise.” The AAC&U is the leading national organization devoted to advancing and strengthening undergraduate liberal education. While on Transy’s campus, she also met with faculty members to discuss the topic “Can Liberal Education Outcomes be Measured?” and discussed liberal education and leadership with student leaders.|
“The speakers represented two major camps,” Jones said, “the purists as well as the practical. Each gave the campus the opportunity to hear from someone who is living that particular model of liberal education.”
Freyman’s purpose was not to advocate for one of the camps or the other, but to allow both to be heard.
Last fall, Freyman further expanded this conversation to include students when he offered a course on liberal education.
“Many students think of liberal education as political liberalism, and it’s anything but,” Freyman said. “Liberal education has to do with the consideration of all points of view, not one point of view.”
The course was structured much like the faculty seminars with readings on the liberal arts followed by discussion.
Junior Rebecca Goncharoff said that the intense reflection of the course changed her life and the lives of her classmates. “We learned a lot about ourselves and what we were doing,” she said. “Some of the students in that class were seniors, so it definitely affected how they made their decisions after college. I was a sophomore, so it’s given me a lot more purpose while I’m here and more focus about the things I’m doing and the things I should be looking for so that I can get the most out of my education.”
Goncharoff, a political science major, is considering a career in academia after gaining some experience in the work force.
“Liberal education is a lifestyle,” she said. “It’s not just in the classroom. It’s how I interact with people. When I travel and go abroad, how I talk to my family, the books I choose to read—it’s altered everything.”
Although Freyman’s Bingham-Young professorship has officially come to a close, the conversation about the liberal arts at Transylvania goes on. Expanding out of this discussion are programs like First Engagements: A Community Book Project, designed to provide new students with an introduction to academic life at Transylvania through the reading and discussion of a common text.
“It’s not just me,” Freyman said. “Other faculty members are involved in making these seminars happen, and the stuff with legs—like First Engagements—didn’t have anything to do with me. That’s other people picking up the ball.”
The Center for Liberal Education will continue to run the national seminars, and the conversation about liberal education will continue to unfold both on and beyond campus because that is the essence of day-to-day life at Transylvania.
“This discussion made me think about why I would care if anybody learns psychology,” Fortner said. “This is why—we’re trying to cultivate an understanding of humanity.”