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Jeffrey Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson, David Henreckson – The Liberating Arts [Review]

The Liberating ArtsMotivation to Support the Humanities

A Review of

The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education
Jeffrey Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson, and David Henreckson, eds.

Paperback: Plough Publishing House, 2023
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Reviewed by Gil W. Stafford

The Liberating Arts is an excellent book for parents, alum, and donors as a resource in their support of the humanities in higher education. I suggest they start reading at Chapter 8, “Aren’t Liberal Arts Degrees Unmarketable?” The point of these three well written essays is about the value of a multi-layered education that includes a well-rounded curriculum of liberal arts. The most substantive quote came from Steve Jobs of Apple, “Technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” Such is the theme of The Liberating Arts.

There are 200 liberal arts universities in the United States. Several of the essays in this book were authored by faculty members from one of these schools. The earliest essays were focused on preserving the liberal arts as a major course of study. As enrollment at higher education continues to decline, such majors have begun to disappear in the wake of an attempt to balance budgets. Administers and trustees make these decisions based on economics, not personal or institutional philosophy. Enrollment in the humanities has been in steady decline since 2000. While their majors have disappeared and the number of classes have been reduced, the courses themselves have not entirely been eliminated. No one will argue that universities need to graduate students who have gained significantly proficient skills in “communication, problem-solving, and collaboration.” No one would argue against such a statement, however, the assumptions made about whether these goals are being achieved or not, is up for debate. The authors of this book make the case that without a strong dose of liberal arts, these assumed foundations of the educated person will collapse. And they are not alone in their prophecy.

Jeffrey Kripal, professor of religion at Rice University and author of The Superhumanities: Historical Precedents, Moral Objections, and New Realities, casts a vision for the future of the humanities. He’s insisting that the liberal arts—as well as any other mediums of education—will not offer any “resolution or permanent answer” to our twenty-first century crisis. He does, however, expect the “future formation of higher learning,” to bring about a “new intellectual-spiritual” experiment that will inspire us with a more “positive cosmic vision.”  I found similar hopeful expectations in Peter Mommsen’s closing essay in The Liberating Arts, “Small Magazines as Educational Communities.” Mommsen encourages us to seek out authors who offer fresh perspectives and help us to think differently. He pushes us to engage with material that challenges us with “contrasting views that can help us see the world from perspectives they otherwise would have missed.” Such is the work of an education versed in the liberal arts.
 


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Regardless of profession, having been educated to envision the craft of our occupation as Soulwork will enhance our performance and enrich the practitioner’s life. We all want a doctor who is a well-trained physician, excellent scientist, and has a compassionate bedside manner. One who can deliver the truth without crushing our hope. Becky Eggimann, the Dean of Natural Sciences as an associate professor of biochemistry at Wheaton College, authored the essay, “Science as a Human Tradition.” She’s an excellent storyteller as she brings us into the hallowed ground of the scientist’s lab. “Only when I began to see my simulations as a craft, requiring artistry and a connection to past tradition, did I begin to make contributions that others found meaningful.” I imagine Eggimann would find Ainissa Ramirez a supportive colleague. 

Ramirez is an award-winning scientist and communicator. She has authored The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another. Here, she tells beautiful and informative stories of the things we might take for granted: clocks, steel, photography, light bulbs, and the telephone. Ramirez shares the unique and fully human stories of the scientist who imagined these miraculous discoveries that would alter our lives forever. Scientists can change our lives and their stories can inspire us. To communicate their craftwork as Soulwork requires having left their tea bag too steep in the liberal arts for more than a pass-through class.

It is hard to imagine that The Liberating Arts will alter the inevitable decision of reducing the number of liberal arts degrees offered by their universities. More importantly, though, it might inspire others to take up the mission of some of the excellent projects given space in this book; The Odyssey Project being just one example. For the reasons that motivated these programs to take up their work, the original purpose of the humanities will never disappear. As long as there are humans who seek knowledge and wisdom as the underlying flow that energizes their lives, we will continue to rely on the stories of those who lived a life well observed: the goal of a liberal arts education.

Gil Stafford

Gil Stafford is an Episcopal priest and retired Canon Theologian. He is the former president of Grand Canyon University. And is the author of four books: Meditations on Blue Jesus; Walking with the Spiritual but not Religious; Wisdom Walking; and When Leadership and Spiritual Direction Meet.

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