The Spirit of Liberal Arts
Kelsey Swindler, Senior Address - Class of 2012
When I began looking at colleges my junior year of high school I found myself looking at liberal arts schools, not because I knew much of what that meant, but simply because they tended to be small. I come from a small, close-knit community in Southwest Ohio and I knew that this setting was where I was most comfortable. For better or worse I set out looking for an atmosphere—a small college with nice students and nice buildings, friendly professors and friendly staff. The day my dad brought me to visit Witt all I can remember is his comment to me driving home: “Kels, I like this place, everyone smiles here.”
And so I chose Wittenberg, packing my bags for a liberal arts school not too far from home, with hopes of an English major and a number of other half-baked ideas about my interests and strengths and skills. I could not have guessed what a huge impact the idea of a “liberal arts” education would have on my classes, my emerging passions, even my choice in friends and professors. I found myself in a school that encouraged me to take astronomy and paranormal psychology in my first semester; a school that encouraged me to live with a Biology major and work toward campus sustainability with an English professor; a school that encouraged me to try Water Polo and Ultimate Frisbee, Symphonic Band and Greek Life. I found myself in a school that encouraged not only me, but every single student on campus, to try new things, to explore new subjects, to play on new fields.
But it’s more than that. Wittenberg not only taught me to try new things, but to be engaged, resourceful and creative in all things. It taught me—to shamelessly steal a word from my favorite essayist and poet, Wendell Berry—not to “specialize” too soon, but to take responsibility for my own education and interests. If I can share anything hopeful with you this morning, it is this—that you are now a member of a campus—and a community—that constantly works to support others as they embrace new challenges, and that every day encourages and inspires students as they work to find within themselves, their whole selves. And I can say all of this, because I have experienced it firsthand.
My freshman year I met Elise Willer, a senior Political Science major who brought me along in the campus sustainability movement. A dynamic and passionate communicator, she taught me to reach outside of my comfort zones, to never undervalue the importance of honesty, and to always bring fresh chocolate chip cookies to meetings you knew would be tense. That same year I met Dr. Fleisch, a physics professor who taught me—an English major struggling with moon phases—how to model planetary magnetism and the basics of electrical wiring. Two years after I took his course he sent a copy of his book on Maxwell’s Equations to my grandfather, after I mentioned that he too was a Physics Professor in his day. I still remember how honored, and giddy, my grandfather was the day he received it, and how touched I was at his gesture, his gift without pretense, his sincere love of sharing knowledge.
And that’s just it. The people you will meet here work and study beyond the boundaries of major or department, affiliation or class year. They are creative and passionate, willing to reach out and act boldly. They are not hampered by their specializations, but rather, consider themselves members of a larger, stronger, community.
This past semester I saw this spirit of the liberal arts, once again. I traveled to Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany with 11 other students to study in our distant sister city. We took courses in German language and literature, European politics and culture, and completed internships that ranged from teaching English in high school classrooms to creating childrens’ programming for travel agencies. And we were not all German majors. We were Biology majors, English majors, Political Science majors, Business majors, Spanish speakers, French speakers. We were not specialists in German language or culture, we were students of the liberal arts, learning how to become more confident—and conscientious—citizens in a world that is bigger, and broader than we could have ever imagined.
And in these many varying paths and experiences, Wittenberg has taught me—and is still teaching me—what it means to be a student of the “liberal arts.” To be a student of the liberal arts we must learn to become people of the world before we learn to become specialists of the world. We must learn to be adaptable, to be interested, to be engaged, to be caring, to be innovative. We must learn how to be taught, so that when it is our time to “specialize,” we do so with an awareness of the wholeness of community, and perhaps more importantly, the wholeness within ourselves.
It’s my senior year. I will be leaving here in a few—hopefully-not-too-short—months, hoping to find my way in a world that still has a lot to teach me. I know I will be ready for it, Wittenberg has given me that confidence. Or, more accurately, Wittenberg has taught me how to find it for myself. I’m excited to welcome you to this campus and this community, because here at Wittenberg we aren’t just football players or cross-country runners, writers of fiction or writers of lab reports, student senators or student workers; we are not merely specialized individuals. We are, as Berry might say, people, living and working together, within a common community, toward wholeness. So now it’s your turn, and I can’t wait to see what you do with it.
Wendell Berry's essay "The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Character":
"The disease of the modern character is specialization. Looked at from the standpoint of the social system, the aim of specialization may seem desirable enough. The aim is to see that the responsibilities of government, law, medicine, engineering, agriculture, education, etc., are given into the hands of the most skilled, best prepared people. The difficulties do not appear until we look at specialization from the opposite standpoint—that of the individual persons. We then begin to see the grotesquery—indeed, the impossibility—of an idea of community wholeness that divorces itself from any idea of personal wholeness." (19)