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"A Golden Thread: The Liberal Arts in the 21st Century"

The Inaugural Address of MaryAnn Baenninger

April 22, 2005

Good afternoon, students, faculty, friends, honored guests, and distinguished members of the platform party. Thank you for joining me today to celebrate the history and the future of the College of Saint Benedict.   
I have served as the president of the College of Saint Benedict for nine intense months and am beginning to think that presidential years are like dog years - because it feels like I have been here at least seven times as long.  In nine months I've experienced almost a full yearly cycle in the day-to-day life of our two colleges, with the intensity of pace that comes with that.  Along with the day-to-day, I've participated as a colleague with my partner, Saint John's University President Br. Dietrich Reinhart, the boards of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, and our college community, to craft a set of strategic directions for the colleges.  These strategic directions re-affirm our commitment to being the best Catholic, undergraduate, residential liberal arts institutions in the country.  We also reaffirm our commitment to our Benedictine heritage and the values that are core to that heritage.  Finally, we recognize our unique mission as institutions that provide a co-education for women and men while focusing on the unique development of each.
Today, however, I wish to focus my reflections on liberal learning and the liberal arts, what they mean in the 21st century, and how two colleges, in a seemingly out of the way place, fit into this picture. 

In the 20th century we have seen time and space gradually eliminated as barriers that divide people.  In 1913, when the College of Saint Benedict was founded, most Americans did not have private telephones in their homes, the automobile - still largely a status symbol of the elite - had just begun to be mass produced, there was no commercial airline industry, television and computers did not exist, and much of America was not yet electrified.  Faraway places were little more than exotic images, and, for most people, entirely unknown and out of reach.  To connect far away places together required extraordinary resources of money, time and education, coupled with a sense of risk and a thirst for adventure.
Today, our students can instant message with their friends studying abroad, conduct sophisticated research on the internet, connect daily with their parents on cell phones, and watch global news unfold live on television - all from the comfort of their residence halls.  Their access to people, places and information has no precedent in history. In this sense, the world today is smaller than it has ever been, and the College of Saint Benedict is as accessible as New York, London, Beijing, New Delhi or Dubai.  We could not have imagined in 1913 that our students and faculty would today represent more than 50 countries or that nearly two-thirds of College of Saint Benedict students would study abroad on six continents. 
Last month three College of Saint Benedict students traveled with our Vice President for Student Development, Mary Geller, to the United Arab Emirates to participate in a conference on Women as Global Leaders.  Our students discovered this conference through an internet listserv, researched the history, geography and culture of the country, and then arranged the logistics of the trip on-line.  The UAE is 10 hours and 7200 miles away from St. Joseph, Minnesota,  yet our delegation was able to arrange visits to universities, high schools and to the parents of a current student, in 24/7 real time.  Neither distance, language, nor time zones were barriers.  Now, a month after the trip, our students have developed a continuing relationship with women from the Middle East whom they met and befriended during the conference and a possible exchange and study abroad experience is being explored, while these four women have returned as emissaries for intercultural understanding.

And so, the faraway places of the past are no longer far away in the same sense.  The elimination of time and space, and thus, geographic barriers, has created enormous opportunity, but it also burdens us with greater responsibility.  Individual and organizational decisions made today in this country and at the most local level, can have immediate implications and consequences for people across the globe.  Political, economic and corporate decisions and processes are available for immediate consumption, not only by the elite.  You no longer need to be well-off to be well-connected. We are increasingly interdependent.

Paradoxically, as our collective futures have become more intertwined, and as we have developed interests in common, our very knowledge of our differences as nations and as individuals, has increased.   We once found other cultures and other countries exotic at best.   Today, such unsophisticated knowledge of other cultures has become dangerous.  It is true, indeed, that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, because it can breed hatred and violence.
As the world community becomes smaller, it is appropriate for us to reflect carefully on the imperatives of a liberal arts education in the 21st century.  How must the education we provide for our students change and adapt to this new and vastly more complicated world?

