University News

"The Liberal Arts Shapes a Presidency," by President Al Goldfarb

(The fifth annual College of Arts and Sciences John Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture, Sept. 25, 2007, WIU-Macomb; and the inaugural lecture Sept. 26, 2007, WIU-Quad Cities)

I am honored this evening to deliver the 2007 John Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture. I am also extremely humbled by the fact that I am the first faculty member outside of the College of Arts and Sciences to be selected.

Since theatre is my discipline, I need to begin my lecture with the kind of “thank yous” one hears at all of the awards ceremonies; only I promise these will be shorter. I want to express my appreciation to Dean Levi and the selection committee for this great honor. I want to thank John and Garnette Hallwas for their generous contributions that institutionalized this lecture as well as for their friendship and guidance during my first five years at Western Illinois University.

I want to especially thank my wife who is present in the audience today for her lifelong support. We were preparing to be married when I decided to become a theatre historian (which I am sure made her question my career choices and her future). She has always been understanding and supportive of the intense amount of time my administrative career has and continues to take away from our family. She has been a true partner every step of the way. Elaine has been an honest critic, collaborator, and mentor for all of my academic and administrative work.

Most of us, as we get older, appreciate more and more the lessons of our liberal arts and general education. For example, I most vividly remember the directives of my undergraduate composition and public speaking instructors; outline what you hope to prove, provide support, and conclude. The most important advice was to be as succinct as possible. Clearly, I have been asked to deliver a lecture that will support (and we hope prove) the importance of the liberal arts to our students' educations and to our university. And I know the audience's hope is that I remember the lessons I learned in my writing and public speaking courses.

I begin my discussion of liberal arts and general education, which I believe should be completely intertwined, recognizing that many of our students agree - as I probably did when I was an undergraduate – with the Courier columnist who last spring, in an essay entitled "Not Enough Time Spent in Majors," stated: "The designed purpose [of general education] is to waste our time and money and keep us here longer than we need to be. Most majors could easily be out in two years if we were only required to take classes relating to what we plan on doing for the rest of our lives."

And to be frank, as academics, we have unknowingly passively supported this argument by increasing the number of hours in all majors and trying to find ways of "double-dipping" general education courses. We speak of the importance of liberal arts, general education and interdisciplinary studies, but do we really model that behavior? Do our curricular choices really reflect that commitment?

In addition, are we truly open to the changes in our disciplines and possibly the broader definition of the liberal arts in the contemporary university? Are we too tradition bound to recognize the legitimate place of our changing disciplinary boundaries and the transformation of the liberal arts? In a few moments, I will discuss how the liberal arts shaped me as a theatre historian and as a university president.

However, at my last university I had to battle humanities colleagues to convince them that my general theatre history course should be categorized with them. The course was offered in a College of Fine Arts so it must be an arts course, was the argument. Yet, the focus of my discipline, what I teach in that course, was and is more closely aligned with the traditions of humanistic – and liberal arts – studies than pre-professional arts training. Are we, as academics, willing to break those traditional boundaries and clearly reflect those transformations in our curricula?

Given these realities, how do I persuade my audience to recommit to the liberal arts and general education? How do I persuade our students to allow the passage of time to enhance their appreciation and understanding of the importance of their education outside their majors? How do I convince my colleagues that another three credit hours in their chosen discipline is quite possibly not as important to their majors as an additional liberal arts elective?

I am hoping that I can do so by delivering a personal lecture. One that reflects on how I have been influenced by the broad, liberal arts education I received as an undergraduate; how the critical thinking I encountered in those courses impacts me in my personal daily life, my academic profession, my administrative career, and in my personal quest to understand my own historically disrupted, personal history. This will not be a lecture filled with quotes from experts but rather, as I near the end of a long career in the academy, one that comes from my heart.

While the title of my presentation is "The Liberal Arts Shapes a Presidency," those studies have shaped much more than my presidency. My liberal education has shaped who I am today and, thereby, my presidency. So, my lecture will break down into four parts (and I hope the audience will not already begin counting down toward its conclusion): how the liberal arts and my general education;

  1. makes me an educated consumer of popular culture (one of my personal passions, and I know the passion of many of our students);
  2. informs my work as a theatre historian;
  3. aids my attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, the Holocaust experiences of my family; and finally
  4. guides my decision making as president of our outstanding university.

In order to engender a bit of audience interaction, let me ask a few questions. (I actually believe the best liberal arts education asks for participation and active discussion.) Since I cannot transform this ballroom into a small classroom, we will have to be a bit more formal. Please raise your hands in response to my questions. How many audience members watch the “Simpsons”? How many have seen the video for the Outkast hip-hop song “Hey Ya?” How many in the audience would recognize Bruce Springsteen's classic rock song “The River?” The reason I chose these popular materials is that they are among my favorites and my understanding of them is shaped by the liberal education I received. Let me explain how just briefly.

