Keynote Speech presented by Paul Vita, PhD, at the 14th Founder’s Day Ceremony of the American University of Nigeria on November 30, 2019.
Topic: Applying Knowledge: U.S. Liberal Arts Education
- His Excellency Atiku Abubakar, GCON, Founder of American University of Nigeria
- His Excellency Rt. Hon. Ahmadu Fintiri, Executive Governor of Adamawa State
- His Royal Highness, Alhaji Dr. Barkindo Aliyu Musdafa, Lamido Adamawa, represented by the Kaura of Adamawa Alhaji Mustafa Barkindo Aliyu.
- Akin Kekere-Ekun, Chairman, AUN Board of Trustees and all Trustees
- AUN President Dawn Deekle
- AUN Learning Community
- Press, Ladies and Gentlemen
I open by expressing my deep gratitude to the founder of this great university. I also wish to thank the Chairman of the Board of Trustees and other Board members present, as well as President Deekle, to Senior Director Usoh Usoh, to Department Chair and Assistant Professor Agatha Ukata, to Dean of Arts & Sciences Patrick Fay, and to Vice President of Student Life Byron Bullock. I’ve spent three days at the American University of Nigeria, and I am awed and overwhelmed: what’s going on here is profoundly important. You students: you are amazing – you are the future leaders of not only Nigeria and Africa, but the world. You faculty: you are amazing – changing the lives of young persons, inspiring them, mentoring them, sharing your research and ideas and energy and humanity with them. What a gift! And the administrative support staff: what tremendous work you do. Again, I humbly thank you for welcoming me into this extraordinary community, if only for a few days. And to be in the company of such distinguished guests on the Founder’s Day Celebration!
I am the Chief Executive of a branch campus of an American Jesuit university in Spain, Saint Louis University’s Madrid Campus. When I was discussing topics for today’s address with President Deekle, she suggested “the liberal arts.” It’s a feature of U.S. education that we both deeply value. It’s a term that we both find ourselves explaining and defending, one that makes a U.S. degree different from that of other educational systems. And it was the part of my own education that shaped me as person, through helping me understand how to apply knowledge both during my time as a student and throughout my life.
“American” post-secondary education – the kind of education that AUN offers – has several distinct features: continuous assessment (as opposed to a single evaluative exam at the end of the year); active learning, engaging students through hands-on experiences, internships, group work and discussions (as opposed to “reading” for a degree, on your own). Non-U.S. systems are embracing these approaches, but the liberal arts remain central to U.S. undergraduate degree programs: those of the prestigious Ivy League colleges on the East Coast, of the big state universities with their sports teams and mascots, of faith-based schools and of small liberal arts colleges and of the American University of Nigeria.
I will mention at the onset that the liberal arts are part of a “liberal education.” The AACU, the Association of American College and Universities, defines “liberal education” as an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity and change.” It is an education that helps students “develop a sense of social responsibility, with transferable intellectual and practical skills, such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills.” That’s liberal education. The liberal arts are the subjects of study that permit this to happen.
A short narrative of the term’s history traces it back to the ancient Greeks, who defined a set of skills that citizens needed for participation in civic life – debating, defending oneself in court and serving the state. Originally, there were seven: grammar, rhetoric and logic (the trivium) and geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy (the quadrivium). These seven disciplines – with their focus on both practical skills (eloquence) and abstract reasoning (numbers) – worked their way into the curricula of the great universities of medieval Europe and into the European renaissance. Today, we use the term to refer to the general education (“Gen Ed”) or “core” requirements that U.S. institutions ask students to complete in addition to their major or focus of study, courses in the humanities, social and natural science.
I’ll risk some generalizations, but while the liberal arts derive from a European tradition, such a curriculum is not what’s being taught at Oxford or the Sorbonne. At these universities, students specialize from the start: they enter law or biology or philosophy or economics or medicine from the very start of their studies. And nearly every subject they take is focused on law or biology or philosophy or economics or medicine for the three to five years of their university careers. Which makes sense, right? If you want to become a medical doctor, it seems logical that you would study medicine. Why would you need to study anything else?
And here is where the strong criticisms of the liberal arts emerge – this “enriching the mind” and dabbling in different subjects is often regarded as elitist, and also as a distraction, from what a student should be focusing on. It’s certainly expensive for universities to offer and for students and their families to pay for. It’s not providing the practical skills – like Excel or coding – that industry and future employers are seeking (though many challenge this). Also, the liberal arts program appears high schoolish, not specialized enough. I hear from protests even from my students, “I have already taken that or read this, why read it again?” My response is that re-reading – at a more mature age – and discussing, say, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or an ethical question surrounding human rights – in a university seminar, with its culture of academic freedom, with a scholar deeply engaged in the subject, is not something students do in high school.
The liberal art postpones professionalization in a good way. There are plenty of students who enter the system with a clear vocation (future lawyers, medical doctors, engineers), but these students are required to study subjects outside of their respective fields and comfort zones. This has two benefits: 1) it introduces new areas of study, permitting students to change programs; 2) it forces students to continue to develop a variety of skills. This aspect is critical, as you students are living in the fast-forward pace of the 21st Century. You will be required to respond to new technologies and to be ready to change the course of your careers.
