Jason Schlude on “The Elusive Liberal Arts, Then and Now”

We may have lost already if initially you ask whether we really need another impassioned defense of the liberal arts. Can’t we just get over this time-honored intellectual model? Maybe disregard it entirely, acknowledge it is simply of less import, or fully redefine so that we can win over families with a predilection for professional skills?

One could be forgiven for the sentiment. For a decade, enrollments have been hurting, and budgets crunching, at liberal arts colleges across America. More students with financial need are seeking the right destination in the landscape of higher education. Institutions have responded with tuition discounts. They also have tried to maintain and strengthen their educational product by enhancement of facilities and expansion of staff to support incoming students, execute new educational priorities, and keep up with administrative trends. Meanwhile crises make things worse: a healthcare system straining college budgets, a recession draining endowments, and now a pandemic producing new healthcare and economic woes, inextricably linked. Each element has driven the cost of higher education further north.

Faced with a bigger price tag, families are rethinking their investment in college and increasing their expectation for easily marketable professional skills. Some schools can weather the challenges better than others; those with major endowments can offset the costs, and for those with names recognized in every household, the names are sufficiently marketable on their own. The Harvard and Williams colleges are safe.

The liberal arts and the quest for skills

The schools in danger largely depend on tuition to pay bills and families who want more than a name to ensure investments. For these schools, the liberal arts mission seems to ill fit the evolving landscape. The expansive enterprise of the liberal arts calls for discussion beyond skills—discussion of something less tangible. Perhaps less is more. Perhaps the best brand markets specific skills in business, nursing, analysis, communication, and the like, in the fewest words and with slickest packaging. Anything more is distraction. This deepening crisis is causing many schools to call into question the efficacy of their traditional mission.

But this poses a question: what are the liberal arts anyway? Perhaps we have not thought carefully enough about them in the past. Perhaps, upon reflection, we can conclude they are purely skills—and we missed that detail years ago. Do not the roots of the liberal arts go back to the ancient Greeks who believed a citizen with influence in a city’s political assembly should have an education that prepared him for that responsibility—an education that gave him key skills in critical thinking and speaking, not to mention the physical conditioning and fighting skills he might need to protect his city? If so, then it would be in the spirit of the old liberal arts if the new liberal arts simply focused on skills.

Conveniently, not only might this strategy attract families interested in early professionalization, but in the face of tough budgets and a desire to make strategic investments in what are perceived of as market-driven programs, it also solves a staffing challenge. Aside from the skills specific to such programs (e.g., business and nursing skills mentioned above), if the faculty of a liberal arts college are valued only for their ability to teach a general set of critical thinking and communication skills, then cannot any faculty teach what is necessary for a liberal arts education? If that is the case, in lean times an administration can prioritize staffing professional programs, since their faculty can prepare students for specialized career paths and theoretically cover the liberal arts, too.

Not so fast—the Greeks and the liberal arts

Socrates in the Trinity College Library. Dublin, Ireland. Courtesy of Bar Harel. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_of_Socrates.jpg)

But this approach deserves greater scrutiny. It is worth noting that education in the golden age of Greece was not so problem-free. There would have been agreement in many communities on the proper learning activities for what we call elementary education: learning your alphabet, how to write, the importance of great Greek literature, Homer above all, the traditions of your city, etc.

However, at advanced levels of education, fierce debate developed about the best interests of students and state. This controversy surfaced with the appearance of “sophists” in Greek society. Sophists were paid teachers who offered pupils a special rhetorical training. The goal was to develop nimble minds and capable orators and debaters. In this educational process, they were given various positions to argue, however they contrasted with norms. The result, in the eyes of conservative citizens, was an education focused on communication skills that demonstrated a disregard for the time-honored traditions of a community.

One sees the debate in its most famous and comic form in the play The Clouds by Aristophanes, the great Athenian comedy writer of the fifth century BCE. In this hilarious and occasionally disturbing play, a certain Strepsiades suffers mounting bills due to his son Pheidippides, who has a taste for things aristocratic, including horses and their races. To solve his problem, he ultimately compels Pheidippides to enroll in the local school of sophistry, whose headmaster was none other Socrates, here presented as both a natural philosopher and a sophist. The goal was not virtuous; he wished for Pheidippides to learn the tricks of the rhetorical trade. In this way, he would know how to make the weaker argument the stronger—and thereby, how to help the family weasel its way out of its debts.

