MY (Unofficial) SVU Alumni Association Essay Contest Submission

I didn’t have the chance to write an essay for the SVU Alumni Association Essay Contest. A couple of things got in the way. Mostly money and the fact that Brittany and I will be going to BV for Christmas so I need to make sure that I have enough vacation time saved up. An unexpected trip could throw a wrench in that. I also felt like I didn’t really have anything to say as far as the prompts were concerned. That all changed this week, when it was announced (kind of? I know President Smith mentioned it on his Facebook) that a new president has been appointed. For some reason, when I heard that my mind started turning more and more to what I hope for SVU’s future. Things got even worse (better?) when an old professor asked me to email him some thoughts about my time as a student at SVU.  So I decided that even though I didn’t submit anything formally to the SVU Alumni contest, it might be good for me to put down some of my thoughts. So with that, I decided to write a blog-style response to the prompt: “How do you picture the school 20 years from now? What do you think will change? What do you hope will stay the same?” 

Picturing Southern Virginia University in 20 years is something that doesn’t come easy for me, probably because in my job I deal a lot with “higher education is going to die” and other such overstatements. So to me the future of higher education is kind of a mystery. The battle right now seems to be about whether or not a college degree is worth the money. Maybe there are better ways to get a job. Maybe people will simply give up on college all together, just focus on reading e-books and Wikipedia entries or whatever it is people think will replace college.

I really hope that doesn’t happen. But I guess it might.

When I hear all this talk of how “unnecessary” college is becoming, between the lines I glean a more precise message: The study of politics, philosophy, art, history and literature are simply impractical. I don’t hear many people putting subjects like science, engineering and business on trial. So when I think about the future of higher education, it’s the humanities that I feel need the most defending. Not that I’m terribly well equipped to defend them. I can hardly say that I became a outstanding student of the humanities during my time at SVU, but I can say that I learned to respect that type of education. Tremendously. It’s a profound respect, the life-shaping kind. The kind I wish everyone could have, mostly because I think it would make common conversation that much more interesting.

So I suppose that when I return to SVU in 20 years, what I hope to see is the same approach to education that has existed since it’s inception — or at least that I assume has existed since then — namely, that seeking knowledge for the sake of knowledge is worthwhile.

There are so many elements in a Southern Virginia education that are worth admiring: the close relationship with teachers, small class sizes, beautiful East Coast campus, the LDS atmosphere. But to me, I think, all of these are complementary of the main identity of the school: The liberal arts education. A classical education. The kind that western civilization was built on. The kind that built America. The kind that values things that maybe aren’t always rewarded by the free market, but can also be held responsible for the creation of that market.

That’s what I hope to see. A bunch of kids wandering around campus with copies of The Wealth of Nations under their arms arguing about whether or not Ayn Rand was a hack* (I don’t know, maybe they are walking from MacDonnell’s “America and the Enlightenment” to Armstrong’s “Ethics,” since both will hopefully still be teaching there in 20 years). I understand this is all very romantic, but when all is said and done, the things I value most about my education at SVU are what I actually learned. In my year since graduating, I’ve come to see that all those classes were not built around cute little abstract ideas, but the intellectual structure of our modern world. Right now, in 2014, it’s important to know who Ayn Rand was and what she believed, because politicians and even business leaders cite her as an intellectual authority every day. How many times in the past year have overzealous politicians compared policies they don’t agree with to the national sin that was slavery? The complicated history of race in America is once again front and center, discussed in magazine cover stories and on cable news shows. Understanding the history of the American Civil War isn’t just fun trivia, it’s essential context to much of today’s political discourse.

It seems as though the modern world is doing it’s best to simplify everything: Left and right, good and evil, red state blue state. But the liberal arts don’t allow for such a worldview. A recent essay by Crispin Sartwellin The Atlantic explored how terribly stupid politics makes us, arguing that when the search for truth is confined to ideological territories, no one ever gets anywhere:

When we live in rival unanimous systems of facts, we generate rival unrealities, dueling hallucinations. Perhaps that’s how we ought to think of Red and Blue America: not as geographical or ideological regions, but as rival fictional universes, as though there’s a war between Middle Earth and Narnia.

The reason I value my liberal arts education is because it gave me tools so I can hopefully see that “Middle Earth” and “Narnia” (as it were) are simply fictional worlds that reflect certain biases, etc. When one considers art, science, literature and philosophy as an important part of their worldview, the world opens up. Things become more complicated, but they also become more real. You can more easily see the gray overlaps tangled within all the black and white rhetoric.

Or at least that’s how I see it.

I realize that I’m digressing here, but stick with me. When I visit SVU in 20 years, I hope to still feel all of this. And I also hope to see an LDS tradition of the liberal arts at least partially realized. I understand that not all students or teachers at SVU are or will be members of the LDS faith, but I valued the spiritual insights I received from my professors (Mormon or not) so much that I wish to see that tradition grow and flourish in the coming years. I had the honor of taking SVU’s first (and to my knowledge, only) class that carefully explored the World of Mormonism through the a liberal arts lens. We read pieces of Mormon literature and theological arguments. We studied history and art in the Mormon context. My faith was tried, but in the same way that my relationship with America was tried after learning more of her history. My faith wasn’t diminished, it just changed. And as far as I can tell, that’s exactly what learning is all about.

So maybe another thing I would like to see in 20 years is a bunch of students, wandering around with copies of Exploring Mormon Thought under their arms, having a B.H. Roberts VS Orson Pratt debate. Or something. I don’t want to speak in superlatives, but I’d venture to say that providing a space for young Mormons to thoughtfully examine their own faith has never been more needed. I hope to see in 20 years that SVU has created a unique environment for such a thing.

So there you have it. When Brittany and I are venturing back to Virginia in 20 years for who knows what, and we stumble upon the beautiful campus of Talmage University (one can dream) with her beautiful tennis courts and red brick buildings, I hope to find there the spirit of liberal arts resting serenely, influencing those young little minds who haven’t quite learned yet that “marketability” isn’t everything.

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Oh, and I also hope to see that the ridiculous no facial hair clause has been tossed forever from the honor code. Because seriously, lets move on.

*Ayn Rand was most certainly a hack.