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.

The History of Liberal Arts Education and Place

American educationalists have long contested the meaning, purpose and goal of liberal arts education. Broadly speaking, the argument comes down to the meaning of the term “liberal” (from the Latin word liber, meaning “free”). One understanding, derived from the eighteenth century Enlightenment project, takes it that a liberal arts education is to free students from their antecedent opinions, from the idols of their tribe, from the provincialism of their perspectives on life. Passing through the refining fire of rational criticism, students are to gain entry to the cosmopolitan world of pure Reason, to a realm of knowledge achievable by all who forsake belief on the basis of hearsay, superstition and authority for the rational methods of testing and assessment recommended by the sciences. They are to reject time-bound and place-bound traditions for the sake of universal principles embedded in the common faculty of Reason.

This—the “Enlightenment understanding” of the purpose of liberal arts education—stands in contrast to what we might call the “Classical understanding,” which carries with it a very different view of what the word “liberal” brings to education 3. This view is most readily discerned at the origins of liberal arts education in the age of the Athenian democracy and the heyday of the Roman republic. There freedom was not the goal of education, but the condition. Liberal arts education was for those who were already free from the necessity of work by virtue of their aristocratic social standing. Liberal arts education was education for those who were excused from the necessity of work and thus had time for civic engagement. Such education was not designed to divest students of the beliefs and values of the ambient culture, but to enable them to serve the local polity in accordance with those beliefs and values. The study of grammar, for instance—part of the trivium in the classical roster of the liberal arts—was not just a matter of learning the parts of speech, or rules for well-formed sentences; rather, it was designed to expose students to the ideals and values encoded in the canonical literature of the day. By reading Homer, Simonides and other revered poets, Athenian students of the liberal arts were to learn about the lives of heroes worthy of emulation, about what the gods like and dislike, about the virtuous life and how to live it. It was an exercise in the formation of a person; a formation very much bound to the place and time of the community in which that education took place. Liberal arts education was for the preparation of civic leaders in the place-based political community; and that education was itself informed by the time-bound traditions that held sway in that location.

In sum: the Enlightenment understanding of liberal arts education carries with it a drive or tendency towards placelessness, as it uproots its students and escorts them to the free-floating “view from nowhere.” On the other hand, the Classical understanding tends to consolidate the hold that place and antecedent tradition has on its students. Its project is one of inculcation—it wants to form students according to the ideal and values of the age, to fold them into locality.

Examples of both the Classical and the Enlightenment views are evident in American educational history. During the early national period, as the experiment in democracy gained stability, two types of higher education institution were established 4. The most common in antebellum America were small, locally supported, residential liberal arts colleges modeled in the English “Classical” tradition. Increasingly common as the century wore on were larger, more comprehensive universities in either the “Agricultural and Mechanical” (A & M) tradition, or the state flagship tradition 5. The 1862 Congressional legislation drawn up by Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont—the Morrill Land Grant Act—traded federal land in each state for the establishment of state “land grant” universities. While each of these types of institution generally maintained a set of liberal arts requirements, they diverged in their degree of emphasis on this form of education. Private colleges continued to emphasize the liberal arts in the Classical tradition, while state universities increasingly developed in the Enlightenment tradition. Following the German model, the new universities emphasized research, provided education for an increasing number of students (including women, minorities, and students from lower income strata), and favored disinterested learning; all in place of the Classical model of learning done by the elite for the betterment of society. Confounding this distinction was an increasingly ambiguous role played by the founding religious traditions in the Classical colleges—in some cases these traditions were overtly discarded, in most cases they were subtly replaced by broadly humanist commitments, and in a few cases they were actively maintained within a liberal arts framework.

Another way of describing the dichotomy in the liberal arts tradition was offered by historian James McLachlan 6. McLachlan suggested that a two-pronged model of collegiate education replace the dichotomy between college and university. He recommended the categories of cosmopolitan and local colleges and universities. Cosmopolitan collegiate education would include universities and colleges with broad university goals serving a smaller, more select student body, while local collegiate education served the majority of students, much like the current form of community college education today with its emphasis on vocational training 7. Other scholars have drawn a similar distinction between antebellum colleges and modern community colleges as well.

During the twentieth century research universities gained clear predominance on the landscape of American higher education in terms of the number of students as well as the size of their overall operations. Yet a small set of highly respected liberal arts colleges—some within these larger universities—remain. Lately, each has tried to incorporate the virtues of the other. Recent trends show large universities attempting to recover some of their lost sense of place and intimacy through residential colleges, while small colleges attempt to complement strong teaching reputations with increasing efforts in the world of research.

As the influence of higher education in America continues to spread, and access to higher education enables a greater number of its citizens to reach middle class standing, an additional challenge to traditional commitments to place emerges. Middle class professionals are increasingly mobile, and they are typically committed first to profession, and second to geography. The realities of urban flight and suburban sprawl also create living possibilities for larger numbers of mobile professionals, making neighborhood social commitments less likely 8. This middle class mobility can be linked to the rise of the undergraduate and graduate education that equips students with disciplinary knowledge for professional careers as an avenue to private success rather than public service. The concomitant perception of higher education in American has been that of “passport to privilege” rather than a noblesse oblige regard to using privilege for societal betterment.