Once enrolled, the youth experiences firsthand a debate between two figures, Just Argument (Δίκαιος Λόγος) and Unjust Argument (Ἄδικος Λόγος), who personify traditional education (focused on justice and piety) and new education (in pursuit of an easy life and armed with sophistry), respectively. In the duel, Unjust Argument’s victory over Just Argument becomes decisive, winning Pheidippides over to his way of thinking. In the end, however, the father got more than he bargained for: a son primarily interested in proving the merits of a different shameful act—elder abuse. Strepsiades, enraged that his son’s education would be turned violently against himself, leads a charge to burn the school.

As we read this work, we see clearly the intellectual currents shifting in Athens. The proper form of education was controversial enough to secure it stage presence in 423 BCE during Athens’ Dionysia festival, which celebrated the god Dionysos through competitive performances of several tragedies and comedies. As Aristophanes reveals in the pages of The Clouds, his play was one of the losers that year, and the version we now read was a subsequent revision. Why it lost is hard for us now to gauge—and makes any attempt to identify the sentiments of the Athenian people a difficult prospect (as if teasing convictions from comedy was not difficult enough since the principal goal was laughter).

What we can say is that Aristophanes saw traditionalists and sophists as worthy targets. He criticized the latter for their reckless disregard of established values, ideas, and customs. But Aristophanes refused to let the former off the hook; he placed on grand display their inability to outsmart a new generation of practitioners and their gross intolerance of fresh ideas. It is likely that this multi-directional humor indicates a populace sharply divided in its views and with at least a portion of citizens willing to criticize both old and new. At a bare minimum, we can conclude that this was a time of change in Athenian higher education.

There is irony of note here, too. Socrates proved the greatest victim of the play. He was neither a natural philosopher nor teacher of sophistry. Aristophanes, for a good laugh, not only included him among the ranks of these intellectuals, but also made him their spokesman. Socrates in fact was quite different—if we are to trust Plato, his most famous student. Plato was the pen behind the Apology of Socrates, in which he recorded his version of Socrates’ trial in 399 BCE. Indeed, Socrates was viewed as a subversive by many Athenians and was brought up on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth two decades after The Clouds.

In his defense, Socrates claimed no one had witnessed him take part in the sky lore of natural philosophy. Furthermore, he denied cultivating a formal group of paying students like the typical sophist. Instead, Socrates spent his time testing the truth of the oracle of Delphi who asserted he was the wisest man of Athens. To that end, he circulated the city gauging the wisdom of its citizens by interviewing poets, politicians, and craftsmen. As he did so, many young men followed him, taking delight in how Socrates publicly showed that their claims to knowledge went too far (much to their irritation). While these groups knew and produced valuable things, there were limits to their insight—a limitation Socrates recognized as universally human. Even he himself was subject to it. The difference was that Socrates understood and acknowledged his ignorance. What made Socrates the wisest was his admission that he did not have a monopoly on wisdom; he was comfortable with not knowing—and put that on display.

Rather than selling his rhetorical skills as a teacher, Socrates was an intellectual and citizen who grappled with the substance of ideas and sought truth. He employed rhetoric to powerful effect, but such a skill was subordinate to transformative insight. In this way, Socrates’ career may have been in part a reaction against sophists, and Aristophanes’ characterization of him as a sophist was a misrepresentation of this watershed philosopher.

The consequences may have been significant. The jury for Socrates’ trial found him guilty and sentenced him to death by hemlock. He died by this method not long after in 399 BCE. What is striking is that Plato has Socrates claim in the Apology that his unpopularity stemmed from Aristophanes’ presentation of him as a wacky natural philosopher and sophist with bankrupt principles. This may have led some to dislike and condemn him.

For others, different factors may have come into play. Some followers of Socrates, such as Critias, were members of the Thirty Tyrants, an oligarchic government imposed by Sparta upon Athens following the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE. Already in 403 BCE, Athenians tired of the tyrants’ politically driven purges and overthrew them to reinstitute democracy. In the process, Critias was killed, and those associated with figures like him became vulnerable objects of revenge. This was likely a motivation for the prosecution of Socrates. Surely another factor behind the prosecution’s success was Socrates’ unbending, brash self-defense that underscored his wisdom compared to others. In his quest for truth, Socrates refused to back down from his discovery: there is a limit to human knowledge. This came at a cost.

Choosing the right liberal arts quest

To return to our own quest for the essence of the liberal arts, we must conclude, based on these events, that the liberal arts education of ancient Greece was not a simple skill-driven enterprise. While some advocated a focus on skills in their embrace of sophistry, others questioned this approach. Aristophanes viewed it as a dangerous concept. Socrates happily used his rhetorical skills but subordinated them to something fundamentally more important: a serious examination of ideas and desire for wisdom that alters the way we see ourselves and how we operate in the world. And in this process, while he identified the limits of different areas of inquiry and profession (poetry, politics, and trades), it is central that he acknowledged their wisdom and value. So, then, when it comes to the character of a true liberal arts education, one cannot but conclude that different models were available in ancient Greece.

