The Public Honors College
St. Mary's College of Maryland

On the Meaning of the Liberal Arts
by Joseph R. Urgo
Presented to Phi Beta Kappa
April 5, 2011

 


I have been a teacher for over twenty-five years, -- and what I have found myself teaching—or exploring with fellow learners--most often is a text, reading a text. I was educated in an era that rejected close reading of texts as unsound pedagogy, and for a while embraced that rejection along with the times. But in time, the times pass, and old truths remain. For two thousand years, in the humanistic tradition, we have paid close attention to our words. Indeed, we have lived and died by words, explained our fears and our desires by words. World civilizations are often predicated upon the “word” of God or gods, written or oral, reliant in some fashion or degree upon words spoken, remembered, or recorded.

So when I was asked by Phi Beta Kappa, by Zeta Chapter of Maryland President Angela Draheim, to consider the meaning or impact of the liberal arts in my own life, and upon the lives of our students, I seized upon that word, “meaning.” I found it arresting – it stopped me in my tracks in ways we’ll get to in a moment. What occurred to me instinctively (in the non-biological sense; that is, arising out of what I have read and thought about for a lifetime)… What occurred to me was to suggest that the meaning of the liberal arts is in the meaning the liberal arts provides to living itself. The meaning is the meaning, I mean.

Recall Socrates’ famous admonition, spoken at his trial in Athens, in 399BC: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  We assume that there is such a thing as a life worth living, toward which one might strive; and further, in reverse, that there are conditions which may be placed on a life which would drain it of worthiness. For whom had this life lost its worth? If Socrates were to have lived an unexamined life, his life would be worth much less, in his judgment, to us. And indeed, had he not accepted death over censorship, we may not ever have heard of him, -- and how vacant philosophy would be in his absence, how less a chance would we ourselves have for self-worth. His choice reverberates across two thousand years of human self-examination, self-reflection, and civic judgment. His words animate the liberal arts as one of humanity’s foundational choices, and texts—through the Judeo-Christian tradition of sacrifice and martyrdom, through our contemporary sense of principled living. The meaning and the impact of the liberal arts, which I have been asked to speak about this evening, is no less than the impact of living itself on the lives of all of us. And that is what I mean when I suggest that meaning is the meaning of the liberal arts.

The students in the room today, enmeshed in what we call for convenience “their education” (the term is a misnomer, because we are not educating you so much as providing you the tools and the examples for a lifelong engagement with ideas, words, and knowledge) – and “enmeshed” is a fine word for where you are. It means (according to dictionary.com) to catch or involve in—or, as if in a net or snare; entangle. As you’ve been invited to join Phi Beta Kappa, my hunch is that you are fairly well enmeshed and ensnared in coursework, SMP planning or execution, research or lab projects – not to mention extracurricular commitments and plans for the future. Which brings me, finally, to what I want to say tonight. Perhaps you wondered whether I knew. I do.  I want to talk about the future, the choices you will make, and the utility of the liberal arts toward shaping your idea of your future.

I said earlier that I have been a teacher, text-based, a student of the meaning of words. I’ve selected a text for us to consider tonight, a poem by Robert Frost. The poem is about making plans, dealing with unforeseen circumstances, following visions and obstacles, and getting on. It concerns engagement with the natural world, including our own nature. It invokes the ancient sense of hubris, from the Greek, the admonition to abide by and not attempt to supersede the limitations of being human, as well the ancient sense, from the Latin, of carpe diem, to seize the day, the opportunity, and to maintain a vision for the future. It concerns both willfulness and humility. And it concerns the impossibility of reconciling these sundry human truths.


Robert Frost
On a Tree Fallen Across the Road
(To hear us talk)

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are

Insisting always on our own way so.
She likes to halt us in our runner tracks,
And make us get down in a foot of snow
Debating what to do without an axe.

And she knows obstruction is in vain:
We will not be put off the final goal
We have it hidden in us to attain,
Not though we have to seize earth by the pole

And, tired of aimless circling in one place,
Steer straight off after something into space.


Among the more intriguing aspects of Frost’s poem is the title, with its parenthetical subtitle: “On a Tree Fallen Across the Road (to hear us talk).”  “On a Tree Fallen Across the Road” echoes the cadence of a classical discourse (such as the title of my remarks today, “On the Meaning of the Liberal Arts”), the cadence of high learning and seriousness. The parenthetical (“to hear us talk”) evokes the rhythm of self-examination, but of the gossipy sort, vaguely subaltern, in today’s terminology, meaning that it originates in the language of resistance and rebellion. “Listen to us, who do we think we are?”, with our grand traditions. There’s a collision in the poem between registers of thought in human discourse: physical and metaphysical, external and internal, literal and figurative.

When Frost’s tree falls in front of us, it can mean two things, at least. Literally, it’s a hassle. To the unexamined life, that’s all it will ever be. Get down and clear it away. On the other hand, there’s that question of meaning, and where it comes from. Human beings do their best when their actions are invested with significance. That’s why we have ceremonies, like this one, to compel us to stop (because time itself doesn’t do so on its own), take some time, reflect on the significance of what is happening to us.