To continue to think of a liberal arts education simply as a route of access to a conventional, albeit varied, set of ideas or defined set of skills and requirements grossly undervalues its significance.  In addition to important content, learning in the liberal arts can provide a set of experiences and values that transcend the classroom and serve as a golden thread to unite us.  Structured and delivered dynamically, the liberal arts provide the intellectual, social, cultural and spiritual tools our students must have to be truly global citizens.
As I see it, there are five key imperatives of a 21st century liberal arts education: Reflection, Connection, Inspiration, Action, and Openness.


The elimination of time and space as barriers has made the world a more complicated place for most people.  We are no longer safely removed from world events, but see things happen in nearly real time, getting raw information first hand.  After all, this is the era of the embedded journalist.   We are now able to watch as our own forces release bombs on targets in far away lands, as statues of dictators fall and nations conduct first-time national elections, live on television.  With information coming to us relatively undigested, with more facets of every situation at our disposal, it's imperative that we find the reflective ability to make sense of it, to develop well-formed ideas and informed opinions about what we see.  Of course, the liberal arts have always striven to empower students with the ability to reflect, but never has this been tested in such a dynamic arena.  Never before have we had a greater need for careful reflection. Today the liberal arts education is charged with teaching us how to reflect upon and understand our own cultural predispositions, how those beliefs affect the way we process information, and, in the end, how we relate to others through those beliefs.


We who value the liberal arts and sciences as the highest form of education tend to speak of the value of "learning for its own sake."  When we say this, we mean that excellent learning develops and sharpens our abilities in analysis, synthesis, rhetoric, aesthetics and writing.  We each are given responsibility for using these skills productively in the world of work, family, society and spirituality.  Historically we have defined ourselves by our separateness from those different or far away from us, and by our togetherness with those who shared our personal backgrounds; the skills of a liberal education served best by enriching our lives and the lives of people most like us.  In this image, colleges and universities have long described themselves as places apart, as Ivory Towers. 
Indeed, as a society we have encouraged our students to expect college to be an incubator or cocoon of sorts where they prepare for but remain protected from "the real world."  It is as if the traditional undergraduate residential experience somehow affords students the opportunity to live and think in a place apart from that world. 

But the Ivory Tower itself has toppled.  It isn't that the substance of what we learned and thought within its walls is no longer meaningful in today's world, but rather, that it can't be kept pure, static or isolated anymore.  Information is remarkably close at hand and unites us over space and time in ways few would have predicted.

For example, within minutes I can view a digitized monastic manuscript from the fourteenth century on a server here in Collegeville, Minnesota, while a scholar in Amman, Jordon, has the same easy access to that manuscript.  I can take an Arabic text and quickly convert it to English with a translation program.  The Latin translations that I labored over in high school are available at the click of a mouse.  

When Johanna, Katie, Carissa, and Mary went to the United Arab Emirates last month, they carried business cards, created in minutes, with Arabic on one side and English on the other.  In sharing these cards they were able to connect by demonstrating their understanding of a business cultural practice common in other countries, and, at the same time, begin to gain the respect of their new Middle Eastern colleagues.  These opportunities in our 21st century world abound.  Thankfully, they demonstrate that we are no longer isolated learners or scholars. 
But there is another side to the technological coin.  Texts that were once the province only of scholars now are open to anyone to see and critique.  My friend, a scholar of medieval history, laments the infiltration of hobbyists who corrupt scholarly discussion with inaccuracies and misguided notions of medieval social and economic history.   How do our students, who wander into this listserv, tell the difference between the assertions of scholars and those of hobbyists?  However tempting it may be, it is not enough to tell students to never get their information from the internet. 

Rather, we must offer students fresh approaches to analysis and synthesis, and equip them with new and skeptical radar that can separate true from untrue, worthy from unworthy information.  We must give them opportunities to test and retest their notions of scholarship and rigor; we can no longer simply assign a paper, ask them to choose a topic, and send them on their way to produce a finished product at the end. The connectedness that marks the 21st century provides both learning opportunities and challenges. The liberal arts must teach students how to skillfully navigate this new reality.