Thus, I echo the claims of the ardent supporters of the liberal arts, such as Princeton’s President, Christopher Eisgruber, who stated that a “liberal arts education is a vital foundation for both individual flourishing and the well-being of our society.”
I am also a champion and proponent of the liberal arts because, well, I am very much a product of it. My transcript boasts courses ranging from multivariable calculus to music, computer science to American architecture. During my first year at university, I was in my “still-deciding” mode – taking physics and math to keep medical school an option, signing up for ancient Greek because I also wanted to become a classicist. I was placed in remedial English, which wasn’t very promising (it turned out to be my major). And, in the spirit of exploring new fields, I signed up for “Introduction to International Relations” for the Spring semester: I was thinking that I might want to be a diplomat; I liked the idea of being driven around in a black sedan that had flags on it. I was certainly eager to promote peace and prosperity around the world – maybe win a Nobel Prize.
The course’s professor, H. Bradford Westerfield, was a legend. Rumors had it that he recruited his best students to the CIA. “Westerfield’s course” had a reputational halo surrounding it. It was a course you knew about, heard about; other students affirmed was good. Kind of like courses here at AUN that I’ve heard about when I’ve talked to students – Bill Hansen’s “The Political Thought of Franz Fanon.” Or Fardeen Dodo’s “Entrepreneurship.”
And, it was a great course: Westerfield’s lectures were charged with histrionics. We shifted from one global hotspot to the next: Cuba, China, the Middle East… There was no textbook: rather, we purchased and read recently published research studies, each of which analyzed the turmoil taking place in different regions of the world. The internet and electronic journals may have been on the horizon, vaguely, but for us computers were only processors, not sources of information. Interestingly, while the course focused on contemporary politics, it’s mode of instruction reached back to the twelfth century: lectures and discussions supplemented by reading books.
I remember studying for the final exam with four of my classmates. We had commandeered a seminar room and were up the whole night, drinking American-sized cups of coffee and sustaining ourselves with Sour-Cream and Onion Pringles Potato Chips. I was already in teacher’s mode, grilling the others on key names, dates and issues surrounding the upheavals we covered in class. I knew just about everything.
To this day I can picture sitting in the lecture hall on the day of the exam. The early mid-May-morning sunlight cascaded through the window, illuminating the particles of chalk-dust, dancing in the air, reminiscent of lectures of yore. The graduate teaching assistants passed out the exam paper, then the exam itself. It was a mimeographed single sheet of paper upon which, barely legible, in pale purplish-blue letters, there was a single question (poetic license here – there may have been other questions). “Discuss the causes and possible solutions to the crisis taking place in Nicaragua.”
The student to the left of me started rapidly to scribble her responses. I felt the blood drain from my face. I visualized my exam notes: the Middle East, Korea…. We never studied Nicaragua. The books I read had nothing about Nicaragua in them. I could rattle off just about anything one needed to know about the actors, the social causes and the events in Northern Ireland, but Nicaragua? Where’s Nicaragua? Well, in the spring of 1982, Nicaragua was very much in the news – it became a case study of the effects of U.S. intervention in Central America. Alas, it is still in the news today. Anyone interested America’s international affairs would be trying to make sense of it. As a student, I probably should have been too.
I didn’t fail the course, but I was outraged at the time: I felt the exam unfair. Years later, of course, I get it. The point of studying politics at the university level is not to master facts and figures, but to apply one’s knowledge to current and new situations, to be able to articulate perspectives and recognize that there are multiple sides and approaches to responding to political crises and conflicts.
And even more years later, when thinking about this exam, I’m surprised that H. Bradford Westerfield was generous enough to pass me. My attention to dates and names prevented me from thinking about the real content of a course on “International Relations”: the people impacted. We were looking at war-torn regions of the world, cities under siege, where human rights were being violated as a matter of course. We were trying to make sense of how policies collapse when civil unrest breaks out; how economic forces, religious strife and power struggles impact individual human lives; how systems and institutions may prevent us from caring for those who are being oppressed, enslaved, starved or killed – and education and schools become the first casualty.
Your learning, here at the American University of Nigeria, your studies across disciplines through its diverse courses in the liberal arts, doesn’t end with the final grade of a single course or even the cumulative GPA on your transcript. Your liberal education continues through your life, as you re-think and revisit the issues raised in the conversations that are taking place inside and outside of AUN’s classrooms.
The liberal education you are receiving helps you to apply knowledge not just on tomorrow’s test or the next research paper, but well into your future, as you respond to a complex, diverse and changing society for which we are all responsible. I hope and pray that when issues of social justice and of human rights are at stake, this thinking, this application of knowledge, will lead to informed action: that’s what the liberal arts and AUN’s liberal education is preparing you for.
Congratulations to you and to the American University of Nigeria, on its Founder’s Day!
Paul Vita, Ph.D.
November 30 , 2019