A story is told about Heraclitus of Ephesos, one of the most noted philosophers of his time (c. 500 B.C.E.): Some would-be disciples traveled across the Aegean to study with the philosopher and were astounded to find the great man (whom they had apparently imagined sitting on a lofty throne thinking deep thoughts) puttering about in his kitchen. Noting their surprise, Heraclitus welcomed them in, saying “why shouldn’t I be in the kitchen? The gods are here too, you know.”
We should remember Heraclitus when we consider the future of liberal arts education. Muhlenberg graduates of earlier eras may remember a learning experience centered in the classroom (where inspiring professors lectured or orchestrated stimulating discussions of course material) and in library carrels (where sleep-deprived students crammed for exams, researched term papers and tried to keep up with coursework). Of course, classrooms and carrels are still the loci of much important learning – but liberal education now ranges much more broadly. And that, I think, is a good thing.
As the strategic planning process moves into the home stretch, we members of the College community find ourselves talking increasingly about extracurricular life and co-curricular programs as important elements of a Muhlenberg education. Extracurricular life is not a new concept (though it is constantly evolving and reinventing itself). Most alumni recall important lessons learned outside the classroom, perhaps as a reporter or editor for the Weekly, as a member of the student government, the captain of a team, the director of a play, the choreographer of a dance, as a fraternity or sorority officer, or as a member of any of dozens of other student organizations. Muhlenberg already offers an impressive array of such opportunities. But we mean to do even more, enhancing, expanding, and more closely linking these to the academic life of the campus.
The “co-curriculum” may be a less familiar concept, though it is no less important. The co-curriculum tenders students a staggering breadth and variety of experiences that –although they take place beyond the classroom, library, and laboratory – stretch the intellect and the spirit in important ways that a first-rate undergraduate college must embrace. Consider, for example, the wealth of learning opportunities on the Muhlenberg campus during a few short weeks of the recent spring semester:
• Dimon Liu, an anti-communist Chinese dissident, survivor of the Cultural Revolution and human rights activist, spent two days visiting Muhlenberg as the Woodrow Wilson Scholar, participating in classes, meeting informally with students and faculty and speaking to our community.
• Alan Kors, historian and conservative pundit, challenged campus speech codes and political correctness in American colleges and universities as the Phi Beta Kappa visiting scholar.
• Catholic theologian Mary Boys from Union Theological Seminary and Rabbi Michael Cook from Hebrew Union engaged a packed Egner Chapel crowd in a spirited discussion of “depictions of the Passion” and the troubled history of Jewish-Christian relations, in preparation for the release of Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ.” Boys and Cook were two members of the Council of Bishops commission that reviewed Gibson’s script approximately a year before its release.
• Kanan Makiya, Iraqi freedom activist and a co-author of the new Iraqi constitution, met with students and faculty to discuss human rights violations under Saddam Hussein and the future of the Iraqi nation.
• An attorney from the ACLU and a former spokesperson for the Justice Department discussed the Constitutional implications of the USA PATRIOT Act, followed by a debate on the Act between campus Republicans and campus Democrats.
• Management guru Tom Peters (“In Search of Excellence,” etc.) visited the campus as part of a day-long symposium on entrepreneurship and creativity, organized by Muhlenberg faculty with support from the Trexler Trust.
This list is illustrative, but hardly exhaustive. Many more learning opportunities are organized by Muhlenberg’s Center for Ethics, our Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding, the Living Writers Series, and other academic departments, programs, and campus organizations throughout the year.
But the co-curriculum extends well beyond visiting scholars, lecturers, and authors. Increasingly, we talk of service learning and experiential learning – opportunities for students to confront intellectually rigorous challenges in real-world contexts. Student-teaching for Muhlenberg students seeking certification through our education program is perhaps the oldest and most well-known example of experiential learning - but our students and faculty have gone much, much further. One of Professor Gail Eisenberg’s marketing classes conducts focus groups on economic development in Allentown’s 19th Street neighborhood – an initiative that teaches students basic principles of market research while assisting the College and its immediate neighbors to refine community development strategies. A political science class engaged with Professor Chris Borick’s Muhlenberg Polling Institute learns to conduct public opinion surveys for the Morning Call’s coverage of local issues and state and national elections. Students in a documentary class, taught by communication professors Lora Taub and Susan Leggett, mentor local middle schoolers, helping them acquire digital media skills to tell their stories through video production. Erika Sutherland’s Spanish course “Spanish for the Community” introduces students to the cultural issues relating to Latino and Hispanic immigrant communities while engaging them in medical, legal, and social services efforts in these Allentown communities.
And, of course, the co-curriculum reaches far beyond class-related public service into the realm of pure volunteerism, as Muhlenberg students serve the community in hospices, hospitals, libraries, soup kitchens, schools, nursing homes, day care centers, and social service agencies. During the course of their four years on campus, between 75 percent and 85 percent of Muhlenberg students will volunteer in the community. Last year alone, they contributed more than 50,000 hours of volunteer service. As our director of community service, Valerie Lane, likes to say, every one of these students reaps spiritual and educational rewards far in excess of their considerable contributions to the community.
It is profoundly appropriate for such learning to find its place at the center of liberal education, not because it is “liberal” in the political sense – that represents a misunderstanding of the concept of “liberal arts” – but because, as former Muhlenberg religion professor Darrell Jodock observes, “The liberal arts are those studies which set the student free – free from prejudice and misplaced loyalties, and free for service, wise decision-making, community leadership, and responsible living.”1 It is also an entirely appropriate emphasis for a College that finds its earliest intellectual compass in the Reformation, and the conviction that it is preparing students to live in the “two kingdoms” of spiritual and civic responsibility. I like to think that Heraclitus complements Luther in realizing that there is important work to be done in the classroom and in the kitchen, in the academy and in the community, on the campus and in the “real world,” in the intellect and in the heart.
As we work together to chart Muhlenberg’s course for the future, we will develop further opportunities to bring these worlds together into the most powerful and enriching learning experience that any college can provide.
Peyton R. Helm
1 Darrell Jodock, “The Lutheran Tradition and the Liberal Arts College”, in Called To Serve, St. Olaf and the Vocation of a Church College, 1999, p. 24.