An Invocation by Ann J. Cahill
Celebrating the Induction of the Inaugural Members of Eta of North Carolina at Elon University
April 13, 2010
For those of you who haven’t had the experience, let me describe what it’s like to learn to drive a car with a manual transmission. It is excruciatingly painful – you have the sensation that the car is a foreign, disobedient, yet oddly fragile entity. You feel like every other driver on the road is furious with you for the slow starts and the stalls, and you’re probably not entirely wrong. You’re anxious and uncertain, and the car is making awful noises, and it’s not at all clear that you’ll ever get it, especially because the person who’s teaching you keeps saying the same thing over and over again, and you still have no idea what they’re talking about. You are painfully aware – of yourself, of the car, of the road, of the other drivers. And you are uneasy.
I’d like you to hold this image of awkwardness and unease in your mind as I share with you a question that has plagued me – yet it is a question that, I think, may reveal why Elon University and Phi Beta Kappa are such a good fit.
The question is this: What is the promise of a liberal arts education?
Which is to say: Why spend (at least) four years studying this wide variety of disciplines? What’s the payoff of learning a little physics, a little sociology, some religious studies, some astronomy? Why spend time with economists and historians and biologists, listening to their theories, reading their books, learning to think like they do?
Here’s what a liberal arts education doesn’t, and, I would argue, shouldn’t promise: a job. An easy transition to a profession. A career. Happiness. Such things may or may not be byproducts of a liberal arts education, but – for reasons I don’t have time to unpack here – they cannot serve as its motivating forces.
I’d like to argue that what holds the liberal arts education together is one capacity: the ability to make meaning. For the liberally educated, the world does not exist as a given, a static entity to be merely uncovered. The world as we meet it – and by world I mean books, and molecules, and bodies, and librettos, and illnesses, and epiphanies, and tools – is a starting point, an opportunity to ask: But what does this mean? What am I to make of this?
What are disciplines, really, but different ways of making meaning? Anyone who has had the joy of reading a first-rate novel under the guidance of a first-rate teacher knows that dawning sense of wonder, that realization that there is so much more there than was first apparent. Reading is revealed as an entanglement, a grappling with words and their undertones, to which the reader brings her own history and mood and demands. A chance to make meaning. When a performer embarks on the experience of getting to know a character, and begins to work on that process that seems so miraculous from the outside of bringing that character’s world to life on a stage – isn’t this too the making of meaning? And what is a chemistry experiment, but a chance to discover for oneself what happens if this combination of these materials happens under these conditions? The most important scientific question, I would argue, is not “What are the results?” but “What do the results mean?”
To make meaning is to do at least two things. One, it is to reject the prefabricated meanings that are offered to us, or at least to recognize those meanings as prefabricated, and thus to hold them in abeyance until we have grappled, in our own way, using all the lenses that we have accumulated and deemed valuable, with the words or data or experience in question. A liberal arts education has at its heart this critical moment, this hermeneutics of suspicion that renders it indispensable to a democratic society.
But making meaning is not limited to an act of hesitation or even rejection. For if a liberal education only provides the ability to point out flaws in the meanings produced by a variety of social, political, and religious entities, then it would be incapable of contributing positively and substantially to the challenges that face human communities. The second facet of making meaning is a recognition of inescapable responsibility. To discover that one can make meaning – that one can interpret an art work, observe the stars, decipher a governmental edict – is to realize that one is responsible for one’s own conclusions. And those conclusions matter – the meanings that we make have real effects on real lives. There is no answer key. There is no guarantee that one is right. But meaning must be made.
Which brings us back to driving stick.
The anxiety that accompanies driving a manual transmission for the first time stems in large part from the heightened and total awareness of one’s inability. And while in learning to drive, both the anxiety and the inability should eventually be overcome, in learning to make meaning, they must be embraced and maintained. People often make the mistake of defining scholars by what they know, treating them as repositories of often esoteric knowledge. And sure, scholars know stuff. But what makes them scholars is not what they know – it is their irrepressible orientation toward what they don’t know.
Scholars, in other words, are always learning to drive stick. And the promise of a liberal arts education, a promise that the two great institutions that we’re celebrating tonight recognize and honor and preserve, is the promise of making meaning in the presence of uncertainty and puzzlement. In the end, thinking is not like driving: certainty and comfort stall it, and confusion moves it forward.
So, tonight, what values shall we invoke, as our celebration continues? I suggest that we invoke curiosity and clumsiness. For it is when we are driven by wonder, by inquisitiveness, that we know ourselves to be always novices. Which is to say: makers of new meanings.
Cahill's comments are represented here as they were given to the national office by the Elon University chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. For more about Cahill, click here. For more about ΦBK at Elon, click here.
Photo: Phi Beta Kappa Procession at Elon University.
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