I have often used the “Simpsons” to illustrate lessons in theatre history and theatre appreciation. And I am not unique in using the “Simpsons” as a teaching tool. A few months after I wrote the initial draft of this lecture, The Chronicle of Higher Education, in its September 14, 2007 issue, had a short subject feature entitled “The Cerebral “Simpsons” .” The article noted how professors of religion, literature, psychology, and science use the “Simpsons” in their classrooms. Paul Halpern, a professor at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, who has written What's Science Ever Done for Us? What the “Simpsons” Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life and the Universe?, was mentioned in the Chronicle as well as featured in an August 13, 2007 USA Today article. So I am clearly not alone.

Two of my favorite “Simpsons” episodes that I have used in teaching are "A Streetcar Named Marge" and "Marge Versus the Monorail." I have tried to show classes that my understanding of the comedic elements of the first episode is heightened by a careful study of Tennessee Williams, his play and film version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" (how much funnier is Mr. Flanders as Stanley when you are knowledgeable of the classic film with Marlon Brando, shown on the screen?). I also discuss other satiric adaptations of the play, including a gender reversal version, Belle Reprieve. My enjoyment of the Monorail episode – as well as the earlier one – is heightened by awareness of the history of American musical comedy, its conventions, and most specifically The Music Man.

In these episodes the writers of the “Simpsons” use the longstanding techniques of parody and travesty, which can be traced back to Classical Greek and Roman comedy; how many students in the audiences are aware of those traditions? I also spend a great deal of time drawing comparisons between the characters in the “Simpsons” and other eras of theatre and general literature, including commedia del'arte, and the 17th century French dramatist Moliere. Understanding those comedic ancestors enhances our appreciation of this present day popular culture phenomenon. The same is true for greater appreciation of Dave Chappelle, Jon Stuart, South Park, and many other contemporary comics and satirical television programs. Being well educated enhances, I believe, the audience’s appreciation.

Outkast's "Hey Ya" reverberates with references to rock and roll history (and related events in social history) as well as issues of race in the United States in the 20th century. Let's view a short segment of the video.

The infectious song, written and performed by hip-hop star Andre 3000, as well as its companion video, reflects – as the composer has noted in numerous interviews – the influences of such classical rock and roll movements and artists as funk, the Beatles, the Ramones, and the Smiths. (And to understand their references to these movements and rock icons, you need to also understand their relationship to political and cultural developments in the 1960s and 1970s.)

In addition, the video's reference back to Beatlemania reminds us that the outstanding black rock performers of the 1960s – some of whose music was appropriated by the Beatles, and earlier by Elvis Presley – remained segregated from large, popular audiences. (I even argue that Andre 3000, playing all of the roles in the band, reminds us of the solo African-American artists who were never fully recognized in such fashion.) Awareness of U.S. history in the 1960s is integral to fully appreciating the video.

The reference back to Beatlemania also reminds us that contemporary music is frequently positioned as radical and somewhat subversive. Is the video being ironic in reminding the Beatles generation – my generation – that their current attacks on hip-hop and hip-hop culture is no different than the attacks of their parents on the music of the 1960s? And again, can our liberal education better help us understand this? I believe so.

Bruce Springsteen's "The River" focuses on the struggles of the working, lower socioeconomic class in our country. The lyrics painfully reflect the tenuous existence of those who are at the mercy of disappearing factory employment. Why don't we listen to a short section? While Springsteen's lyrics are self-explanatory, I believe an intriguing comparison might be made to the renowned poem, “A Dream Deferred,” by the Harlem Renaissance author, Langston Hughes. Here they are in contrast:

"Now those memories come back to haunt me They haunt me like a curse Is a dream a lie if it don't come true Or is it something worse" (Springsteen)

Compared to:

"What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore – And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?" (Langston Hughes)

Hughes's work is one of high art; Springsteen's a work of popular culture. But they reflect the racial and class struggles in our country at different points in the 20th century and the attempts to depict those through similar poetic imagery. And again, my undergraduate literature courses helped me draw these parallels.

Now many students argue that I am over thinking, over analyzing these works. (Is that really possible? Is not one of the clear indications of the failure of our general education and liberal arts programs – as well as our preparatory education in high school – that our students believe that we should not do such intense analysis?) They argue that I am not just sitting back and enjoying these entertainments. After all, they are examples of "popular art" and were meant to just entertain.

My argument, of course, is that I am enjoying them at a higher level of appreciation and I am also able to explain my passionate interest in them (and to distinguish them from lesser works of popular art) through such analyses. (I might also point out that this is how I justify my frequent use of such materials in the classroom with some of my more reticent colleagues.) For that matter, such analyses prove that these works – like most popular entertainment – do more than entertain since they have embedded ideological points of view. And the analyses are not forced; they come from within the well of information that was provided to me as an undergraduate and which I am still just coming to appreciate and understand.

