In a final address to Knox students and faculty before stepping down from his longtime position as dean of the college, Lawrence Breitborde shared some of what he had learned during his time at Knox in a “last lecture” sponsored by Mortar Board.
He began by referencing another last lecture that he had given in 1989 at Beloit College where he taught for many years. At the time he was preparing to leave academia, but “at the 11th hour” decided that his place remained in the academy, a decision that would eventually bring him to Knox.
As befits a professional anthropologist, he returned continuously to themes of culture, specifically how powerful they can be even when they goes unperceived. Within higher education, this often leads to what he referred to as “the taken-for-grantedness of the college experience.”
The talk was divided into two major portions.
Part I was entitled “What is The College and What Will It Be When It Grows Up?” He spoke of the various forces both inside and outside of the academy that seek to shape what makes up the curriculum.
The liberal arts education, he declared, should first and foremost be concerned with such questions as, “What does one have to know to be free? … to be educated? … to be virtuous?”
The model is threatened by rising costs, demands for pre-professional majors and other external pressures hostile to the residential liberal arts environment. Then again, Breitborde noted, the liberal arts model has almost always been threatened by external forces and has survived before.
Over the years, departments have shifted boundaries, new disciplines have arisen and technology has advanced in ways that have forced the liberal arts to adapt.
In the sciences, for example, the college has gone from “nothing to neuroscience” during Breitborde’s tenure, while the humanities have added coursework in area and cultural studies.
This intellectual richness is a benefit to the campus in his view, a place where “philosophers [are] doing philosophy in the presence of artists, sociologists and musicians.”
Ultimately, “the most persuasive argument for the liberal arts is the lives you live,” he told the assembled students.
The second portion of the speech was labeled “Institutions Are People Too.”
An interest in the functioning of institutions helped lead Breitborde to his interest in becoming involved in a deanship.
“I’ve always been interested in institutions and how they work,” Brietborde said.
Breitborde feels that the problem of an institution like the university is that the faculty seem to remain as fixtures, whereas the students can sometimes seem transitory given their short time here.
Professor of Political Science Robert Seibert, Breitborde noted, has seen some 11,000 students pass through during his 46 years of teaching.
The solution to this is for faculty and students to humanize each other. “The college runs on relationships, particularly the faculty/student relationship,” he said, and spoke of some of the connections he still maintains with students.
In the end, he named “seeing the light turn on” in a student that he named as his goal and that of the faculty.