Sometimes you just have to jump up and shout. I do, anyway. I was in Moorhead, Minnesota, taking part in a seminar on the future of the liberal arts. The occasion was the inauguration of Bill Craft as president of Concordia College, an outstanding, Lutheran-related liberal arts college there. It was a great day, celebrating his superb new leadership for a distinguished institution.
I know stereotypes are bad form, but you’re missing something if you don’t know that the Prairie Home Cemetery ─ a very real place ─ is right across Eighth Street from the Concordia campus. And that the real life prototype of Garrison Keillor’s Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery is a bar in Fargo, across the river. I was going to leave the Coen Brothers out of this ─ but, Hey! ─ the movie was alluded to, albeit obliquely, from the presidential lectern. So there you are.
Or there I was, giving a talk in my unruly, sprawling, down-river vowels, and feeling, to paraphrase Townes Van Zandt, vaguely felonious as a representative of devotion to liberal learning, what with the calm restraint and understatement characteristic of my hosts. Did I mention that the college was founded by Norwegian Lutherans? Emotional display is not a major feature of the cultural landscape.
Not to give the wrong impression. Concordia is an ELCA-related institution, connected to the moderate mainstream of that tradition. They are all about globalization, influencing a very wide world, and growing their famous “Villages” approach to foreign language instruction, now at 17 languages thriving in the North Woods. They are all about embracing the broadening effects of liberal learning. You can hear it in everything they say, and they say it plainly. They don’t crow about it.
My talk was well received. The other guest was actually another Southerner, Earl Lewis, provost at Emory, a Concordia alum who had come there as a student from Virginia. His talk was a hit. Then we took questions.
As time wound down in our session and lunch drew near, the moderator recognized a final question. The president glanced at his watch. I took in the question as I realized the urgency of time. It was too good to wave off: “What,” asked a thoughtful person, “can we offer as a response to the misgivings some people have about liberal education, based specifically on their religious concerns?”
As I jumped up to answer, I saw all at once that the moderator had been about to give the question to Provost Lewis but was already, kindly, deferring to my eager intrusion. Mindful of brevity I squelched the urge to footnote David Hume. My answer was very short, and very intense: Lots of human life is motivated either by fear or by hope. This applies in religion, but it’s broader, too. Our job in advancing liberal education is to help people gain the capacities to minimize the extent to which their motivations are rooted in fear, and to maximize the extent to which they can respond to hope.
It was a sheer blurt, one of those moments when you hear your own voice saying something you believe very deeply, but never said before, quite so passionately. I sat down, my face burning, feeling as if I had stretched the decorum of the occasion with my outburst. If my hosts thought so, they were too nice to say anything. I had to jump and shout; they live the same conviction.