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Embracing ‘vital need’ for arts, humanities - Dr. Robert Derrenbacker

More than two millennia ago, the philosopher Socrates said that “an unexamined life is not worth living.
More than two millennia ago, the philosopher Socrates said that “an unexamined life is not worth living.”

While this expression has been understood in a variety of different ways, fundamentally, it communicates the importance of a lifetime of rigorous inquiry and critical thinking.

And historically, the arts and the humanities – university subjects like history, literature, languages, philosophy, religious studies, classics, fine arts – have played an essential role in the creation of “examined lives.”

Dr. Martha Nussbaum is professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. In her book “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,” she argues passionately that education in the arts and humanities is necessary for a vital democracy. Education, at all levels, she says, is about creating “good citizenship in a world of diversity.”

She maintains that an education that includes the arts and humanities creates empathy, imagination, openness, and fosters dialogue and critical thinking – all necessary components of a democratic society.

The arts and humanities produce a “world that is worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as full people, with thoughts and feelings of their own that deserve respect and empathy, and nations that are able to overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and reasoned debate.”

Dr. Gregory A. Petsko, a world-renowned biochemist at Brandeis University, agrees, despite the fact that his academic field is outside of the humanities.

He recently stated “the best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible.” For that reason, he says “you can’t be a university without having a thriving humanities program.”

Yet the trend at many post-secondary institutions is to marginalize such programs, often by merging and even closing arts and humanities departments, replacing them with areas “where money is to be made,” both for the university and the graduate. Recently, the State University of New York at Albany announced the departments of French, Italian, Classic, Russian and Theatre Arts were being closed, in part because these departments couldn’t pay their own way.

Funding for programs in the arts and humanities is shrinking. Besides, graduates in programs other than the arts and humanities are often more “successful” financially in their professional careers.

But a professional education, without the intellectual nourishment of the arts and humanities, produces mere profit makers as opposed to thoughtful and critical citizens. And critical thinking has never been more important than it is today.

As president of Thorneloe University, I am pleased to say that we continue to embrace the vital need of the arts and humanities in a university education and have done so for 50 years.

Our programs, which all lead to a Laurentian degree, include Classical Studies, Ancient Studies, Theatre Arts, Religious Studies, Women’s Studies and Fine Arts.

We consciously embrace this, as it is a hallmark of an arts and humanities education.

Another feature of an arts and humanities education is its interdisciplinarity, where there is cross-fertilization between departments.

There are many examples of inter-departmental co-operation at Thorneloe, including courses like Religion and Film, Women as Visual Artists, and Issues in Religion and Science, all of which provide opportunities for dialogue and debate between disciplines.

As Thorneloe celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, I’m happy to say that the arts and humanities are as relevant today as they were all those years ago and the pursuit of “examined lives” continues to nurture and enrich the world in which we live.

In my next column, I will focus on how Thorneloe University has evolved over the years and what we have planned to mark the 50th anniversary, including the relaunch of

Dr. Robert Derrenbacker is the president of Thorneloe University. This is the first of three columns celebrating the 50th anniversary of the educational institution.