By Dean Christopher P. Long on December 5, 2016 on cplong.org
Sometimes in our efforts to advocate for the importance of a liberal arts education, we fail to demonstrate what it means to put the arts of liberty into practice.
It’s easier to speak about the values of critical thinking, ethical imagination, excellent communication, and global interconnection than it is to show their transformative power in action. And yet, the ultimate value of a liberal arts education lies in its capacity to enable us to practice freedom well.
Although most of us think of liberty as a basic right bestowed upon us, it is more fundamentally an activity that can be practiced well or poorly. Practiced well, the arts of liberty enrich our communities and enliven our connection with the natural world we share. Practiced poorly, the arts of liberty diminish us, impoverish our relationships, and destroy the environment on which life depends.
This too, of course, is too abstract.
Yet, this shift of focus from abstract values to practiced activities is important, because it enables us to hold ourselves accountable to deeper questions about what precisely is enriching and for whom. It requires us to consider in concrete terms precisely how we put the values of a liberal arts education into action.
Do the initiatives we seek to advance in the College of Arts & Letters enable us to practice liberty well? Do our academic, research, and outreach programs deepen our engagement with the world and enrich the lives of those we encounter here?
Though there remains always more work to be done — the arts of liberty take a lifetime to cultivate — there are heartening signs.
Anthony Hatinger puts his innovative understanding of horticulture, creativity, and ethical imagination into practice through his work at the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation by providing a sustainable source of food and jobs for the North Central Woodward community in Detroit.
Theatre major Ryan Duda performs the arts of liberty by enriching the lives of special needs actors through the 4th Wall Theatre Company, where they learn to play and improvise and find pathways to unforeseen connections.
Through research that explores the intersections of race, class, language, writing, and equity, Shenika Hankerson empowers African American adolescents and young adults to develop confidence in their writing and in their ability to shape meaningful lives.
Anthony, Ryan and Shenika embody what it means to practice the arts of liberty well.
They are models of the liberal arts in action, and they inspire us to ask more of ourselves and of the educational initiatives we are advancing in the College of Arts & Letters.
Here too, there are heartening signs of inchoate programs designed to empower more students and faculty to practice the arts of liberty well.
Our innovative new Citizen Scholars program challenges Arts & Letters students to perform their way into a prestigious program designed to cultivate capacities for Global Leadership, Professional Networking, Research and Creative Activity, and Civic Engagement.
Our emerging Excel Network will provide support to students as they chart a path from college to the world of meaningful work through the College’s new experiential learning requirement and the professional career communities we are cultivating.
And as we continue to consider new ways to engage the broader community in the practices of liberty, we need to remain attentive to all the strategic initiatives in the College of Arts & Letters to ensure they are doing what we ask of them: cultivating in each of us the capacities we need to practice the arts of liberty well.