September 6 , 2005
Better versions of ourselves
Stephen Bowen is dean of Oxford College
I found the title for my address in Oxford’s new strategic plan. The plan’s intention is not to change the fundamental character of Oxford, but rather to help it more fully realize its potential. So too, the goal of a liberal education is not to change what is fundamental in each of us, but rather to develop our knowledge, our skills and our understanding so that we may become better versions of ourselves—as scholars, as entrepreneurs, as individuals and as citizens.
Given the increasingly polarized nature of our society today,
I need to begin by clarifying what we mean by the word liberal. In the sense of liberal education, the word does not imply allegiance to a political philosophy. The meaning we have in mind here first entered the English language in 1375 from the Old French word of the same spelling meaning “befitting free men, noble, generous.” Thus, a liberal education is one that frees us from the servitude of ignorance. What emerges is a more noble and generous version of ourselves.
A liberally educated person has a broad understanding of all four divisions of knowledge: sciences and math, humanities, social sciences, and the arts; she can draw from each field in constructing a complex and realistic analysis as she works to understand difficult, real-world problems.
As an example, consider that efforts to improve K-12 education in Newton County are likely to benefit from an understanding of the biology of human development, the mathematics of transportation, the economics of health care, the political science of taxation, the history of community relations, and the sociology of community structures. The experiences of K-12 students often are best communicated through their stories (literature) and their art.
The liberally educated person is creative in drawing from diverse perspectives to find solutions, and effective in working out practical ways to put those solutions into practice. He is clear of thought, ethically and aesthetically sensitive, and skilled as a communicator. She has a sense of being a citizen in both local and global communities. The breadth of his education provides a stable, confident foundation for a life of learning and action. With a contemporary liberal education, she can do just about anything she wants.
There is one more dimension of liberal learning that distinguishes it from other models, and that is its commitment to inquiry as we seek truth. In particular, we are sensitive to contradictions and work hard to reconcile or resolve them. There is in our society today a strong anti-intellectual undertow that suggests questioning is bad; the adherents of liberal learning are necessarily more humble and seek truth rather than posit it. In this sense, liberal learning helps us become better versions of ourselves as we seek to know what is true, and what we are yet to learn.
Sounds good—but how does it happen?
The full answer to that question is complicated, involving as much art as science. It requires a skilled, perceptive and dedicated faculty. But if there is one word that that best captures the essence of liberal learning pedagogy, it is probably engagement. Engagement makes learning profound, and it does so on three levels.
First, students engage intensely with their subjects of study. This is more than merely reading about something in a textbook, and it results in the geology students who cannot look out the car window without seeing the processes that shaped the landscape, or literature students who pause to marvel at the art with which a paragraph was crafted and the passion it communicates.
On a second, broader level, students engage the contexts of a given issue from multiple perspectives and thus build a more complex, realistic picture. Our earlier example concerning K-12 education applies here: Instead of being satisfied with the convenience of studying a single dimension of a problem in reductionist isolation, these students are engaging the real world in all its genuine complexity.
On a third, still broader level, Oxford students engage in the community of which they are a part. They take each other seriously, they do not hide behind clichés, they demand integrity from and share a sense of responsibility for each other.
These three levels are not separate; engaging the subject of study is at the center, surrounded by engagement with contexts, all within a community of scholars who engage each other. These are the concentric circles of engaged learning, and Oxford’s faculty are specially skilled at making them work. How do I know this? I learned it from Oxford students themselves.
Matt came to Oxford from Newton County High School. He was raised in very modest economic circumstances by his grandmother, who developed terminal cancer during Matt’s first year of college. Responsibility for getting her to her treatments fell to him, which, along with his anxiety about her illness, took an inevitable toll on his school work; his GPA dipped and he had to cut back on course hours.
Oxford faculty worked with him through this period, and Matt credits this for his not “bombing out.” After two good years here, he continued to Emory College. His aim was to go to law school, though his record was not one that assured admission. To prepare for the LSAT, he returned to Oxford frequently to work with his logic instructor. Matt gained admission to the University of Georgia School of Law, the school he most wanted to attend.
As a law student, Matt ended up doing very good work; indeed, he became the first African-American student to be elected first-year class president. At graduation, each student was encouraged to invite a special, non-family member; Matt chose one of his Oxford professors. Matt passed the bar exam and is now working with an Atlanta law firm—where he does more than his share of pro bono work.
A second student we will call Ashley. Ashley came from a financially solid middle-class family. She entered Oxford declaring herself a pre-med student. This surprised some, since her high school academic record, while adequate, was certainly not outstanding. She was not competitive for Oxford’s scholarship support.
In high school, Ashley was somewhat shy and withdrawn. When she got to Oxford, this all began to change. As a student, she out-performed many of her classmates who were scholarship recipients. She credits her success to the availability of her Oxford professors and our supplemental instruction program (especially in math and science).
Ashley was awarded a full-tuition, Oxford/Emory Continuee Scholarship and continued to thrive. She was selected for membership in Phi Beta Kappa and was elected to Mortor Board. Ashley credits Oxford’s small, friendly and supportive environment as enabling her to develop skills of social engagement and leadership. Inductees to Phi Beta Kappa and Mortor Board are invited to honor a professor who meant most to them; in both cases, Ashley selected Oxford professors. This past spring she was offered admission to four prestigious medical schools and currently is enrolled at the University of London medical school in England.
Ashley and Matt are not unusual. They illustrate how the dedication of Oxford’s faculty, their pedagogies of engagement and their commitment to the goals of liberal education help students to become better versions of themselves.
There is a third story yet to be told, and it is yours. In the coming year, you will take courses in subjects you do not yet know you are interested in. You will be challenged by your faculty and classmates to achieve ever greater depths of understanding, ever greater heights of skill and accomplishment.
When you move on to Emory for your second two years, you will have an extraordinarily solid foundation—one that will have prepared you to take full advantage of an incredibly rich undergraduate college, situated within one of the nation’s top 20 research universities. And you will be well along the way to
creating an even better version
This essay was adapted from Bowen’s first Convocation address at Oxford, delivered Wednesday, Aug. 31.