Liberal Arts: The Search for Meaning through Culture

by Jim Larner, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Music | Jan 02, 2013
As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Marian University in Indianapolis, it seems appropriate to reflect on what makes an education from Marian University distinctive. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is our Catholic identity. But what also sets us apart from other institutions is our commitment to a liberal arts education. This emphasis on the liberal arts provides our students with life skills that reach beyond any chosen career path and explores common themes experienced by human beings through the ages. 

 Each student at Marian University takes courses required in the general education curriculum. These courses assure a well-rounded education and a firm grounding in the liberal arts. One of the most distinctive courses is Humanities, an interdisciplinary course, team taught by professors of music, art, and literature. At other institutions, this type of course is taught as a broad overview of western culture, where students become culturally literate by learning to identify masterworks of the past. 

Cultural literacy is very important, but in our humanities course it is only the first level of engagement. The subtitle of the course is “The Search for Meaning through Culture,” which accurately describes a major goal of the course. This fall, nearly 200 students will read the epic of Gilgamesh. Most scholars agree that this story is based on an actual human being who lived around 2800 B.C. E in Uruk—present day Iraq. According to the legend, Gilgamesh is a powerful young king and although he protects his people from outside forces, he is an arrogant and abusive king. The people of Uruk pray to the gods for help. The gods intervene by sending Gilgamesh a friend with whom he shares many adventures. When his friend suddenly dies, Gilgamesh experiences such mourning that he decides to go on a quest for immortality. I don’t suppose it will surprise you to learn that he doesn’t achieve immortality—and yet here we are 5,000 years later talking about him. Why is Gilgamesh still remembered after all these years? He is remembered for the transformation he experiences on his journey. He sets off on a quest which seemingly ends in failure, but through his journey he learns a far more important lesson. He comes back to Uruk a benevolent and beloved king and thus does, in a way, achieve the immortality he sought.

So what do Marian University students learn from studying Gilgamesh? We can look at the various levels of learning that take place. The first level is the level of cultural literacy. This is the Jeopardy level. Students will know that Gilgamesh was a king who lived long ago and went on a quest for immortality. Beyond this level, they will learn about the cultural values and concerns of an ancient civilization. They will learn about the art and the music of those people and what they were trying to communicate to the world. Next is a deeper level where students are able to interpret Gilgamesh’s journey as a metaphor for someone who had to endure many trials to learn how to become fully human. And finally, students learn how to explore the lessons of Gilgamesh and apply them to their own lives and the world around them. That is “the search for meaning through culture.” 

Like Gilgamesh, our students are on a difficult quest—to earn a degree. Like Gilgamesh, they may have lofty goals—maybe to become the chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company. Progressing toward their goal they will face many challenges, successes, and failures. How they deal with those experiences will reveal their underlying character. With an emphasis on the liberal arts, Marian University prepares students to assess challenges from multiple perspectives. I hope we all agree that we don’t want our leaders making decisions based solely on “the bottom line,” or worse, making decisions based on personal gain. We need leaders who can evaluate a situation from multiple perspectives. We need leaders with a strong moral and ethical foundation. We need leaders who have learned and value the quality of empathy—the ability to have insight, respect, and compassion for others. The liberal arts foundation that Marian University provides prepares our students to make well-informed, values-based decisions.

There is more and more emphasis on professional instruction in higher education today—and certainly that is very important—but there is also a danger in placing too much emphasis on the transitory nature of career preparation. The pace at which the practical knowledge of a vocation is changing is unprecedented. Information that freshmen learn may well be obsolete by the time they are seniors. The advent of the computer age has changed every profession—but has it changed the lessons learned from Homer and Dante? Has it made the music of Bach and Beethoven or the art of Michelangelo and Van Gogh obsolete? There are elements of learning that are timeless. In fact, we might say the lessons of the great works are actually timely in that they of evolve throughout our lifetime. Think for a moment of an influential book that you have read more than once. Did the message of the book evolve with repeated readings?

I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde. We don’t want to graduate students who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Through a liberal arts education, our students learn values necessary to create a better world. And Marian University is creating a better world by transforming lives—one student at a time. This is our goal. This is what makes an education from Marian University truly distinctive.

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