Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham spoke about "The Liberal Arts in a Global Age" on during the inauguration of Millsaps College's eleventh president Dr. Robert W. Pearigen. Meacham is a former editor of Newsweek and author of three New York Times bestsellers American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Below is a transcript of his address:
For many of us here today, this is something of a bittersweet occasion. I have known Phoebe and Rob Pearigen for nearly a quarter of a century; I remember when Carolyn and Wesley were born; my family and theirs have, in company, passed Christmases and Easters and summers together on a Tennessee mountaintop dear to all of us, and to so many of you.
To the Millsaps community, to Jackson, and to Mississippi, I am compelled to say: Well done. You are fortunate in your new president, and he and his family are fortunate in you. You could not be in better hands - the hands of a man of spirit and of strength, a man of uncommon wisdom and of exceptional heart, a man of integrity and of grace. And the fact that you have appointed Rob to this post as the price of having the lovely, kind, and brilliant Phoebe in your midst is a secret safe with me.
I am a child of the liberal arts. I believe in the educational mission of Millsaps with, to borrow a phrase from my particular religious tradition, all my heart, and with all my mind, and with all my soul. One of the wonderful things about the liberal arts is that they give those of us who love them particular examples of the universal. To shift the metaphor slightly, they offer us windows on the past and the present, affording us a view of the world, and of worlds beyond the immediate sensory one, that informs us and delights us. That was Horace's definition of the function of poetry: to delight and to instruct.
But it is more than that, too, and I would like to take our time together this morning to suggest an even larger possible role for the liberal arts. It is this: I believe the liberal arts as I will define them offer, in a phrase from the poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren, a kind of redemption from what Warren called "the accidents, evils, and errors of life - and of our lives." Redemption is the key idea here - redemption in the sense of rescue and ransom from injustice, from discredited ideas, from the selfishness that afflicts all of us.
So what are the liberal arts? Their roots can be found in Hindu culture, and it is useful to note in the West the thing we think of as the liberal arts is found in both pagan and Christian culture. Cicero defined a liberal education as the study of geometry, literature, poetry, natural science, ethics, and politics; St. Augustine and the medieval Roman church worked in a similar vein, finding their mission statement, so to speak, in II Timothy, which hoped that education would make "the man of God ... perfect, furnished to every good work."
I think we may agree in broad terms on this definition: the liberal arts are those disciplines that help introduce the student to what Matthew Arnold described as the best that has been thought and said in the world, and that train the mind to think clearly, respecting the force of fact and reason. From mathematics to Mozart, from political history to the basics of physics, from Mandarin to Toni Morrison - from, really, anything to anything else, the liberal arts offers us a way of knowing and thinking.
And the affairs of the world of the early 21st century are global in nature; borders have not mattered so little since gazelles first began looping across the savannah. As Americans, we face fundamental economic, political, and moral challenges. We must remain innovative and competitive, for experience tells us that broad, shared prosperity is crucial to the maintenance of democracy. Politically we are in the midst of a great partisan struggle in which a professional political class of activists on the Internet and on cable television appear to have more invested in the perpetuation of conflict than they do in the resolution of problems. Morally we face the question of whether the great achievement of the last century - the building, often at public expense, of a sturdy middle class that benefited from both private enterprise and government investment - is to be sustained or discarded. Such, in my view, are the issues that confront all of us.
It is true that every generation tends to think of itself as challenged and under siege; the questions of the present assume outsize and urgent importance, for they are, after all, the questions that shape and suffuse the lives of those living in the moment. Humankind seems to be forever coping with crisis. Strike the "seems": humankind is forever coping with crisis, and will until what your native son William Faulkner described as "the last red and dying evening."
Southerners know this in their bones; Mississippians feel history keenly, because to you, as Faulkner noted elsewhere, the past is never dead; it isn't even past. On the streets of this city and in places all over this state a half century ago, Americans confronted the worst of hatred and violence, and, in so doing, found the best in themselves. It is to those who marched and fought and died for an end to Jim Crow that we will be forever grateful.
So many of the great universal human perils and promises find vivid expression here at Millsaps. This is an institution founded in the tradition of John Wesley, a divine who believed in the value of education and in the centrality of the individual. This is an institution sitting in the heart of a state and of a region where, the day before yesterday, Americans were forced to stand up and be counted in the great struggle for racial justice. This is an institution devoted to the study of ideas that have shaped this nation and the world in this, an hour in which peoples and nations have never been so intimately connected and yet remain forever divided by differences of birth and of faith.
The role of the liberal arts in this global age cannot be overstated. Without the kind of education you offer here - without the transmission of the values of free inquiry, critical thinking, the sanctity of the individual, and the obligation to love one's neighbor - we are going to lose more than our economic way. We risk losing our way entirely.
So what to do? The liberally educated person in the America of 2010 - and and 2011, and 2012, and on and on - should know certain facts. You cannot appreciate the epic series of events in the struggle for power between rulers and the ruled that shaped - and, truth be told, still shape - our world without knowing about Magna Carta and the English common law, of which we are heirs, and whose principles, after centuries of strife and bloodshed, led to the end of Jim Crow and, ultimately, to the election of Barack Obama. That a line runs from Runnymede in 1215 to the pending midterm elections in a nation in a continent then two centuries away from even being discovered by the Western European powers is worth knowing, and not just to impress people, or to feel superior to those who might not know it, or to win a category on "Jeopardy!"
Knowing the history of freedom - and liberal in the sense in which we are speaking is rooted in its Ur-definition as "free" - is not only illuminating but enabling. How? Because a person who understands the past, in all its glory and grandeur and horror and injustice, understands that, as Winston Churchill once put it, the path of civilization, while never straight, is essentially upward - upward to what he called the sun-lit uplands of happiness and peace.
To know what has come before, and to know how to think about seemingly disparate and distant events in relation to one's own time and own complications, is to be armed against despair, for if the men and women of the past - with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites - could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to, at least in the American context, form a more perfect union, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and leave the world - the stage - a better place than we found it.
Now, there is plenty of debate - how could there not be? - about the content of a liberal education. No doubt some may find the allusions I have made too Western, possibly even too male, and there is perennial tension about what should be taught. I welcome the work of the last three decades or so, decades in which the voices of the previously silenced or marginalized have at last been given something of their due. From women to African-Americans to Native Americans, we are slowly rectifying centuries - even millennia - of exclusion. We are, in other words, redeeming the sins and omissions of the past. That is work that must go on.
A liberal education is about living a good life, not the good life - a life of doing good and saying your prayers and and helping the needy and cherishing your children and reading good books, of knocking on doors for candidates you believe in, of emailing your congressmen - of becoming a congressman, come to that.
Mississippi's Shelby Foote, the historian and novelist, once told Walker Percy that he thought the purpose of writing was to teach people how to see. To teach people how to see: that, too, is the function of the liberal arts, for once we learn to see - even if it is through a glass, darkly - then whole universes open up before us. We have been taught that we shall know the truth, and the truth shall set us free. But first we must see the truth; only then can we know it. On this day of beginnings and of affirmations, may all of us remember the work you are about, and that President Pearigen loves so dearly: the work to see, to know, and to become free. There is no greater task, and no greater joy.