From the Head of School

Bodie's Vantage Points

Liberal Arts: For Life We Learn

Volume IX, Number 3
Working on our Mission Statement last year, and now focusing on our Long Range Plan that centers itself on teaching and learning, it has become clear to me that the terms “liberal arts” and “humanities” can often be confused with one another, making for an unfortunate and incorrect divide between the humanities and the sciences.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities frames a liberal arts education as inclusive of all humanities, sciences, mathematics and social sciences and as derived from artes liberales—the “historical basis for the modern liberal arts, consisting of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music).” And, historically, as liberal arts grew to include different disciplines (remember, the trivium came first and the quadrivium followed), the philosophy of its intent did not. When mapping the future of “The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities,” Harvard College proclaimed the liberal status of these studies as “freed from the immediate pressure of economic survival, from the pressures of vested interests in the production of knowledge, and from ideological or religious pre-judgment.” In other words, a liberal arts education is all about our beloved motto: for life we learn.

Curriculum is not always linear and is constantly evolving. As our own Ms. Causey likes to say, “Curriculum is a breathing, living thing.” Grounding such evolution with the liberal arts tenet of freedom from vocation ensures not only a dedication to the learning, but also a value worth preserving. So, for example, as we explore thinking across and among subject boundaries, and as we develop new coursework in coding, design and engineering, we do so with the foundation of a liberal arts commitment behind us. This is exactly why when I am asked about teaching and learning at Spence, rather than speak about any subject matter, I always start with the two words that take a remarkable lead in all we do: inquiry and engagement.

All of this is not always easy. As content and coverage evolve, sometimes dramatically, focus and pedagogy will change. Good educators question all the time, exploring impact and conditions, all in the service of learning. I often use the story of a former colleague and incredibly dedicated math teacher, who was mourning, really mourning, the loss of the slide rule as a teaching tool. But then she had a small revelation: “Each child,” she said, “is entitled to her own educational history, and hers will not be mine.” Similarly, I was struck by a finding named in the Harvard study acknowledging the limitation of specialization at the cost of a broader understanding: “We have tended to emphasize specialist knowledge (Wissenschaft) over the formation of truly educated citizens (Bildung).”

And truly educated citizens, recipients of strong liberal arts educations, have much to give back. Being a free person holds both responsibility and opportunity. I recently had the privilege of hearing the President of Georgetown University, Dr. DeGioia, connect a strong liberal arts education to the obligation of finding “a sense of self within a larger framework.” Hearing him made me glad for the words of our Mission Statement, “transformation of self and the world with purpose, passion and perspective.” This, too, is the calling of a strong liberal arts education, a scope absolutely inclusive of all disciplines while at the same time capturing the larger whole of engendered citizenship. It’s never just about what you learn and why, but also about what you do with it.

Recently, I was at an alumnae gathering in Boston spending time with alums from the Class of 1959 to the Class of 2011. Across the ages and to a woman, they spoke about learning how to learn at Spence. They shared that no matter what they did, professionally or personally, they were extremely well served by their Spence years. One alum called Spence “the backbone” of her worldly and educational life. Another said that she owed her “lasting intellectual curiosity” to our school. There was powerful understanding in what the rearview holds, and in that backward-looking mirror, Spence and its fierce commitment to a liberal arts education held a fixed and important place. At gatherings such as these, I often close with my favorite story of a kindergartener who asked me “what I really did.” When I turned the question back to her and asked what she thought I should do as Head of School, she said, “I think you should keep us safe and learning.” And that’s exactly what we do at Spence.
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