Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Theorizing Liberal Arts Education and Place


Hannah Coulter, the eighty year old sage of Wendell Berry’s novel by the same name, mourns the leave-taking of her children from their home town by their experiences in higher education: “We wanted them to have all the education they needed or wanted, yet hovering over that thought always was the possibility that once they were educated they would go away, which, as it turned out, they did (1).”  In the novel, her children come to symbolize Berry’s contention that higher education produces “itinerant professional vandals” who are unable to care for real people in real places (2)

This is the experience of many.  Higher education, and more specifically, the liberal arts, is designed to move its participants beyond “provincialism” into a more global, more abstract understanding of the world.  But this goal of higher education has its downside, and Berry’s warning resonates with educators who are concerned about how to develop engaged citizens, capable of caring action.  And so the abstract concept of place, accompanied by new attention to real places, has entered higher education as an antidote to rootlessness. Is there a way to conduct higher education so that its vital abstractions exist together with the strengths and resources and concerns and stories of a real, particular place?  

At the same time, real people in real places may fail to understand the actual gifts of the liberal arts. In our experience, communities have been slow to recognize and use the gifts of the liberal arts in their city planning. At a recent “state of the community” breakfast leaders from business, education, and the government discussed the present and future of our city—Grand Rapids.  While all acknowledged that we are going through tough economic times related to the decrease of manufacturing jobs in the area, many of the leaders expressed a measured optimism.  They asserted that we have resources that will help us rebuild and maintain our fine city, in particular the new biomedical corridor and the technological training offered by our community college. But no one mentioned the liberal arts as a valuable resource for enhanced city life.  Did they simply forget to mention the resources of the several liberal arts colleges in the city?

Big questions are the lifeblood of liberal arts education: Who am I?  How do I relate to people and the earth around me?  What is a good society?  Are there standards for beauty?  How do good communities work?   When a college begins to understand that it is embedded in a particular community with particular issues, strengths, and needs, it can relate these big questions to a specific place.  When the specific place sees higher education as a resource for the big questions that it faces, dynamic opportunities develop. The concerns of a place (i.e. urban revitalization, literacy, education, race issues, environmental issues, etc.) create the context from which teaching and scholarship grows. The particular illumines the abstract, and the abstract opens eyes to the particular.  We would like to think that a place-based approach to the liberal arts is a good answer to the concern that Berry expresses through the voice of Hannah Coulter.


Next: The History of Liberal Arts Education and Place