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Beyond Mere Functionality

By Jane M. Schreck, Professor of English, Bismarck State College
ScreenShot20180709at3.49.03PM.pngAs we adjust to budget cuts and belt-tightening in the North Dakota University System, as we watch long-time liberal arts faculty retire from Bismarck State College and not be replaced,
as we hear repeatedly that our students will have jobs that do not yet exist, I have been recalling a discussion between colleagues from some years back. They were trying to articulate the description of an educated person and, by extension, the purpose of a college education.

One colleague declared that our job as educators—and BSC’s role—is to make students “functional in society,” noting that, in part, “functional means they can contribute to the economic well-being of the country and they can make good decisions.” I know this colleague to be a good-hearted, optimistic person, and he probably sees “functional in society” in the broadest, most positive way, allowing that people might define “functional” according to their own abilities and desires.

“Make them functional in society” – it is seductive in its generality, but useless in its imprecision and uninspiring in its ordinariness. Let’s imagine the institutional mission statement: “We’ll make you functional.” We see no swelling crowds, stirred and rallying around such a banner and no impassioned commencement addresses springing from the dull theme of “Go forth and function.” It may, in fact, be descriptive of the reality we are sometimes reduced to, but it is not the standard we should be trying to meet. It lacks poetry and reach; it lacks seriousness and depth; it lacks imagination and breadth. In short, it misses our humanity.

I admit, my colleagues’ discussion left me feeling hopeless and adrift. If this is really all we are doing—if our purpose is no more high-flown than to help students achieve mere functionality—then perhaps all our efforts are misplaced.

But Hope walked into my office shortly after that discussion. She was an academic advisee assigned to me, a second-semester freshman, seeking direction on the classes she should take next. More than that, though, she was seeking some reassurance, another voice to counterbalance those in her life, something to confirm her own instincts about the purpose of education. Neither of her parents went to college; neither of her older sisters went to college. According to her, they were all doing well without higher education. They had jobs and families. They were all functioning in society, and based on the evidence of their own lives, they were wondering why she was going to the bother and expense of seeking a degree. She told me she
did not know what she wanted to do with her life. She did not know what she wanted to be or how she might best serve her community, but something in her told her that education is in
some part self-discovery, and that going to school could help reveal who she is, what she loves, and how she might best make a life and a livelihood.

She was not wrong. By word origin, “to educate” means “to bring up” or “to lead,” often understood as “to lead out of darkness.” Historically, the foundation of the college experience
has been what is called a liberal arts education—the education of a free people. Such an education tries to anticipate what we need to know to govern ourselves or to lead ourselves
out of darkness. Mathematics, the arts, the social and natural sciences—of course—but in particular it is the humanities component of such an education that asks us to reach beyond
mere functionality. The humanities is the study of human culture—literature, history, philosophy, religion, languages, music, art. When humanities courses are taught well, they engage the students as whole human beings, not just potential employees, not just a bundle of learning objectives, and not just cogs in the wheel. While it is possible in any course, it is necessary and definitional in humanities courses, and I believe when we learn as whole human beings we are better, more compassionate, even wiser. Perhaps most importantly, I believe that learning as whole human beings allows us to see others as whole human beings.

So here we are in the spring of 2018, not whole but shattered daily by mass shootings, chemical bombings, environmental ravages, grinding poverty, suicides and opioid deaths, partisan
hostilities and extremist violence at home and abroad, physical and economic and political exploitation. And I think again about my advisee from years ago. I hope her study of history gave her a perspective for understanding such tragedies. I hope her study of literature or language helped expand her imagination and empathy. I hope her study of philosophy or religion helped her know that justice must be tempered with mercy and that powermust be restrained by grace. I hope her study of art or music revealed what we love in the human experience and that what
we love should unite us not divide us. I hope. Because when we summon what is best in our human condition—perspective and understanding, imagination and empathy, mercy and grace, love and unity—we have a hope of living peaceably with each other.

In a world torn by violence and exploitation, we in higher education can and must do more than teach our students to push the right buttons to make the robots work. We can and we must reach beyond mere functionality and reaffirm the wholeness and holiness of our humanity.