In praise of play

By James A. Parente, Jr., Dean

Portrait: James A. Parente, Jr.

James A. Parente, Jr., Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Photo by Kelly MacWilliams

Philosophy is a serious business—seemingly abstruse and humorless. Yet much philosophical thinking has been born of humor and the creative power of play. Democritus, arguably the first philosopher of science, was known for his propensity for laughter, and his serious sense of play resulted in some remarkable discoveries.

In that vein we introduce this summer's Reach with a jocular cover as an entrée into the creativity of our faculty, students and alumni.

Current public discussion about higher education has lost sight of the "serious play" of discovery and innovation traditionally stimulated by universities. In the course of this year's intense presidential campaign, higher education itself has become, not only a topic, but also a target for divisive debate.

Most Americans agree about the demonstrated economic benefits of a college degree, but concerns about cost and restricted job opportunities are causing students and their families to question the value of the experience.

Democritus, by Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1628.

Democritus
By Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1628

Such skepticism is understandable. The cost of an undergraduate education continues to rise, especially at public institutions whose states have disinvested in this public good. Students and their families rightly ask for data about job placement for graduates across several fields before choosing a course of study. These questions are not new. The link between an academic program and a career has always been implicit in higher education. Medieval universities were founded to train lawyers, physicians, and theologians, and Renaissance universities construed training in the liberal arts, the studium humanitatis, to be in the service of the state.

The link between career and the liberal arts can be less obvious than the link between career and the study of, say, business or engineering. Yet we know that the liberal arts can and do lead their students to many different paths--ranging from business, law, and the health sciences to journalism and the fine arts.

Alumni from diverse professions repeatedly tell me that, above all, the liberal arts challenged them to think. Critical thinking can be acquired, of course, without the study of the liberal arts, but it's the questions that the liberal arts ask, rather than the thinking itself, that have special significance. Only in the liberal arts are questions raised about the meaning of life, the nature of social, political, and economic order, and the variety of the human experience and our beliefs.

It is by virtue of their diversity that the liberal arts can provide a context for discerning connections between seemingly distinct spheres of knowledge. The liberal arts have thrived for centuries because of their capacity to entertain fundamental questions that elude definitive response, to force connections between disparate fields, and to train generations of students to use both reason and imagination to create with confidence and verve.

In this issue of Reach you will read about exciting connections that faculty and students in our college are drawing between science and the humanities. You will see how in CLA we not only do science, we interrogate the scientific method and its assumptions; and you'll see how we are deciphering and reconstructing ancient papyri, restoring the living language of the Ojibwe people, and exploring the dynamics of molecular structures through dance—all this using the latest scientific techniques.

Summer is the season for reflecting and preparing for the busy fall ahead. It is also the season of play. I encourage you to animate your summer with "serious play"--the imaginative exploration of the self and the world for which the liberal arts have prepared you.

The psychologist Erik H. Erikson wrote, "The playing adult steps sideward into another reality." In preparing to meet both our private challenges, and—in this election year—those of our global society, the power to envision and create new realities is certainly one to exercise and cherish.

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This page contains a single entry by pierr038 published on June 27, 2012 12:57 PM.

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