Educators and administrators of today must choose. A world often falling short in ethics, justice, and vision needs colleges to do more than teach immediately recognizable professional skills. They also must engage students in a search for what ethics and justice look like, sound like, feel like, and truly are, in a search for ideas that transform how we see our material, intellectual, spiritual, and human landscape. In the process, we must engage them with teachers who are highly trained in different disciplines, so that students can circulate amongst them, learning different ways of seeing the world and the benefits (and limitations) that define each. We need philosophy, economics, biology, music, languages, anthropology, mathematics, art, history, English, theology, political science, psychology, communications, chemistry, theater, and more. Just as important, if our interests go beyond skills, we need professors with more than a passing acquaintance with such fields. They need the training and experience to open the complex world of ideas in each to students. While the parallel is not perfect, those in this camp count Socrates as company.

Perhaps in the landscape of higher education today, one may be reluctant to bet on Socrates. His end was tragic, after all. He did not give the people of Athens what they wanted—at that moment anyway. Will an apology and embrace of these liberal arts lead to a modern form of higher-ed hemlock?

Not necessarily. Many students continue to attend liberal arts colleges for their more expansive mission. For vulnerable colleges looking to win more professionally minded students by focusing only on a skills-based education, the abandonment of their previous mission likely will alienate those students who want both skills and transformative ideas. Meanwhile, their continued identification as liberal arts colleges (despite modified priorities) may not resonate with this newly sought-after pool of applicants who still see them in the traditional mold. In other words, the shift may bring a net loss rather than gain of students.

In this way, the Socrates analogy may cut in the other direction. Will a liberal arts college, despite its attempt to distinguish itself from traditional liberal arts schools, still be lumped with them by students seeking professionalization, much as Socrates was identified with natural philosophers and sophists? Facing this dilemma, such a school takes a major risk. While these colleges need to rethink how they articulate themselves and make real attempts to address the needs of students especially interested in skills, it is better to do so genuinely guided by an expansive liberal arts mission. We need to believe in our product, in the value of skills and ideas, and we need to reinvest in the diverse disciplines and faculty who can provide them.

Jason Schlude on “A Minnesota scholar shows how we could find common ground with, and through, Shia Islam”


* This article was originally published on September 18, 2020 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


Polarity is palpable at the present time. Whatever the causes, large swaths of American society are deeply alienated from one another. The issue does not matter: pandemic, racial equity, education or the upcoming presidential election. Whatever the result of that election, we are at risk of facing an even deeper divide in our society. It is likely that people will die as tensions and violence escalate. The reality is, they already have.

There is no shortage of problems we face. Each prioritizes them in an individual way, but I place our inability to conduct civil discourse high on the list. How can we talk to one another — without fear of irreparably alienating the other or even provoking violence? Is it possible that we together can gather evidence, interrogate it, identify critical issues, envision possibilities and their consequences, and reach solutions?

If anything, sheer necessity leads me to hope we can. If not, our future as a functional democracy is shrouded in darkness.

While contemplating this darkness, I recently had a remarkable encounter with empathy. I stumbled upon it in a new book on Middle Eastern politics: “Shia Islam and Politics: Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon,” by Jon Armajani, professor in the Peace Studies Department at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota.

The book documents the relationship between religion and politics across Middle Eastern history, with particular attention to the Islamic sect of Shi’ism.

Shia Islam is practiced by most people in Iran and Iraq and by many in Lebanon. It is the religion of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Also central to the investigation is the United States’ relationship to these nations.

Knowing even a few details of this relationship’s history, some may be tempted to think that Western empathy for Shias is impossible or out of place. Yet Armajani begins his book by embracing it: “I wrote this book not as a defense of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and its regional consequences, but as a way of explaining that revolution’s reasons in a manner which is empathetic to some of the Shia Muslim revolutionaries.”

Such scholarly empathy enables Armajani to understand the world of Shi’ism on its own terms, resulting in a balanced picture that recognizes its positive potential even as it acknowledges its political failings.

Similarly, he offers an assessment of the U.S. role that is sympathetic, but unflinching.

In the late 1970s, Iranian Shias faced a repressive monarch in Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a shah driven by personal interests in power and wealth and all too willing to brutally censor his own people with secret police and military crackdowns. Iran’s Shias overthrew the monarchy in early 1979 and formed a democracy defined by Islamic ideals that many hoped would bring succor to the victimized.

