by Ann Hagedorn '71
The Gift of the Liberal Arts
It’s dangerous to put an author of 400-page books in front of a microphone. Have you all brought sleeping bags and tents. Food will be provided.
Of course, I’m just kidding - — it will be only an hour minimum.
Just kidding, again.
Seriously, I am honored and humbled. Humbled as I feel that I’ve just begun. I’ve more books to write, more worlds yet to explore, more wisdom surely to attain. And honored as this is quite a gift — my second gift from Denison actually, the first being the liberal arts degree years ago.
When I first learned that I would receive this honor and that I would also be talking to you, the graduating class, I struggled in choosing a topic. Should I talk to you about life as a writer and why I passionately love what I do for a living – as inspiration, of course, to those of you who are writers or seek to be writers or those of you who, like me at your age, are writers but don’t yet know it. Should I talk to you about my books and how each one being so different is somehow rooted in my education here? About the challenges. The rewards. I could describe the adventures of pursuing each book. But alas that was too predictable, too obvious, too easy actually, and it had a sort of finality to it, as if I had arrived, so to speak, and you hadn’t. Which isn’t true at all. We are on common ground here as we, all of us, are explorer — of ideas, of visions, of problems, of solutions, of the past and of the future, of what is wrong with the world and of what might be better for the world. The only difference being that some of us simply have more experience. We became explorers because of that gift we all share, the gift of a liberal arts education. After much thought, I decided that what I can do for you today is to point out the significance of that gift, its unmistakable and remarkable value.
I must confess that I did not recognize that value on the day that I sat where you are sitting now. Not at all. When I graduated in 1971, our nation was at war and in the midst of a recession. Jobs were scarce and there I was, without a specific skill — a young renaissance woman who was filled with a deep and vibrant passion for history, for literature, for philosophy, psychology, art, astronomy, for the mysteries of the universe, for Bach, for Ravel, for Brahms and, of course, for the Rolling Stones. My soul was stirred. My senses dazzled. But I could not envision a clear path for my life. And during the year following graduation I questioned every second I had ever spent here. I was skeptical. I wanted answers. I wanted it all laid out, the perfect road map to follow. I wanted a plan, any plan, someone else’s plan, just a plan to remove the anxiety of the open road ahead. I simply could not see how to chop my way through the thicket nor could I understand how to utilize my education, to apply it. Ironically I couldn’t see that my skepticism, my questioning spirit, my analysis of the situation, even my passionate expressive rants were benefits of the very education I was doubting.
When I came to Denison, I felt as if I had entered a mansion, opening the doors to many rooms excitedly exploring their contents and discovering exquisite treasures – for example, freshman year the jewels in the crown were Francesco Petrarch and Benvenuto Cellini; sophomore year it was George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War as well as Evelyn Waugh and that year too, Carl Jung and Albert Einstein; Junior year, John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom changed my life; and Senior year, my exploration of the Harlem Renaissance at Denison and at Yale taught me the sheer joy of deep primary source research and the even greater thrill of thinking through a very long piece of writing. Ah, but then suddenly it seemed that the door had slammed shut and there I was standing on the stoop hesitant to walk away. How could I leave? What skills did I have?
If only I could have seen that everything I had learned here would help me to shape a rich and wondrous, never boring, always challenging life. If only I could have understood that the liberal arts education does not tell us what to think nor does it lay out what we are supposed to do with the rest of our lives. Rather it teaches us how to think so that we have a chance to discover our passions and to design a path to pursue them. It doesn’t give us the answers. Rather, it teaches us the skills to ask the questions.
From the liberal arts we learn how to read critically, how to make independent judgments, how to identify ethical and moral issues, how to be skeptical and to distrust, and how to live and learn as a collective process.
It’s an education that teaches us to be analytical, to see beyond the good and evil interpretations of the world, to be fascinated not stymied by ambiguities, and to be inspired, not afraid, to explore the unknown.
It teaches us to achieve an open state of mind, to recognize prejudice, to understand more than just ourselves, and to be empathetic.
From this education we learn how to educate ourselves and thus to more easily adapt to change, a very important skill in this stunningly fast moving world. You will likely have more than one career in your life but while occupations and professions come and go, the tools of the liberal arts will be constants in your life, tools for keeping up with change.
The depth, the breadth, the context that you have learned here will help you to make good decisions, both professionally and personally. To be sure, the liberal arts background cultivates leadership. Consider that every profession has its own language and its own basic views. We visit a variety of worlds in the liberal arts and we learn to recognize those diverse languages, all of which allows us to understand varied points of view when negotiating or problem solving or writing stories about the world around us.
It is in essence, an invitation to engage in learning, in questioning, in creating, in examining, in debating, in making a difference — indeed to engage in and even to provoke the kinds of dialogues on issues of the day that are at the heart of maintaining our democracy. Harry Weinberger, a New York City attorney during the first half of the 20th century and one of my favorite discoveries in researching my most recent book Savage Peace, once said, “I learned by experience that democracy lives on the exercise and functioning of democracy. As a child learns and grows by doing, a people learn democracy by acting in democratic ways. I knew from the history of other countries that even the best democratic constitutions did not prevent dictatorships unless the people were trained in democracy and held themselves eternally vigilant and ready to oppose all infringements on liberty.” Our liberal arts training makes us practitioners of democracy.
One of the best features of this gift is that it forces us to take risks. Risks every time we speak our minds. Risks when we put our convictions into motion. Risks in opening new doors and entering rooms where we have never before been.
Remember the feeling that you might have had when you took a course in a discipline you knew nothing about. It felt uncomfortable at first perhaps but then once you were swept into the fascination of the topic and had entered a new place, in mind and spirit, you forgot your discomfort. That’s good practice for life. Believe me. For example, I feel that way always before I start writing a new book. Felt that way as a reporter when getting a new assignment for a story. Felt that way, in fact, just five minutes ago when I started this speech. I knew that it would feel strange at first and then I knew that if I had the courage to go forward, it would be a very fulfilling experience. The courage to take risks is surely something we learn from the liberal arts. To be sure, the liberal arts experience allows us to experiment, to learn in a rather safe environment what courage feels like, what it demands, what can result from it. And quite frankly, that part of it all I know quite well. As E.B. White once wrote, “If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.” I’m am not sure at all that I could have become a writer if I had not first learned courage here.
But perhaps the best part of it all is the joy of learning for learning’s sake. That door to the mansion of learning was never slammed shut, despite my feelings during those early days after graduation. And I have been compelled and inspired to visit its many rooms all of my life – as you will be too. Consequently I have never been bored for a single minute, partly because of that feeling that there is so very much I want to learn, having caught a glimpse of all the possibilities during my undergraduate years. My curiosity is vast.
When I was sitting where you are today, some of my classmates did in fact know exactly what they wanted to do next and how to pursue it. But most of us, I know, did not have that clear path I so longed for. We did know, however, how to ask questions, how to express ourselves well, how to think through a problem, how to protest against what we did not believe in, how to stand up for what we did, and how to envision a better world. We had curiosity that would lead us to a rich lifetime of learning. We had a passion for making a difference. We were humble yet we were stronger than we knew. You are the same. I am confident of that.
So, please, embrace what you have and go forward. Never waste a moment regretting this education. Your appreciation for it will grow with time; it’s almost magical in a way. As you move forward in time, the more you do the more you will see how applicable and indeed how practical it is. With time, the parts begin to fit together. In closing, I urge you: Be brave. Seek the truth. Work hard. Have fun. Love life. Pursue something larger than yourself. Put your convictions into motion. Keep your sense of humor in tact. And, most important of all, whatever paths you take, never never give up.