Category Archives: education

The value of the Liberal Arts

My Williams College 25th year reunion is coming up soon. I will not be able to attend due to family obligations, but I wrote a little something for the reunion book. I jotted down notes for this piece while attending a lecture given by Professor Francis Xavier Farquarharson, at West Edina Institute for Advanced Philosophical Inquiries. Gladys’s mom, Gladys, drove over in her Subaru from Appleton to join me at the lecture. Professor Farquarharson is the Millard Fillmore Professor of Norwegian Farmer Studies at West Edina, and he was lecturing on his Norwegian Farmer edition of the New Testament. He spent about 83 minutes talking about this one scripture: “For God so loved the world, He almost told it.”

I believe strongly in a liberal arts education. I can’t honestly say that I fully understood what I was getting when I decided to attend Williams, but looking back, I know that the philosophy of the school, the demands of the excellent professors, and the infectious attitudes and characteristics of my fellow students instilled in me a capability and enthusiasm for learning anything, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

I still often think of specific moments in my classes at Williams: a feeling like the top of my head being physically removed, during David Tharp’s exposition of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo; the brilliant insight exemplified by the invention of the railcar airbrake, explained by Donald Beaver; the crafty McGyver-like zaniness of the Josephus problem, exposited by Victor Hill; Kim Bruce leading us through the inevitability of Goedel’s incompleteness theorem; Robert Dalzell’s previously inexplicable fascination with Balinese cock-fighting, suddenly illuminated; the music of the Sapphic poetry fragment “…and I hunger and I thirst…” Whenever I teach, I aspire to facilitate moments like these for my students.

I once suggested to my colleagues at LaPlace-LaGrange-LeGerdermain Corp, while we were debating a training program for our fresh college in-take, that we should require them to spend 5 hours over the course of a week mastering some aspect of German romantic poetry, or medieval siege engine technology, or the history of stringed musical instruments. I argued that the most valuable characteristic we could develop in our brilliant young employees was unbridled enthusiasm for learning, and curiosity about absolutely everything. Sadly, my suggestion was not adopted.

When I got married, my classmates, Dr. Virus and Paddy O’Reilly made the trip to Houston to attend, and as a result, I had the opportunity to explain to Gladys why someone had written EPH in remarkably indelible shaving cream on almost every piece of glass on my car. This experience scarred my wife in some way, and about every six months, to this day, I hear her telling the kids that their father is something called an EPH.

I have no idea whether any of the four kids will attend Williams, but I often tell them what was great about Williams, urging them to weigh any school they consider against what I deem to be the key criteria. Aside from the liberal arts focus, I harp incessantly on the point that it is unfortunately a rare school at which all courses, even at the freshman level, are taught by the actual real professors, not by harried graduate students. And how can one put a value on the experience of rubbing shoulders with so many other brilliant minds? Did I learn more from the classes, or from my fellow students? I am uncertain.

I hope before too much longer to walk again down Spring Street, and again to climb Mt. Greylock, and to compete again in Williams Trivia. I dare not ask whether Colonial Pizza still exists.