As a theatre historian, I have also come to realize that my understanding of my discipline is also not exclusively shaped by the study of my major (which parenthetically is a combination of theatre – a composite art that draws on literature, social sciences, humanities, visual arts, and many other disciplines – and history) but by all of the disciplinary areas I was required to study. Again, let me provide just a few examples.

As was mentioned in my biographical introduction, I have been fortunate to coauthor an introduction to theatre and a theatre history textbook with the retired Broadway critic of the Wall Street Journal, Ed Wilson. Our textbooks are filled with references to areas outside of theatre (and theatre history). When we discuss the development of acting we refer to the sociological phenomenon of role playing in every day life. In discussing the possible origins of theatre, we point to anthropological studies of ancient rituals. We discuss the place of religion in our everyday lives and its theatrical elements.

And when we delve into specific eras of theatre history in our texts, we call upon our general education to discuss the political, cultural, economic, and social developments during the classical Greek era, Shakespeare's time, or the 19th century, as just a few examples. We have timelines in our texts – that have been praised and copied by others – that focus not only on important events in theatre but also social, political, and cultural occurrences. (And I worry about my theatre students' general education when they are unable to provide me with any general information about these time periods. What happens when they are called upon to act, direct, or design plays from these eras? Their theatre training will not be the only tool they need to bring these works to life, regardless of how they ultimately interpret them.)

The fallacy about the lack of relevance of general and liberal arts education to our students' majors is also espoused in the Courier column I cited previously. The author suggests: "The idea of taking gen-eds isn't the problem. The structure behind it is just a little faulty. Why not cut down the choices and focus them around majors?" As I just noted in relationship to my own area of expertise, there is no unique "liberal arts or general education" focus for each specific major. All of our majors are truly interdisciplinary and require as broad an education as possible. (The study of mathematics, for example, informs my understanding of the use of perspective in Italian Renaissance design as did, obviously, my undergraduate art history course.)

My specialized research on theatre during the Holocaust and its representation in post-World War II drama and theatre, which resulted in the anthology I co-edited as well as numerous other publications, has drawn upon my studies of history, music history (there were operas and musical concerts staged in the ghettos and concentration camps), psychology (why would artists continue to stage works during such horrific times), sociology (organizational theory), and studies of other historic oppressions.

The most intensely personal way in which I have been impacted by my liberal arts education is how those studies have helped me address the unanswerable questions of my family history. As I have often noted, my parents were Holocaust survivors. Their families were destroyed (as was their histories and possessions) because they were Jews. My father was the only survivor in his family. My mother, who was 12 years old when the Nazis invaded her homeland, survived only with an aunt. I grew up without an extended family; with no family heirlooms; with no family documents. I never knew my grandparents or my uncles, nor did I even have photos to make them a concrete presence in my imagination. As a child of survivors, my life was quite different than my friends whose parents were born in the United States.

My parents rarely spoke about their past. Their hope, like most immigrants, was to make certain that their children succeeded and to shelter them from the horrors they had experienced. Since they did not speak of their pre-war lives very often or their Holocaust experiences, their past and my genealogy remain an enigma to me.

How did I explore my own history? How did I confront an incomprehensible genocide to which I am intimately related? Again, my liberal education is the key to my exploring these questions and contextualizing my parents' (and my own) history.

Frequently in liberal arts classes, and later in graduate school, I wrote about issues connected to the Holocaust. I read popular historians (such as William Shirer and Lucy Dawidowicz), psychologists (such as Viktor Frankl), survivors who are significant literary figures (including Elie Wiesel and later Tadeusz Borowski), political theorists and sociologists (such as Hannah Arendt), and many others.

Following my undergraduate education, I continued – and still continue – to read and study voraciously works by Holocaust scholars (because that is what my liberal education taught me). I have come to accept that I cannot fully comprehend the horrors that shaped my small nuclear family, but I have also discovered that greater minds than mine could not as well. I have gained not only insight but also comfort in knowing that some events can be constantly reanalyzed, readdressed, and continuously debated, but possibly never fully explained. (And isn't that one of the great lessons of a liberal education?) Still, I have also come to better appreciate my parents' lives and survival and my place in my family's history and destiny.

Finally, through liberal and general education, we need to remind our students, as many others have, that given our truly ever changing world, they will find themselves in careers that they had not planned on entering and in rapidly transforming employment situations. What better preparation for such change than a broad liberal arts education.

And here let me again personalize my message. I never planned on an administrative career. As a graduate student I never imagined that I would become the president of a university. I expected to spend my life in the classroom and in research libraries. My Ph.D. in theatre history was not meant to serve as preparation for the complexity of this position. And, if I am at all successful, it is because of my liberal arts education.

