Founders Day speaker celebrates the liberal arts

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The College celebrated Founders Day Thursday with an emphasis on preserving its role as a leader and innovator at a time when the value of a liberal arts education is under attack.

Martha Nussbaum speaks on the value of a liberal arts education at Founders Day Thursday.

Martha Nussbaum

In her keynote address, noted author and philosopher Martha Nussbaum praised the College for its pioneering role, stating “its core, throughout its history, has been the idea of liberal arts education, including an emphasis on writing, ethical reasoning, historical study, and courses in literature, civilization and foreign languages.”

But that type of teaching is endangered as many view the humanities and the arts as “useless frills,” Nussbaum warned the audience gathered in Memorial Chapel, as “nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market. Indeed, what we might call the humanistic aspect of science and social science – the imaginative, creative aspect and the aspect of rigorous critical thought – is also losing ground, as nations prefer to pursue short-term profit by emphasizing useful, highly applied skills, suited to short-term profit-making.”

Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, is a passionate advocate for the liberal arts and the author of numerous books, including “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” (Princeton University Press, 2010).

She cited the College’s ability to be innovative as a critical trait in preserving the idea of a liberal arts education.

“Union has never simply followed fashion, but has always reflected about its goals and purposes,” said Nussbaum, who was introduced by President Stephen Ainlay. “There is no time that calls more urgently for reflection than the present, for the type of liberal education for which Union stands is under assault all over the world in our time of economic anxiety, as all nations compete to keep or increase their share in the global market.”

Nussbaum described a future without liberal arts as a “scary place to live in,” and urged her audience to “spread the word that what happens on this campus is not useless, but crucially relevant to the future of democracy in the nation and the world. And those of you who are students can begin right now to think of ways to keep on pursuing the goals of that education in whatever you do in life: Graduation should be not the end of a liberal arts education, but merely the beginning.”

Nussbaum’s appearance comes at a time when Union is highlighting women and their unique contributions to society to celebrate the 40th anniversary of co-education at the College.

For the complete text of Nussbaum’s remarks, click here.

Also at Founders Day, Therese A. McCarty, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs, presented Shelly Stearns with the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award. Stearns, a history teacher at Flagstaff (Ariz.) High School, was nominated by Keilah Creedon ’14. The award, named for the 1809 graduate of Union who was New York state’s first superintendent of public education, is given to secondary school teachers who have had a continuing influence on the academic life of Union students.

The ceremony also featured a performance of Claude Debussy’s “Nuit d’Etoiles” by Yubin Choi ’11, accompanied by harpist Leah Kidwell-Fernandes.

The celebration to mark the 216th anniversary of the granting of the College’s charter by the state opened with remarks from William A. Finlay, College marshal and professor of Theater and Dance; Frank Messa ’73, chair of the College’s Board of Trustees; Mark Walker, the John Bigelow Professor of History and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee; Andrew Churchill ’11, Student Forum president; and President Ainlay.

The hour-long ceremony concluded with Ode to Ole Union, led on organ by Professor of Music Dianne McMullen.