The word's Latin root means "to breathe into" and shares its etymology with the word "spirit."  Roughly translated, "inspiration" means "to give life to." 

If the Ivory Tower has toppled, then we can no longer find refuge behind its walls.  We must face that we belong to the surrounding new world and, furthermore, have important work to do there.  We are global citizens, indeed.  As such, we must respond - by daring to inspire change, and by using our resources to breathe new life into the ideas and aspirations of our fellow travelers. A liberal arts education must inspire, must enable students to respond thoughtfully and creatively to the needs of people and communities near and far.  Otherwise, their education, and our role in it, will prove hollow and meaningless.


Most of us would agree that the world needs liberally educated people, but to what purpose?  To assert the value of a liberal arts education is to say that it is good for something.  Some may argue that it simply does what we know it does, enrich our lives by making ideas accessible to us.  But is that enough in today's world?   In my opinion it is not. As we prepare our students with a liberal arts education, we prepare them to think, to create, and to lead.  We prepare them to inspire others.  We prepare them to act. 


As we become increasingly suburban as a society and as we seek a more homogenous American Dream, we build a society that limits access to unfamiliar things.  You can travel this vast country - or move a distance of 1500 miles and still eat at the same chain restaurant and shop in the same big box stores.  Many of us are attracted to the comfort of such familiarity.  Not unrelated is our national trend to be less open to dialogue with those who espouse a different political opinion or religious belief from our own.   Paradoxically, more choices on cable television have paradoxically enabled us to reinforce what we already believe; there are FOX news people, the CNN people and MSNBC people.  Which one are you?  Our recent national election illustrated this trend, and there is no indication it will reverse on its own.  These puzzling simultaneous trends toward both homogeneity and polarization have created what social psychologists call "in groups" and "out groups."  People stick with those who are most like them and their own group and shun or exclude those who are in the "out group." A liberal arts education by definition must provide an antidote to this polarization and encourage openness to ideas and experience.

Reflection, connection, inspiration, action and openness - how can liberal arts institutions, and specifically the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, respond to these imperatives?

We can begin by nurturing reflective processes that can help our students make sense of a complex world.   We must also present our disciplines as dynamic, connected, changing entities, not static bodies of knowledge to be delivered.  And we must immerse our students in multifaceted experiences so that they might better understand interconnections. We must reward students for taking advantage of different opportunities on their college campuses and beyond.   

A friend of mine, also an academic, likens a good college experience to travel in a foreign country. You should soak in the culture, visit all of the important sights and venues, and then look for the back streets, the nooks and crannies, the experiences that are different and distinct from what you've always known. Taste the food, listen to the music, but most importantly, really connect with the people and find out what it's like to be someone else. Today's liberal arts education requires that kind of immersion in other places and other lives forming bonds between students in the residential living and learning experience, but also connecting them to the wider world. They must be more than passive observers, but active participants who reflect on the meaning of culture, on sameness and difference, and the potential of each new experience as an opportunity to learn.

As Catholic and Benedictine institutions, the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University are especially prepared to respond to such imperatives. Our brand of liberal arts is infused with the call to lead inspiring lives, life-breathing lives. We offer students the Catholic and Benedictine foundation from which they may seek the best in themselves, while also bridging the gaps that divide people from each other. 

Most of our students get involved in some kind of volunteer service opportunity while they are here, while an impressive number of our graduates also spend a year or more in service somewhere in the world after they leave college.  Many teach English in Asia, work in orphanages and schools here and abroad, while others strive in ecologically vulnerable parts of the world to sustain the fragile balance between human beings and the rest of nature.  Bethany Heinzen, CSB student body president, is on her way to Southern Louisiana to teach special education in a rural area. Jeffrey Morency, as a recipient of the Minnesota Center Human Rights Fellowship, will go to Israel to work with the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Program.

More than 50 percent of College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University students study abroad. Saint Benedict's is particularly strong in this area - with approximately two thirds of our women studying abroad. We run our own programs with our own faculty at 17 sites, and six continents, placing us in the very top tier of institutions whose students have international experiences.  Moreover, because our own faculty members administer our own programs, they too have significant experience living and navigating in other cultures.  They and the students bring the world back with them, to expand and better connect our little part of the world in St. Joseph with the greater global community. 