The new government more effectively distributed land to the needy, expanded literacy, critical infrastructure, and health care, and offered subsidies for food and other resources. But it was also a government that carried out its own strong-arm elimination of dissent. It was capable of endorsing a takeover of the U.S. embassy in November 1979 and holding its occupants hostage for more than a year.

The U.S. had reason, then, to distrust Iran — a lingering unease that makes the prospect of a nuclear weapon in its hands terrifying. Still, the U.S. must remember that it helped to organize a 1953 coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and supported the shah’s subsequent creation of a secret police. America was willing to abandon its democratic principles for what it thought was in its narrow security interests.

Armajani offers us something deeply needed: a willingness to recognize complexity in our political world. This leads him to a valuable middle ground — not a middle ground in which we all come to the exact same conclusions on how best to proceed, but one in which we all must consider the same facts and genuinely wrestle with them in terms designed to enable meaningful discussion, not to inflame and short-circuit it. It is an approach that as a citizen body we need to embrace if we are to build that more perfect union imagined long ago. **

** On September 22, 2020, I interviewed Dr. Armajani about his new book at the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. The conversation can be viewed here.

Jason Schlude on “The Art of Liberation: Life in the Liberal Arts”

Every year at colleges and universities across the United States, the spring is a time to induct new students into Phi Beta Kappa, the longest standing academic honor society in our country. Phi Beta Kappa celebrates talented students who have chosen to pursue a liberal arts education, rich in its study of the humanities, languages, natural science, mathematics, social science, and fine arts. The idea is that there is something special about a liberal arts education that makes for deep understanding, incisive thinking, clear and compelling communication, and ultimately personal growth, leadership, and success, broadly defined. At the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, we, too, celebrate these students, and in doing so celebrate the liberal arts mission that drives our community. Given the opportunity to address these students and our community at such an unusual time, I asked myself an important question: why does a liberal arts education matter, especially at such an imperfect moment?

One can hear my answer in this recorded address. It was originally posted on CSB/SJU’s Phi Beta Kappa Facebook page on May 4, 2020 (https://www.facebook.com/CSBSJUPhiBetaKappa/). The full text follows below.


Greetings to you, students, faculty, staff, and family of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. And congratulations to the new members of Phi Beta Kappa. My name is Jason Schlude, a professor of Classics and chair and of the Department of Languages and Cultures, and I have the honor of addressing you today. Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest and most widely known and respected academic honor society in the United States—and we are proud to welcome you to it. It is a society whose mission is to promote the study of the liberal arts and sciences and to highlight their vitality in our world. In this way, the occasion at hand is also a celebration for our whole campus community—a campus community that in this present moment is flung far and wide, but a community that remains united in its vision for the world. Whatever drew each of us to St. Ben’s and St. John’s, we have all come to appreciate how important it is to become whole scholars and whole people. By growing in every direction at once, we know we offer the world the best of ourselves.

To begin, I wish to acknowledge our present circumstances. I know this is not the address you were expecting. This is anything but a perfect moment. We are not together in person, in a hallowed hall, surrounded by friends and faculty, literally feeling the warmth of so many jolly bodies sitting together on a warm spring afternoon. I am not standing before you in my doctoral gown from the University of California, Berkeley, a gown trimmed in gold, striking in its deep blue, a color so distinctive it is called, in fact, “California blue.” There is a serious public health crisis at hand, with students seemingly cast to the winds too early, each of them—each of you—living in so-called isolation, likely lonely, wondering what the future will hold. This was a decision made out of concern for your safety and for your community’s safety. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we made it out of our love for this community. Before I say anything further, I can assure you the professors, coaches, and staff of St. Ben’s and St. John’s prize your welfare above all else and remain steadfast in their commitment to helping you envision and realize your future, step by step, wherever you may be at this time. Even so, that fact cannot erase the disruption, disorientation, and distress you are feeling.

It is hard to know what to say in these circumstances. And I certainly don’t feel like the perfect person to address you in them. Who am I to speak to you? We are all complex in our own ways—impossible to neatly sum up. I’m a father, a husband, a friend, a teacher—more, too, I suppose. These are important roles—ones I would not give up for the world; they are my world—but they don’t distinguish me as particularly unusual. Most important for this occasion is my identity as a teacher. I am a professor of Classics, the field that studies the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East, especially Greece and Rome. It is the original interdisciplinary field of study, the original liberal arts major, involving study of language, literature, history, philosophy, religion, anthropology, art, architecture, archaeology, and geology. In this way, my daily life is the pursuit of liberal arts education. To that, I can speak. So let me speak with you today as a teacher in the liberal arts who would like to offer a few humble reflections on this tradition, however imperfect these reflections may be.

