Everyday liberal arts

For more reasons than I could adequately explain here, I’ve been thinking even more often than usual about the value of a liberal arts education in our understanding of the world and the ways we ought to engage with it. As Jeremy Hunsinger has written,

Coming to know, as the primary process of knowledge, is a mobile, communal and material effort, and it engages people, places, and things, through our memories and practices tied to the histories of knowledges, its fluxes, and its futures.

The liberal arts are about engagement with ideas, places, and people. To be frank, in my experience, people educated in the liberal arts tend to be more interesting than those with a more vocational education, and they take delight in details and phenomena that others might not even notice.

What does a liberal arts understanding look like when deployed in our everyday lives? Here are a few examples from my experience.

  • Understanding that landscape architecture transcends Sunset magazine. It’s being able to look at a public space and ascertain for whom it was designed and why, how it might have changed over time, and whose values it represents. . .and both taking pleasure in this analysis and knowing such interpretation is important for all kinds of reasons.

  • Looking at a chart published by a major news organization and redesigning it so it conveys information more clearly and to less partisan ends.

  • Pawing through the medical artifact collections at the Idaho State Historical Museum, making connections between practices a century ago and those today–and realizing that in many cases, practices persist but values shift, while in other cases values persist but the practices around them have changed. And then formulating arguments as to why those shifts and continuities matter to Idahoans’ beliefs about health and wellness, then and now.
  • After seeing someone on Facebook mention being able to hold two opposing thoughts in her mind at the same time, musing on Keats and negative capability and wondering how the concept might be useful in understanding Idaho politics.

  • Seeing an allusion to the “Draw a Scientist” activity and understanding the confluence of historical events and cultural beliefs and values that has led to our narrow understanding of who qualifies as a scientist—and knowing where to find and how to interpret the research being done on the best ways to combat this stereotype.

  • When besieged by an enthusiastic evangelical Christian who kept stuffing tiny comic-panel tracts into my hand, I used my understanding of the culture and geography from which she emerged to steer her away from proselytizing to me and toward mutual understanding. Whenever I run into her now, she seems genuinely happy to see me and doesn’t try to save my soul in any explicit way.

  • Watching pretty much any segment of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report, and being at once dismayed and delighted by what I see and hear in its coverage of the countless hypocrisies in U.S. political life and media representations.

  • Watching, as I am now from my perch on the fourth floor of the university library, a Canada goose floating on the moderately swift current of a river that flows between the university and a large public park, and mentally mapping the confluence of events that made the moment possible, the mind piecing together a quilt whose pieces include but are not limited to the Army Corps of Engineers, water rights legislation in the western U.S., climate change, treaties governing migratory wildlife, the pastoral aesthetic, and municipal recreation priorities. . . but also having empathy for the goose, for it must be a fun ride.

I’ve found that people with a quality liberal arts education tend to be lifelong learners, participating in both formal and informal learning opportunities and indulging in a good deal of autodidactism.

In short, viewing the world through a liberal arts lens is delightful, and I’m so grateful for my time at Grinnell College, which informed my years afterward studying literature, writing, and culture.

Of course, one need not attend an elite liberal arts college to acquire one, but it’s clear it’s getting harder to pursue the liberal arts at regional public universities.

What about you? If you have a broad-based liberal arts education in the humanities, arts, and sciences, how do you find it influencing the way you view or experience the world?

A full deck


Usually when Fang‘s birthday rolls around, we’re ready to duck and cover, as April 19 and 20 are two of those days when crazy people are wont to do and say stupid and dangerous things.

Strangely, though, this year Fang is doing the opposite of ducking and covering—he’s been doing amazing work, running around Boise and its environs with a camera and an assortment of lenses. His work keeps getting better, and as his confidence in his work grows, it’s reflected elsewhere in his life as well.

It’s no secret that our time in Idaho has been rough on each member of my family in different ways, but it’s been especially tough on Fang, as he’s been working from home and is disinclined to use my network to find friends. This year, however, he’s been connecting with people in a really meaningful way, and it’s a joy to see him with and hear him talk about his friends.  (Deep gratitude to those folks. You know who you are.)

Fang also does more than his share of parenting and serves as an amazing role model for the boy. Fang and Lucas are wired so similarly that they understand each other in ways I’ll never fully comprehend.  For Fang’s work in forging that connection, I’m so thankful.

Thank you, Sweetie, for all you do, and for being who you are (I know it’s neither easy nor simple). Here’s to another interesting and love-filled year. Happy birthday!

Things I’m thinking about these days

As, of course, a random bulleted list: My fellowship research on how Idahoans have understood health and wellness, as represented by (sometimes very weird) artifacts in a museum’s collection. Found thus far: various fraudulent “cures” for gynecological ills, countless jars containing Chinese apothecary treatments (including shriveled animal testicles, starfish, sea horses, and paper wasps’ nests), […]

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Concealed carry culture is antithetical to higher education’s mission

(written in response to Idaho Senate Bill 1254, which would allow concealed weapons on campus) Idaho has long nurtured what some have termed “a gun culture.”  Hunters and ranchers reasonably see rifles as necessary tools. Families pass treasured rifles from grandparent to parent to child and educate the youngest members of the family about gun […]

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DIY College Metrics

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The headline at the NPR site says it all: “Idaho Universities Must Decide Which Programs Matter Most.”  Not surprisingly, then, at this year’s welcome address, Boise State President Bob Kustra emphasized the role of analytics in the process of program prioritization. My college’s dean also emphasized metrics and analytics in the college-wide meeting that week. […]

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Idaho is waiting. . .

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The Boise Convention and Visitors’ Bureau recently commissioned a video about Boise: When I first saw it posted by a friend on Facebook, I commented, “This has not been my experience of Boise.”  The response was basically, “You should get out more.” Ah, I would. . . if only I could afford skiing, snowboarding, horseback […]

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Still too many guppies

During the holiday season last year, two things were proving particularly worrisome: pneumonia, which was also in my lungs, and guppies, of which there were far too many in the tank. Once again, I start the new year with too many guppies and crud in my lungs (but hey, not yet pneumonia). I need to […]

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On Calling, again

As I wrote earlier this year, I’m participating in Marci Glass’s STARward project, in which participants reflect on a word given to them by Marci (who not only writes a thoughtful blog, but also happens to be the pastor of a church a few blocks from where I live). I drew the word calling. It’s been […]

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Catching up


Long time, no post. I’ve been processing a lot of mostly unbloggable stuff about the boy. For now, I’ll share our little Halloween triumph: The boy wanted to be Calvin.  We painted stripes on a t-shirt and sprayed his hair yellow.  But of course he also needed a Hobbes, and you can’t just buy a Hobbes […]

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Theodosia Burr Shepherd

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For Ada Lovelace Day It’s been ten years since I first visited an archive and flipped through the papers of a woman who practiced science, and since then I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” many women who inhabited the margins of professional scientific practice, including some who expanded the boundaries of their fields.  One such […]

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