STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 05/05/2011

The Local and the Liberal Arts

by Mark Sargent

This mural (detail), by Marshall Deckert and Chad Carlberg ’95, was painted on the courtyard wall of the Latin American Studies Program in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Our written directions, in Spanish, alluded often to former landmarks rather than to the names of avenues, as if the real map of San José was the local memory. So when our cab driver got lost, retracing the same steep roads in the outskirts of the Costa Rican capital, we tried our luck at a corner fruit market, full of papayas, mangoes and bananas under a corrugated eave and another of the ubiquitous Coca Cola signs. The merchant, with slight amusement, promptly pointed to the iron fence and white house right across the street, the site of the Consejo Universidades Cristianas—or, the Latin American Studies Program of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU).

It didn’t take long to encounter footprints from Gordon College. After all, Jud Carlberg had been one of the architects of the program during the years when the CCCU first decided to create study-abroad opportunities for U.S. students. On the wall overlooking a small courtyard, a bright mural by Marshall Deckert and Chad Carlberg ’95, Jud’s son, offers a vision of North American unity. Two large arms encircle a geographic panorama, which climbs from the barrio of San José toward the continental expanse of the United States. In the foreground the Pulperia, or the neighborhood fruit store, is surrounded by images of Costa Ricans at work and play—reading, harvesting coffee beans, or collecting flowers beneath a Spanish fountain. In the hazier distance one can see the faint silhouette of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and the twin towers of New York.

Our family’s visit occurred in the summer of 2002, just 10 months after those twin towers disintegrated over Manhattan streets. On that September 11 the sanctuary was already full when Jud Carlberg calmly pulled us together in a side aisle to design, rather hastily, a noontime service. We chose hymns. I read a psalm. And Jud had prepared remarks about how the moment was as likely to define this generation as Pearl Harbor had once done for his own parents. What I remember most was his call for patience and empathy rather than recrimination and revenge. He would take some heat for that: notes and emails from those eager for more righteous indignation.

Since the tragedy of September 11, international study has expanded among American students. The number of Gordon students traveling off campus for a semester has more than doubled in the decade. Increasingly our students now find their way around the world, joining service trips in Sri Lanka and Bolivia, or completing academic semesters in Orvieto and Beijing.

Going forward we will inevitably stress that such international ventures prepare students to flourish in the “global economy” and the “global village.” We do trust that our graduates will know the idioms of the world’s parliaments and the digital language of the world’s marketplace. But I hope that, in the midst of all the spin about power and expediency, we never lose the conviction that international study is a means to developing patience and empathy. It is about discovering those neighborhoods that shape individual lives and values. The map of the human heart relies on local memory.

During my time as provost I have appreciated Jud’s encouragement to link educational ventures to the local setting rather than envisioning education primarily as a global commodity. There is no digital equivalent for the hum of insects in Kenyan grasslands or the long conversation over coffee at Aix-en-Provence. Or the evening we spent with Jud and Jan walking by viola players on Budapest corners, part of a culture where opera spills into the streets.

Last spring my son Daniel spent a semester in the Triana neighborhood of Seville, Spain. During our visit Daniel and I found our way through the old dungeon of the Inquisition, exiting through an indoor market, packed with grapes, cantaloupes and ham legs, and decorated with scores of religious posters from Semana Santa, the extravagant and solemn Holy Week procession.

I had come to see something of the famous venue of religious intolerance, the place where the novelist Dostoyevsky set the confrontation between the Grand Inquisitor and Christ. But in the vegetable stands, festival streamers, and saints’ figurines beside the prison rubble, I was reminded just how much the great legacy of faith—its traditions, exuberance, and tragic excess—takes on a local hue, never far from the simplest cadences of common lives.

Globalization both reveals and obscures those cadences. I now read the international press online and watch cricket on cable. But this broad access to the world’s media can also build false confidence that one knows other peoples and places.

Just over a year ago, as I prepared for a trip to Tamil Nadu in southern India, I read Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, a dark comedy on the rise of modern India. Fiercely satirical, the book captured the Man Booker Prize, the elite literary award announced in London. But in talking with faculty in Tamil Nadu I heard cautions about viewing an Asian nation through Western prizes, presumably because those award-winners are attuned to the Western ear for irony. Faculty spoke instead of poems and novels that caught the rhythms on the land they loved: a lyric about the white-washed banyan trunks alongside the dusty roads, a story about lepers in the Nilgiri Hills, or a novella about love and loneliness on the Gulf of Mannar. Other professors recalled, with melancholy, how many of the best Tamil-language films were redubbed in Hindi to catch the Bollywood market, a gateway to the commercial attention of Europe and North America. Social workers stressed the tug-of-war between Western ideals of personal rights and the Gandhian vision for the collaborative rural village. Justice requires an eye for the neighborhood as well as the global trend.

My hope is that at Gordon we will always remember the local in the liberal arts. Many who champion the liberal arts cite their universality—if not a singular canon of knowledge, a common array of intellectual skills. At their best, the liberal arts help us transcend borders. But one can also use a liberal arts pedigree, with its claims to wisdom and breadth, merely to sanction one’s provincial ways and values. Just as likely, we can easily lose the regional shades of human experience within the broad strokes by which we paint the history of people and ideas. After all, most of the matters that fill a liberal arts curriculum—books, theories, artwork, and methods of discovery—are imports from some specific place. As with any commodity that succeeds on the global market, whether it is cuisine, sport, software, novels or ideas, there are many other variations back home that are equally, or even more fervently, cherished. I am grateful that Jud encouraged us to discover them.

 Mark Sargent has been the provost of Gordon College since 1996.

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