(You should know, that now, right now, we are at the heart of things, as what I am doing here with my words and my references and my attempt to be witty is nothing more than to encourage you, student inductees, to reflect on how you have been singled out (1 in 100) for your minds, your hearts, your capacity to do well, yes, but more importantly, to do good – to make the world a better place for your having passed through it.)

Where was I? Oh yes, the tree is in the road, blocking our way. But who are we to assume we have the right to “a way.” We all have plans and visions for ourselves (sometimes they take the shape of fears and anxieties)—rights of way we invent to articulate what we desire--and for the most part they are based somewhere within us, in the space called ego, and on other terms invested with significance by psychologists. The “tempest,” however, is nature at its strongest: “She likes”, as Frost says, “to halt us in our runner tracks.”

Maybe this is a good time to read the poem again:


The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are

Insisting always on our own way so.
She likes to halt us in our runner tracks,
And make us get down in a foot of snow
Debating what to do without an axe.

And she knows obstruction is in vain:
We will not be put off the final goal
We have it hidden in us to attain,
Not though we have to seize earth by the pole

And, tired of aimless circling in one place,
Steer straight off after something into space.


I am drawn especially the to word “likes” in that construction. Obstruction is something that nature “likes” to do to us – and I’d not be a good English teacher if I did not suggest that nature’s tempest may come from without (a tree in the road before us) or from within—a psychosis, a character flaw, anything that keeps us from getting on. Maybe she likes it so much because she, as a thing both external and internal to us, “knows obstruction is in vain,” because we humans, with our lives of self-examination, and with the knowledge that we created her, not the other way around, “will not be put off the final goal.”

Lest you accuse me of hubris, when I say that we invented her, not the other way around, I do not  mean that we are gods who created nature. That is a ludicrous statement. But human beings have created the concept of the natural world in order to name, categorize, and make sense of our physical context. In Genesis, recall, among the first human accomplishments is the naming of things.  We know a lot about that tree in the road that we call botany. We decided that nature is gendered female, even if the notion is quaint, one can still say “mother earth” in mixed company. And let’s not forget that a man wrote this poem, not the other way around.

I digress once again—more of my own “aimless circling in one place.” Where are we in this poem? Oh yes, the tree in the road can’t stop us, and she knows it, because we have it within us to attain – and the final sentence:

Not though we have to seize earth by the pole

And, tired of aimless circling in one place,
Steer straight off after something into space.


“Seize earth by the pole” – a sense of purpose! The tree blocks the road, we have no axe, there is a foot of snow on the ground, “she” toys with us, but we have a purpose, a will, and thousands of years of example before us, “she” also knows this history-- as sure as she likes to vex us. We look out on the vista of St. Mary’s River and think of a small group of men and women who built the original City, whose efforts we exhume from the earth and marvel because there were not even roads to be blocked by trees, there was no path to where they intended to go, nothing mapped out and destined, only a vision and a plan. And why? How is it we have it within us to attain? The last lines from Frost make this clear. Aimless circling won’t do, human beings crave purpose. And now to my second favorite word in this poem, “something.” What is the antidote to aimless wandering? It is to “Steer straight off after something into space.”

If I may do a bit of damage to the poem, allow me to juxtapose the first lines and the last lines, for emphasis:


The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar

[our efforts to]
Steer straight off after something into space.


We live in two worlds, we who invite the liberal arts into our minds and spirits. The world of now—our physical predicament, our place and our time, our circumstances—and the eternities, the human traditions of philosophy, and poetry, of mathematics and the sciences – of those who quite literally steer our gaze toward space, and of those who quest after something. I’m talking about all of you, now.

We all speak of making the drive down Rt. 5, around the bend in the road and coming upon the river, upon the suddenness of inspiration, the realization that there is something out there after which we ought to steer. Steer straight off after something into space. Or we find ourselves in the Garden of Remembrance, or on one of the benches on the bluff, watching the sunset, straight off after something into space. Or my favorite, the full moon over the river, impossibly reflecting tomorrow’s sunlight before tomorrow has occurred, casting tomorrow’s light upon tonight’s water, recalling Socrates’ sense that our worth will be assessed, tomorrow, after we have departed, by the quality of the life we have lived today.

What, we ask, is the meaning of the liberal arts in our lives? We have been granted life by something; we all seek after something, and find in something the sense of worthiness; we know also that after we live, something happens, something of significance and meaning—or, maybe not. In the meantime, trees and whatnot get in our way, axes and other tools go missing, snow and tempests wreak havoc on our carefully made plans. And while we are knee-deep into it, we might miss the meaning of life itself—that living is not simply now, but transcends today and extends back as far as memory can reach, thousands of years of thinking and writing and creating available to us; and forward, thousands of millions of miles into space, like the moon over the river, anticipating, reflecting, illuminating.


Thank you for asking for my reflections this evening – to hear me talk.

Aerial view of St. Mary's College of Maryland campus

St. Mary's College of Maryland
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