To fully appreciate the power of a liberal arts education and how it can be an anchor for us in the turbulent waters of this historical moment, we need to begin with the roots of the  “liberal arts” and the freedom to which they point. These English terms arise from the Latin language. “Arts” come from the noun ars, artis, meaning “art” or “skill.” These arts then involve practical skills, a detail sometimes lost in translation. But they certainly also are bound up with the idea of an art, a finely tuned craft with creative power, with aesthetic beauty.

The “liberal” element has been politicized in modern society. Whether that is accurate is not for me to judge today. But the root of the word signifies something else. In Latin, the verb liberare means “to free.” This is a crucial concept for the liberal arts. Students who pursue them develop their arts and skills to “free” themselves. This freedom may look a bit different for each of us—but there is surely a freedom to be found in the liberal arts, and we hope you have found it in your time at St. Ben’s and St. John’s and will continue to enjoy it throughout your lives. On the one hand, this is a freedom from a narrow perspective. Whatever your primary academic and professional interest, you have embraced a broad course of study, including the humanities, sciences, mathematics, multiples languages, fine arts, in addition to courses in religion and ethics, where multiple fields are brought to bear on questions of meaning and morality. In this work, you have been freed from seeing the world from a single point of view, freed from ignorance, freed from a poverty of ideas, we might say. And for many, there is an additional liberation. A liberal arts education gives you the ability to improve the physical circumstances of your life as well. Anyone, no matter what one’s socio-economic background, can find a salvation in the liberal arts: the ability to use their arts and skills to move beyond an upbringing limited in its tangible resources and pursue a life with greater financial opportunity and security. In other words, the liberal arts offers a liberation from a poverty of ideas and a material poverty. We were all poorer, in one way or another, before we pursued a liberal arts education.

The liberal arts world is one I have a personal history with, as we all do. I was one of those students with a more modest background. I grew up in St. Louis, MO. My father was a stone mason, my mother a secretary and then nurse’s aide. They had four children, among whom I was last. While they were preparing for my arrival, they had to find a new home under unexpected circumstances. They had to buy fast and cheap. And the result was a house over 100 years old with plaster disintegrating before our eyes. We had to take the walls down ourselves, the plaster and wooden slats dragged out bucket by bucket and dumped in the backyard. Then we tried to put them back up. That took money and energy, and my parents were short of both at the end of long work hours. Practically as long as I can remember, at least one, if not multiple, rooms of the house had no walls. Often you looked upon rough boards into which old asbestos siding was tacked. The walls were only closed up following my undergraduate years. It was a home I loved—and sometimes hated. It was all I knew, and yet I rarely brought any friend there, out of sheer embarrassment. The best man in my wedding went to high school with me (I was his best man, too). He still drives past my old home every day on his way to work. But in our friendship of nearly 25 years, I bet he entered my house fewer than five times. I was too good at listening for his car so I could meet him on the street—or porch, if necessary.

My parents, however, also knew the importance of education—a broad education. They had an absolute faith in it that seems increasingly hard to find today. In fact, since we lived in areas where public education was underfunded, and the only affordable private option was Catholic education, years before I was born my family converted to Catholicism just so we could attend a Catholic grade school (a requirement apparently). Even so, it was a sacrifice for my parents—but they made it. And I knew what a gift it was. Already at 10 years of age I knew that education was my ticket out, my ticket to more. This proved the beginning of my path to a liberal arts education. I went on to attend a Jesuit high school, where I learned just how much I loved learning anything and everything, and how growth was to be found in pursuing the unknown and strange, rather the familiar and comfortable. So I next went to Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, where I pursued my liberal arts education. When selecting my majors, knowing I wanted to study everything, and that would make me a versatile thinker and citizen, I picked the most interdisciplinary fields I could find: Classics, religious studies, and geology. And then, knowing the power that teachers had in my life, I wanted to be one. And so four years later, I found myself driving my dad’s old Ford F-150 pick-up truck to California, to pursue graduate study in ancient history and Mediterranean archaeology at Berkeley. It was a place I never thought I would live. California was an alien world to me.

Why I went there is a story that suggests a liberal arts education can offer another, third form of liberation to its students as well. When I was thinking of what graduate school to attend, a dear college professor who had attended Berkeley gave me an important piece of advice. She said, “Yes, you want an excellent university. But make sure to look at what their doctoral gowns look like, because you’ll be wearing that gown for a long time. There is nothing like California blue.” I laughed. But I did know what her gown looked like. Beth wore it to every convocation at Macalester—and it was gorgeous. So I went to Berkeley.