The impact of study abroad experiences on our students' lives cannot be underestimated, something that was recently reinforced in my mind by a recruiting event I attended in Denver recently.  Seven of our alumnae/i formed a panel to talk about their experiences at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University. When a parent in the audience asked them what their best experience at Saint Benedict and Saint John's had been, every one of them replied, "study abroad."  Coincidentally, they all had studied abroad at different locations; it quickly became apparent that study abroad was the thread that bound their college experiences together. 

In today's world, immersion in another culture for a significant period of time is one of the few ways to nurture the liberal arts imperative I'm calling openness.

Since coming to the College of Saint Benedict, I have been most struck by our brand of the liberal arts imperative I call "action."  Some 2200 of our 4000 students (CSB and SJU combined) work on our campuses.  I shouldn't say work on our campuses - they run our campuses. Over the past couple of days so many guests have remarked to me about how well-run the campuses are.  Pretty much everything you encounter has student work and student leadership at its core. The first event I encountered when coming to campus was move-in day for our 500-some first-year students at Saint Ben's. The entire program was run by a student, Erica Layer.  When the Bush twins came to campus last November - rather unexpectedly - student Sarah Wooldridge managed the site, working confidently alongside CSB Security and the Secret Service.  Any office, any function, every activity on our campuses benefits from student leadership. 

More phenomenal is the mentoring role that our staff plays with our students, who, by the way, are not only running events, offices and activities with skill - but also heavy equipment.  It's one of the first things I see when I drive onto the CSB campus on an early summer morning - CSB women driving landscaping equipment. Al Rassier, in charge of taking care of our beautiful grounds, has spoken eloquently about this and his and every staff member's role in mentoring students. Their role supports an intentional bridge connecting academic education with action - bringing the classroom in contact with the rest of the world.  The staff would say that their lives are greatly enriched by contact with our students, who take what they've acquired, a sense of self-reliance and efficacy with them when they leave Saint Ben's and Saint John's.  My son-in-law, who is a campus minister at another great Catholic institution, recently took a group of students on a service-learning project in Baltimore, Maryland. To his surprise, he found that the other institution working at the site was Saint Ben's and Saint John's. Where, he asked, was their chaperone?  In true CSB/SJU form, our students traveled from St. Joseph, Minnesota, to Baltimore on their own in a van, chaperoning themselves.

At Saint Ben's and Saint John's our faculty members devote both their minds and their hearts to our students. They are scholars, artists and practitioners, in the classroom, in the lab and in the field.  But they also serve as companions and mentors for our students, modeling reflection, action, and openness for them.  They avoid drawing artificial lines or boundaries between their classroom teaching and their work as mentors.  On a recent visit to Washington, D.C., I had the privilege of meeting some of our many graduates who now work on Capitol Hill. I asked them how they had made their way to Washington and, over and over they credited professors like Phil Kronebusch and Kay Wolsborn. They, like other CSB/SJU faculty members, understand that a liberal arts education is dynamic, connected and active. 

Finally, I must say a few words about the unique partnership between the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, what we refer to as the coordinate relationship.  It may be the single most powerful experience that we offer, the one that responds to all five of the liberal arts imperatives that I have outlined.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with our history, we are two institutions yet one, we are a school for women and a school for men, yet we are co-educational. We have two campuses, yet they function in many ways as one. Each institution, however, has its own culture, its own history, its own lineage, and its own roots. We cannot overestimate the amount of institutional energy we invest in maintaining this unique partnership, or the mental and social flexibility required to sustain it. It is a model for the real world where relationships are not simple, where trust is an essential, where openness is required, and reflective negotiation is the currency. 

Our very existence exemplifies an essential axiom that draws my five imperatives together - ties them with a golden thread. Without each other, without understanding each other, without connecting with, inspiring and acting for each other, we would be nothing.

Thank you, and peace to each and every one of you.