A century or more ago, a liberal education took rural and small-town people who were surrounded by nature and exposed them to the range of human interactions as portrayed by artists, philosophers, historians and other masters of the arts and letters. The world of human thought, language, belief and history, and the great works that expressed these processes, formed the core of the curriculum.
Natural science expanded the classical focus and provided practical knowledge of physical surroundings and an understanding of the process of scientific inquiry. But the common themes of the academy focused on people grappling with the limits of their senses, the knowledge of their mortality, the dictates of their desires and the contradictions inherent to both character and culture.
That was then. Today, many Americans have little daily exposure to nature’s economy. Even our perception of the rhythm of the seasons is blunted by global food procurement, central heating and air conditioning, the paving of transportation surfaces and our isolation from other species’ life cycles and survival needs. We cling to an archaic view of nature as an inventory of goods to be extracted and consumed instead of understanding that nature is an endowment that provides us with what we need to survive and prosper. This creates a new challenge for the liberal arts.
The need now is to create graduates with a clear understanding of the connections between nature and culture. By focusing on place—and by giving cultural credit for natural knowledge—a liberal-arts education can produce graduates who are able to assemble a well-anchored and multifaceted picture of the places and problems that they will encounter throughout their lives.
One way to depict this picture-building process is to compare it to a James Michener novel. Michener’s books are place-based, often beginning with an incident drawn from the geological record. Then they move through the historical record of interactions between the place and the previous generations. Finally, the central characters enter the scene.
Using this model changes the nature of study. For example, a program based in Florence exploring Italian renaissance art would begin with the geology and prehistory of the Italian peninsula and an understanding of the location of marble sources. The environmental and demographic history of Tuscany would show the influence of geography on society, the importance of commerce for acquiring pigments, the role of agriculture and use in creating social settings and the political dynamics that surrounded the rebirth of creative genius. The study of art would be the study of place and its role in fostering art. Connections between the natural world and human accomplishment would emerge during the process.
The outcome also would include a map-molded mentality. A former theatre major visiting a restroom during the intermission of a Broadway play would remember the source of the tap water and the scale of watershed protection needed to supply this good to such a concentration of people. The fine-arts graduate sitting at a café in Florence would be aware of the environmental resource shed that supplied pigment, marble, canvas and inspiration.
A medical student in Edinburgh would realize that such high latitude in North America would be in the middle of Hudson Bay, and that it was the same Gulf Stream that passed the New Jersey coast that gave Scotland its mild winters. The economics major residing in Minnesota would feel the clear, cold air of the Arctic Clipper as it swooped down from Canada to the Mississippi Basin, and know that it would turn east, follow the Ohio valley and transport industrial pollutants from the Midwest to the East Coast, giving substance to the economist’s concept of externalities. Global, place-based education would be life changing.
Graduates will need to be prepared to solve specific problems arising in particular places. If, in the academy, place were to rise above discipline it could act as a prism gathering the rays of multiple disciplines and focusing them on issues located in space. This would require a mastery of multiple ways of thinking, and it would allow the importance of different approaches to rise or fall with changes in context. Knowledge would be integrated and applied—the goal of a liberal-arts education.
This column is a modified excerpt from Rooster in the Rice: An Ecological View of Life, Study and Citizenship Along Culture’s Edges, published in 2013. George Honadle ’66 spent 30 years working with international organizations in 28 countries. He also studied abroad in Italy and Scotland, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, taught at six U.S. universities and was a member of the Minnesota Roundtable on Sustainable Development.
Read more from the spring 2014 issue of Dickinson Magazine.
Published April 22, 2014