I started this address today mentioning that Berkeley gown, which I now share with Beth. I absolutely love it. I love it because of all that is wrapped up in it. Even if you were seeing me today in that California blue, you likely couldn’t guess at most of it. You might not know that every year of graduate school—for the first four years—felt like my last. I didn’t know all the languages that were needed, whether those were additional foreign languages I had yet to learn or the polished and specialized English vocabulary that seemed required for graduate seminars. I didn’t come from a major research university where scholars lectured to you at length, giving you a grand vista of antiquity, connecting all the people, places, and dates so that you were left with an interconnected mental map. I mostly knew islands on the map and the ocean that separated them was unknown and formidable. I had my liberal arts education—and I applied it like a scrapper using every last survival skill, deliberately crisscrossing the new geography and creating my own map. Still, I felt hopelessly behind, year after year, wondering if I could keep up, if I had another year in me.

As these anxieties filled my mind, routinely when the academic year was drawing to a close, I would walk across campus, through Sproul Plaza, for those who know it. Most of you have seen pictures of it, from the 1960s, filled with the students who launched the free speech movement—another freedom that sprung from liberal education. This was a unique place in the world that played its part in liberating us from the past. It was an imperfect achievement, to be sure. Not all have freedom of speech yet—not fully. And yet the freedom was real. While I only attended Berkeley in the 2000s, the various products of free speech were still to be found in the plazas, some serious, others far less so. A political comedian set up shop to heckle the educated, reminding professors and students alike that we did not have all the answers. We didn’t even have all the questions. A man showed up most days around noon to blast John Lennon from him boombox and broadcast a conspiracy that led to his death. Student groups ran all manner of stunts, the most memorable being a pine-wood derby race. But this was unlike any pine-wood derby race I had seen. The vehicles had been purchased from adult specialty stores and were unusually aerodynamic, every color of the rainbow, and did not roll down the track, but rather vibrated at adjustable rates. Another man stood on a stool atop a bucket, denouncing the brutality and injustice in the world, while shouting, “Happy, happy, happy.” At times, instructors and staff put up picket lines to win living wages and better health benefits, strikes temporarily preventing undergraduate education and key student services. In another standoff, students hoisted themselves into giant oak trees and set up tents in the canopies to prevent their removal for a new construction project. This led to a lengthy standoff that ran up security costs and produced violent exchanges with police officers tasked with safe removal of the “treesitters.” Sometimes it was hard to know when justice crossed the line.

As I would stroll through this bizarre world, I made a point to stop by the bookstore. There, year after year, I would pause to look at the Berkeley doctoral gown, draped upon a confident mannequin. And I wondered whether I would ever wear that gown. I wondered if I would abandon graduate school and disappoint my professors. Of course, I knew that was rubbish. I knew those teachers would be proud of any choice I made, as long as I gave every task my all, determined what was my next and best step, and then took it. What was most important for me in those moments and what stayed with me, before I passed by the gown again to return home, cook dinner, and then crack the books once again, was that my past professors believed in me. They helped me to grow and make it to Berkeley. They had the confidence that I could do it. Beth, Andy, Nanette, and Calvin were always with me—and still are.

Several years later I did finish. And graduation came, providing another illustration that life was not perfect. I found out that the official Berkeley doctoral gown was nearly $1000. At that point, I was still a graduate student, and my wife and I had our first baby boy. The gown was certainly not an essential need—and the expense could not be justified. This was the cost of food that would feed our family for two months. In addition, I learned my parents could not attend the graduation, which was hard to bear; ill-health and anxiety springing from it prevented that. And yet it remained a day I will never forget. My father-in-law and his wife did not attend the ceremony, but they generously purchased the gown for me as a surprise—a very sweet surprise. And while my own parents could not come, my amazing mother-in-law made a point to be there. She and my wife stood behind me, and I held in my arms my new son who played with the gold tassel on my cap. It was imperfect, but it was beautiful—a charmed day in my life, if ever there was one. The gown still represents the many imperfections of my life.

