As the University of Montana looks for a new president, I hope they find a person who has exceptional courage to fight for the value of a liberal arts education.
This person will need to educate potential students, their families and our legislature about why developing the spirit of inquiry in a vast array of fields is invaluable. This person will need to demonstrate that the seemingly willy-nilly curiosity encouraged in liberal arts education in fact leads to fruitful occupations, but equally importantly, to the ability to contribute productively to the “great conversation” essential to a democracy. Democracy depends on dialogue. Fruitful dialogue comes from curiosity and tolerance, which is fostered by a broad-based education.
I hope UM’s new president will undauntedly defend a liberal arts education. Too often, academic administrators run, scared by contemporary trends. They pander to what students and their families think they want; after all, Sally or Johnny is doing it and it’s working for them.
I hope UM’s new president will have the political savvy to lobby our legislators so all people can afford a liberal arts education. All should have access to that four years of freedom to dream of what could be and acquire the inquisitive mind and skills to make it happen. That means learning to formulate questions, find and evaluate sources of information, gather resources and test possible solutions. It means developing the flexibility of mind to revamp and start over. It is this adaptability on which every society depends if it is to develop and its people are to thrive.
I hope UM’s new president can passionately articulate the value of apparently “useless” fields. For 20 years I taught choreography at UM — the art of making dances. The “job” training was not obvious. My students had nervous parents. What these nervous parents didn’t understand (and perhaps what some university administrators don’t understand) is that by studying choreography, my students acquired skills in problem solving, communication, organization, marketing, fundraising and leadership. Furthermore, they learned how to make something from nothing, how to take the seed of an idea and grow a jungle, how to make visible the invisible.
Those choreography students are now choreographers, arts administrators, teachers, sales people and business owners, exercising the rich hands they were dealt by studying choreography. Choreography also gave my students the invaluable opportunity to examine their relationship to their emotional, physical and cultural world. When a dancer opens his or her arms to an audience, he is saying, "Let’s explore what it means to be part of this inspiring, complex, frustrating human tribe." She is welcoming it to a journey that is both intensely personal and inevitably universal. A liberal arts education helps us understand how we are each uniquely different yet so similar. In today’s desperately divided world, this understanding could be our savior.
Robert Maynard Hutchins, editor of "Great Books of the Western World," notes, “The liberally educated (hu)man is at home in the world of ideas and in the world of practical affairs… he understands the relation of the two…. He may even derive … some conception of the difference between a bad world and a good one and some notion of the ways in which one might be turned into the other.” Hutchins wrote at the beginning of the Cold War. We still struggle with that conflict and need the multi-faceted solution that a liberal arts education helps provide.
This new UM president will need to be a crusader. I hope the committee picks boldly.