Liberal Arts for the Current Times

A lifetime of events has occurred in the span of less than a year: COVID-19 declared a global pandemic in March, George Floyd killed in May, and crises of economy, education, and mental health ensuing by August. By the time that the 2020-21 academic year began, it was evident that it would be important to hold time and space on the calendar for reflection, perhaps even for creative and constructive ideas. In conversation with faculty members, the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Richmond launched a Webinar series, “Responding to Two Pandemics: COVID-19 and Racism.”

After kicking things off with a discussion of protest and racial unrest featuring former Charlottesville mayor Michael Signer, which over 170 virtual guests attended, we recently hosted a discussion on the role of academic disciplines in the education of informed, 21st century citizens and leaders. Of the 180 guests, alumni in attendance rallied behind the premise that a liberal arts education matters, especially in these times. But is that education, by necessity, any different now from in the past?

Yes, and no. First, front-and-center during our webinar was an ancient quarrel, one between liberal and practical education. We might think of this as an American debate, but by the 5th century BCE, the political establishment of classical Athens opposed longstanding, disciplined, and conservative training to rhetoric and creative arts. The meaning of these categories has evolved, but there are some illuminating points of continuity. The Athenian schooling by trade, memorization, and tradition, is something like our practical training. By the classical period, some felt that newer training, including the art of persuasion, was ruining society (see, for example, Aristophanes’ Clouds), similar to those today who criticize the left-leaning of academic faculty.

For the potential impracticality of the liberal arts in America, look no further than the disagreement between Booker T. Washington, who painted a picture of the poor Black child combing over French grammar in the middle of a field in need of ploughing (Up From Slavery), and W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois, who “[sat] with Shakespeare and he winces not” (Souls of Black Folk) while segregated American lacked the desire, courage, or morality to embrace so-called Negroes, was cited often throughout the webinar, which was provocatively titled, “The Academic Disciplines: What Stay

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Searching for Joy in Struggle

In January 2014, I found myself sitting among a small group of fellow graduate students at the University of Michigan School of Education. We students seemed nervous, because at the end of the table sat Bob Moses — founder of the Algebra Project, educational justice advocate, and one of the key organizers of the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration campaign 50 years prior.

Although by that point Moses had spent three decades directing an initiative that “uses mathematics as an organizing tool for quality education for all children in America,” in my mind, Bob Moses was a young man in grainy black-and-white film clips. I knew him from snippets of his calm, but forceful demeanor while training activists in 1964 Mississippi. But here he was, in the middle of a Michigan winter, sharing his story of spending the better part of his life since Freedom Summer as an educator and advocate.

Each student in the room had responded to an invitation from the dean earlier that day, all eager to spend some time in the company of a renowned activist, teacher, and MacArthur fellow. I waited a while to speak up, but eventually summoned the courage to ask one of my heroes, now sitting in front of me, a direct question.

Dr. Kyle Southern

I observed that some of the other most notable leaders of the civil rights era of Moses’ generation had pursued politics—Ambassador Andrew Young and Representative John Lewis among them. I asked whether he had considered entering politics to try and undo the systems of oppression he had fought so long against.

Bob Moses took a long look at me, and his eyes darted around to the other faces at the table. “I just realized early in life,” he began to respond, “that there is joy in struggle.” His answer lingered in the air a moment, and then the conversation moved on. I was too busy absorbing our exchange to ask a follow-up q

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Becoming a Black Studies Scholar

In light of current calls for racial justice and increased activism, several colleges and universities have renewed their focus on, and investment in, Black Studies. This also means that more Black Studies positions are on the horizon for this academic year and the next. A Black Studies scholar shares four tips for becoming a stronger Black Studies scholar.

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Three HBCUs Share in Morgan Stanley’s New $12 Million Scholarship Program

Morehouse College, Spelman College and Howard University will all share in a $12 million gift from the investment banking firm Morgan Stanley. Through the gift, 60 students from the three participating HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) will receive full scholarships for any field of study, as part of the new Morgan Stanley HBCU Scholars program.

“The Morgan Stanley HBCU Scholars program will make college a reality for students in families who could not otherwise afford a higher education,” said Dr. David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College, in a Morehouse press release. “The gift will not only improve the lives of scholarship recipients; it will also lead to positive changes for communities of color.”

The academic and needs-based scholarship program, set to begin in fall 2021, will also offer online career preparation and training opportunities with the firm.



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