So here we sit—or perhaps you are standing. I’m in one room of my house, my two kids are in another room, sometimes playing happily, sometimes arguing and trying to pry the prize of the moment from one another’s hands. Maybe they will break through the door at any moment. My eleven-year-old son is writing a song with a friend called “What a weary little world,” my five-year old is sad since he can’t see his friends anymore. He longs for the day that he can drive on the highway in sight of our house. I’m tired and my patience is short—and there is still so much isolation, frustration, and pain in the weeks and months ahead. You are where you are, most of you far from campus, not with those friends and faculty I talked about earlier. Maybe you are alone right now—in one way or another. I hope you and your family are secure in your food, shelter, and health. Or maybe you are experiencing uncertainty in your life in one or all these ways. That thought pains me. But I know this is true for many of you.

Yet I would suggest your liberal arts education has prepared you for this, too. It offers you not only liberation from ignorance and liberation to achieve a better life, but a third liberation: freedom from the perfect. Despite what some may say, the liberal arts have prepared you for the imperfect, for the real world. The real world is a place of poverty and abundance, pain and pleasure, anxiety and anger but also hope and gratitude, loneliness and love. It is a world disorienting in the complexity of its problems and experiences. In preparation for that world, have you taken a course of study that has offered you only oversimplified problems with perfect, uncontested answers? The questions you have faced at St. Ben’s and St. John’s have been far more difficult to understand and articulate, with answers even harder formulate. What is the right balance between individual freedom and national security? What about individual freedom and public health? How can we balance national and international interests? How do we find and understand God in a world of so much pain—and yet wonder and joy? How should we approach economic development while protecting the environment? How can we push the frontiers of science and technology and be ethically responsible? What is the proper balance between freedom of speech and protecting the dignity of every human being? How do we cherish our own familiar traditions and embrace different, unfamiliar traditions of new community members? How can we correct the grave injustices of racial and gender discrimination in a world where one person’s gain is perceived as another person’s loss? How important is the relationship between history (however ancient or difficult) and our increasingly modernist world? And how can we as poets, potters, painters, pianists, photographers, how can we as artists best engage, represent, challenge, and shape this world? This is your liberal arts education—an education that eschews the perfect, and values the hard, the intractable, and the imperfect.

Each of us at this moment, seemingly on his, her, or their own island, lives with an imperfect world. We accept that—and yet we must cling to the beauty that it still offers. This beauty includes your many accomplishments to date, academic, athletic, and otherwise. I hope, too, that for many of you your family is at hand—maybe a mother or father, if they are in your lives, maybe a grandparent, aunt or uncle, brother or sister. I bet if they are with you, and you pause a moment to look in their eyes, you will see a pride and love born of a lifetime—your lifetime—spent feeding you, bathing you, dressing you, listening to you, supporting you in every way possible, watching you take step after step, proud at every one, now seeing you fully as adults, ready to go out and change the world that needs you. I wager you will see gratitude in their eyes because you have let them be part of your life. And remember, too, you are in the hearts of so many who are stretched across the American landscape and world—and those hearts can be a shelter as well. The group I know best are teachers. My teachers’ hearts held me—and still hold me, adult that I am. And our hearts at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University hold you at this imperfect moment. We spend our days wondering if you are okay, wondering what you are feeling. We are frustrated at how unfair this is for you. We try to do our best to give you what you deserve, as imperfect as it is at this time. But as we do this, know that we do hold you in our hearts every day. I can guarantee the pride, love, and gratitude that we all feel when we reflect on your time at St. Ben’s and St. John’s. We cherish that you have spent this part of your life with us. In it, we have come to know you. We have learned your fears and seen your momentary failures. But we also have witnessed your talent, tenacity, accomplishments, contributions, and hope. And we love you for all of this complexity.

A perfect world would be welcome perhaps, but a life blind to all else would be very small. I prefer freedom from the perfect, because the imperfect is a central part of life, because struggle is our companion. But we must never forget the beauty that is in the world. Today the beauty that it offers is you, wherever you are, however you may be. You are beautiful. And the art of liberation, offered by the liberal arts, only helps us to see it more clearly, no matter what the circumstances facing us. Congratulations and thank you.

Jason Schlude on “Infectious Nationalism: Pericles and Public Health Crises”

A powerful state sits on the verge of a public health crisis. An infectious disease threatens to ravage its population. Meanwhile, its principal leader addresses the public. Some hints are dropped suggesting its international outlook, but the main theme is something different: our state is the greatest in the world, the teacher of the world, immune to failure.

This was the circumstance 2,450 years ago in Classical Athens. Pericles, Athens’ most powerful general and politician, the famed promoter of democracy, principal driver behind the Parthenon, addressed the Athenian people in his eulogy over their recently deceased fellow citizens. They did not die from disease but from battle in the first year of the Peloponnesian War, the lengthy war fought between Athens (and its Delian League) and Sparta (and its Peloponnesian League) in 431-404 BCE.

