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MIKE JACOBS: Liberal arts enrich North Dakota's future

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October is Arts and Humanities Month in North Dakota. Gov. Jack Dalrymple says so. In fact, he proclaims it.

Nor is the governor alone.

UND President Mark Kennedy has stressed the importance of the liberal arts. So did his predecessor, Ed Schafer, while he was acting president.

The liberal arts are one of eight "pillars" outlined in the North Dakota University System's Envision program, which is intended to imagine what higher education will be like in the state in the year 2030, when today's first graders will be sophomores in college.

Last week, the UND's arts and sciences advisory committee met on campus.

So it has been a month for arts and humanities.

The governor's proclamation says that "the arts and humanities enhance and enrich the lives of all citizens and affect every aspect of life in America." This includes, the governor asserts, "the economy, education, creativity and community livability."

As it happens, I have a degree in philosophy and religious studies from UND. These disciplines are among the liberal arts. When I retired from the Herald, UND gave me an honorary doctorate in letters, a nice ego boost on my way out the door. I serve on the advisory committee to UND's Arts and Sciences dean, Debbie Storrs. At Mark Hagerott's invitation, I have a seat at the table when the Envisioning process turns to the liberal arts. He's chancellor of the state university system.

A sense of anxiety emerges in all these forums. The liberal arts aren't exactly under siege, but rather underappreciated. So the sentiment seems.

Partly this is a result of confusion about what the exactly is meant by these terms, liberal arts and humanities. It's best to speak in broad terms here, because the terms are meant to embrace an approach that is both wider and deeper than any specific discipline.

In this use, "liberal" is not a political term. Clearing this up seems to be the beginning of any contemporary discussion of the "liberal arts."

Broadly speaking, then, the liberal arts and humanities include those undertakings usually known as "art," including visual and performance arts from painting and sculpture to music and dance.

And much else besides.

Other specific disciplines are included, too. These are the ones that study human culture, including anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, religion, literature.

And many others as well.

The liberal arts do train people for specific jobs, including college teaching. Nevertheless, the threshold question always is, "What am I going to do with my liberal arts degree?"

There are three answers, I believe:

Investigate. Evaluate. And understand.

Here's what I wrote after one of the meetings of the Envision task force on liberal arts:

"The liberal arts are the foundation of education. Training in the liberal arts provides cultural background, critical thinking and context for judgment.

"The liberal arts prepare people for thinking about the world, appreciating the world and its diversity, understanding events in context, creating and transmitting knowledge, inventing new things and devising new methods.

"The liberal arts enable people to sustain and bolster civic engagement.

"The liberal arts make people ready for careers as varied as entrepreneurship and intellectual research.

"The liberal arts create and sustain free people.

"The liberal arts are central to dealing with all of the foreseeable futures of North Dakota in 2030."

The last point (and much else) I borrowed from Tom Isern, a Great Plains historian who is distinguished university professor at North Dakota State University. He chairs the liberal arts task force.

My own experience has proven the value of a liberal arts education. My degree in philosophy and religion didn't get me a job, but it helped me to do the job. It has also made my life more interesting. As I told my father when he wondered about it, a philosophy degree gave me something to think about while I was driving the tractor.

So here is my agenda for the liberal arts:

"Introduce students in elementary and high schools to the liberal arts, and emphasize the importance of the arts in all walks of life.

"Make liberal arts fundamental to college learning for prospective engineers and airline pilots as well as editorial writers.

"Strengthen the liberal arts statewide. In general, literary and scholarly culture is thin in North Dakota compared to other states.

"Provide broad support for liberal arts education by creating scholarships and endowed professorships in liberal arts at the research institutions and strong teaching staffs in liberal arts at the four-year colleges.

"Create an arts fund that supports local visual and performing artists, including those who carry on the traditions of the state's people. These should be supported through investments using interest from the state's various 'rainy day' funds.

"Reshape the academic year to create periods in which students can experience the state, putting the ideas they've gathered in classrooms to work in experiential learning. Create an environment that encourages learning within the state (similar to the emphasis on learning abroad)."

Thanks, Governor, for giving me impetus to write all of this. You provided "the angle," as we say in the news business.

Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Herald. Readers can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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