Let me describe, in possibly too simplistic terms, how some of my duties are impacted by the general studies of my undergraduate career. First, in order to be a president who is fair to all academic departments and disciplines (as I also had to be when I served as an academic vice president and provost), I am well served by having taken course work in many disciplines. But even more importantly, my liberal education made me naturally curious and aware of the necessity of life-long learning and intellectual investigation; which is how I approach issues in areas that I may not have studied. I am a constant student, a prerequisite I believe of a university administrator.

I am called upon to speak and write constantly. In the past two weeks, I addressed retirees regarding our new fundraising campaign; I welcomed attendees at our pre-football game tent; I welcomed alumni at events in Dallas and Houston; and I spoke about Holocaust theatre at the Figge Museum in Davenport. Yesterday, I gave my State of the University Address in Macomb and the Quad Cities. Tonight, I deliver the Hallwas Lecture. And that is only the past two weeks. My administrative assistant annually tracks the number of people I address. Last year, even though I was out of the office for nine weeks due to medical leave, I addressed almost 37,000 people.

I reflect again back on the composition and public speaking classes I dreaded. Those may have been the most important elements of my liberal education; and I worry that our current students do not realize the long-term impact of those studies, regardless of what career field they chose.

I meet with potential donors from all walks of life and with varied interests. As a representative of the university, I must be able to engage socially with those individuals and represent all areas of the university. Our conversations and interactions draw upon my liberal education and the broad interests that liberal education engendered.

My mathematics and statistics courses impact the budgetary work that I do daily. These are – and have been – difficult budgetary times. But I thank my mathematics professors daily for preparing me to make sound decisions often rooted in those studies. And I am frequently reviewing the university’s statistical data to discover where we are succeeding and where we are missing the mark. Our staff in Institutional Research will tell you that I am continuously engaged in reviewing institutional data and have even been invited to take part on panels at the national conference for the Association for Institutional Research.

The strategic planning I have undertaken at Western, and earlier at Illinois State University, was also informed by my liberal arts education. Our university plan, "Higher Values in Higher Education," – with a title that reflects the values laden focus of a liberal education – contains a number of action items that underscore the university's desire to reemphasize liberal and general education, including: the development of a First Year Experience which will impact the general education of our freshmen and the integration of liberal arts in all majors and disciplines. But the entire planning process was one of inquiry, discovery, analysis, and interpretation; these are the skills that are most highly valued and inculcated in a strong liberal arts education.

However, the most significant impact of my liberal education on my role as university leader does not relate back to specific skills taught in the classrooms. Instead, the liberal arts provided me with an appreciation of the need to respect all human interactions (my psychology and sociology courses shaped my outlook), the need to constantly inquire and research (decisions cannot be made just because I feel a certain way – something we hear too often in today's discourse; there needs to be some basis for those choices); the need to act in an ethical fashion (the readings of philosophers and works of literature); the need to be open to change and transformation (studying the failures of history shape my thinking here); the need for inclusiveness and fairness in our institutions of higher education (again, studying the failures in history inform my thinking).

I could not be a university president today had I just studied theatre history or just some arbitrary compendium of courses that might, in some artificial fashion, inform that major. Of course my discipline has impacted how I work as a university administrator. I, as have other administrators who have backgrounds in theatre, frequently suggest that the university administrator is like a theatre director who must have a vision for the production she or he is staging, must cast performers well, and must be open to input from all involved in staging the show. However, the day-to-day decisions I must make, the intense interactions I must engage in, require a breadth of knowledge and background that can only come from being liberally educated.

I hope that I have not spent too much time focusing on myself. Most people who know me well know that I do not like to be the center of attention. Still, with all of those personal reflections, what is my conclusion? It is not a very profound one nor very original. At the heart of a true education is the liberal arts. Whether we are educating our students as life-long learners or for careers, they cannot be successful without a liberal education. The skills at the heart of a liberal education are the basic skills needed for all of our future endeavors. I could not watch TV or film as passionately as I do, listen to contemporary popular music, teach theatre history, serve as an administrator at Western Illinois University, or try to negotiate my family history without the tools I was provided as an undergraduate.

But I also know that I did not appreciate those studies when I was an undergraduate. I ask our faculty to remember and recognize that reality but to continue to struggle to spark the future appreciation of their courses by our students. I ask that our faculty continue to commit to support liberal education, even if it means sacrifices in their disciplinary curricula. And I ask our students to be patient. Study hard, especially in your general education courses. Some time in the future, those lessons will impact your daily lives; I can promise that. Someday, if you leave yourself open to the lessons learned in your required courses, you will be surprised to hear those lessons reverberate in your minds as you make employment and life decisions. And who knows, you might also even enjoy the “Simpsons”, in reruns, more than you are enjoying them today. Thank you.