The speech comes to us through the historian Thucydides, an Athenian participant in that conflict, who produced a history of the war that we still recognize as a masterpiece of historical analysis. The speech, often called “Pericles’ Funeral Oration,” remains one of the most famous political speeches of all time. In Thucydides’ version (2.34-46), Pericles does not call out particular individuals among the dead for praise, as one might expect. Instead, the lion’s share of the speech is an ode to Athenian life—as compared to that of other Greeks—and a justification for the sacrifice made by the brave men of Athens. In this form, it is a sweet swig nationalism. As Pericles outlines, the Athenians were lovers of freedom, dedicated defenders of their city and empire, a people who respect law and active democratic citizenship, the “school of Greece.” For Pericles, Athens was no imitator; it was the model.

As political descendants of the Athenians, we cannot help but pause over certain descriptions in the speech that many of us, as participants in our own democratic experiment, would happily apply to ourselves. But there are unpleasantries here, too—as Thucydides readily recognizes, and these apply to us as well.

The same Athenian men who cherished freedom, law, and democracy would rob their allies of their independence of action, even to the point of devastating rebellious (read: neutral) lesser states such as Melos; faced with the Melians refusal to abandon neutrality in the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians killed their men and then enslaved their women and children (Thucydides 5.84-116). This was a brutal consequence of blind nationalism.

The damning verdict of Thucydides can be seen in other ways, too. Immediately after Pericles’ celebration of Athens, Thucydides recounts an infectious disease that began its onslaught on the city of Athens only months later (2.47-54). It arrived around the same time a Spartan army returned in the spring of 430 BCE to besiege Athens for a second season. Holding out in its walled city, the Athenians found death from the plague everywhere. Their society initially tried to cope, its members caring for one another, until order and solidarity eventually broke down, with many Athenian citizens avoiding one another and selfishly indulging in life while it still lasted.

The disease’s cruel symptoms worked from the head down to one’s intestines, assaulting the body till it eventually gave out, according to the historian, who carefully documented it for future recognition by his readers. Thucydides knew what he was talking about; he himself suffered but survived it. Pericles, on the other hand, perished from the plague. Constructing his narrative in this way, Thucydides wished for his reader to see Athenian folly. Its single-minded nationalism led it into conflicts that isolated it, leaving it to suffer on its own.

The craftsmanship and insight of Thucydides is arresting. The precise circumstances of our present moment are of course different from 2,450 years ago. The U.S. is not engaged in a conflict on the scale of the Peloponnesian War. This is not to say that we are without conflicts driven by national interests. We are nearly 20 years into our war in Afghanistan. The better comparison is our tension with emergent China, but this has not yet burst into armed conflict. Furthermore, the corona virus is not the plague—though in facing what may be the greatest public health crisis in a generation, it would be judicious to reserve final judgments. Nor is there a speech from the present U.S. administration like the oration.

Still, President Trump expressed sentiments in his press conference on February 26 that find parallels in Thucydides. One wonders if, coming off the nationalistic high of the public funeral, Athenians initially faced the plague with similar confidence. Were they convinced of their intellectual superiority? Were they certain they could handle it unilaterally? Did they receive calls for assistance, similar to those acknowledged by President Trump, only to primarily focus on Athenian interests, trying to limit who could enter the city? American interests are absolutely vital, but if the president’s initial assessment is accurate, and his tendency is to eschew robust international aid and to pursue reactive wall-building as the main remedy instead, one wonders whether this is another instance in which extreme nationalistic interest is self-harming.

The evidence so far available is less than heartening. Not long ago the Trump administration proposed more than $3 billion in cuts to U.S. contributions to global health programs, including shrinking by half its contributions to the World Health Organization. There have been simultaneous, ad-hoc boosts in funding to organizations like USAID, but nothing yet on a scale as to offset this dramatic overall reduction. The recent House bill passing $8.3 billion will help, allocating $1.3 billion for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Still, the crisis widens and deepens.

Our world is a global system, and we need to see beyond ourselves more than the President is inclined. Stronger international collaborations would pay off. So also would a good dose of humility in face of the corona virus.

What can we as citizens do in this situation? This is, of course, a moment to pull together—but to pull together at all levels of community: neighborhood, city, state, nation, and world. We must not fall prey to extreme forms of nationalism that encourage international antagonism and division. We will find greater success in the common cause that binds us all at the present moment, wherever we call home on our globe: helping one another to limit the spread of disease, develop medical solutions, and support all community members in these hard times. Fear and suffering are without borders—hope and goodwill should be, too.