We are inheritors of both traditions, the Classical and Enlightenment. And we would do well to honor them both. Clearly an education that seeks only to inculcate given beliefs and values, without examination, is deficient; but so is an education that seeks only to uproot and negate, that leads only to the skeptical suspension of belief and a permanently bemused sense of irony. Products of a liberal arts education should not be uncritical recipients of a tradition; nor simply critical rejecters of tradition; but rather critical participants within a tradition. This goal, a dialectical product of the Classical and Enlightenment views, squares with the fact that we are finite, embodied, time-bound, placed-based creatures who nonetheless have the capacity to think things over, who can compare traditions, who can discern generally valid norms for sorting out what needs to be preserved and what needs to be changed in their own culture. Similarly, liberal arts education would be deficient if it aimed to graduates whose horizon was limited to needs of the local community; but neither should seek to produce rootless professionals, social atoms bouncing around in the free space of a market economy.

Liberal arts education, then, should both intensify its students’ relation to their place and enhance their ability to critically evaluate it. It should take them deeper into their own traditions and locales, and also provide them with vantage points by which to assess them. It should strengthen their commitment to place, and their commitment to making their place a better place—be that place local, regional, national, or global.

The larger issue with which contemporary American colleges and universities must contend is the dual nature of their inheritance as it relates to the question of relating the liberal arts to a sense of place and a sense of responsibility to local place-based communities. These dual paths will continue to cross, and our best hope is that they will inform each other. Institutions of higher education are not placeless. Despite charges of ivory tower irrelevance, they exist in actual cities, towns, and communities. This placement itself is a factor for institutions to consider in their efforts to develop a commitment to place in their students. For example, urban, suburban, and rural campuses exist in very different geographical contexts, contexts that present very different opportunities for civic engagement on the part of the educational community. On-line universities, such as the behemoth University of Phoenix, have developed as hybrid institutions, on the one hand bringing higher education closer to where people live—even into their own living rooms—but at the same time bringing it into the placelessness that is cyberspace. The historical developments within liberal arts education outlined above raise challenges for those who seek to foster a concern for the particularity of place within students, faculty, even the institution itself.

Cultivating Care for and Attention to Place

The concept of place is generally contrasted with the concept of space 9. Space is thought of as absolute, universal emptiness, as when we think of the coordinates of Cartesian space that are nowhere in particular and can be used to model any sort of geometric configuration. Place, on the other hand, is essentially local and particular. It incorporates specificities of geography, biology, history, and social context. Because space is thought of as abstract, while place is particular, it has been traditional in both the sciences and the humanities to think of space as the arena of universal generalizations, while place offers only particularity, prejudices, and localized concerns 10.

This picture, however, is extraordinarily problematic for both the sciences and humanities. In the philosophy of natural sciences, Kuhn developed the notion of a scientific revolution 11 precisely because he began to realize that abstract logic could not account for how scientific knowledge was actually generated. Since Kuhn, more attention was paid to experimental investigation of actual events in accounting the generation of reliable scientific knowledge 12. Some have argued more generally that knowledge needed to be tied to specific conditions and contexts 13. This recognition was slower to become incorporated into the humanities, in part because thinkers often assumed that their particular perspectives represented abstract universal. But in the world we now live in, with its plurality of perspectives, even the humanities have moved to recognize that artistic, philosophical, or historical investigations do not begin from abstractions in the middle of nowhere, they begin from particular questions, raised in particular historical contexts, and addressed to particular audiences. The generalizations, the universal insights, the abstract values of the liberal arts arise in the midst of particular places and times, and it is precisely when they are firmly rooted in their own context that they have the greatest potential for illuminating human lives 14.

One of the ethical theories that address the issue of how analysis might move from particularity to generality is the ethics of care. Having its origins in feminist theory, the ethics of care is a relatively recent theoretical account of how ethics functions in human lives 15. In care theory, care is the heart of ethics because it is in caring relationships that we become capable of being ethical agents, it is in giving and receiving care that we act as ethical agents, and it is structuring human life to protect, preserve, and enhance care that we create an ethical world. Care theorists have argued that care is always embodied and contextualized, because care always begins with personal relationships (though it is certainly not limited to purely personal relationships), and to that extent care is embedded in a particular sense of place.

An ethics of care that is alert to its connection to a sense of place recognizes the embodied nature of humans and their embeddedness in the natural environment 16. While some other ethical theories have tended to treat humans as disembodied rational agents, care begins with recognition of, and respect for the ways that human life begins with infancy rather than at the age of rationality. But this recognition entails a corresponding recognition that there are no embodied humans who are not embedded in particular places and environments, environments that have physical, historical, and social particularities that are integral to the physical life and development of any human 17. Good teachers in the liberal arts have always recognized this and offer their students some sense of the historical and environmental context within which philosophy, or literature, or art is created 18.

An ethics of care broadens this recognition to mandate attentiveness in any situation that involves relationships of care 19. Care essentially involves attentiveness to particularity; more specifically, it requires attentiveness to otherness. Attentiveness permits the other to be received as a particular other, not as a projection of one’s own preferences or beliefs. Care begins by listening, in other words, rather than telling the other how things will be, and so it begins from a position of respect and other-directed concern. Attentiveness fosters relationships that can be characterized as care precisely because they are not relationships designed to manipulate or control.

One of the rhetorical moves that is sometimes used to avoid or reject the requirement of attentiveness is the invocation of the concept of universal essence or ‘nature.’ The history of social justice movements is filled with examples of groups who have demanded that their claims be heard. They have demanded that those in power be attentive to who and what they are, in other words. But their claims have been rejected on the basis of ‘nature.’ Women, for example, have argued that they had a need for intellectual fulfillment, for basic human rights, and for participation in political processes. The response in all too many cases was that it did not fit with ‘women’s nature’ to allow them to be educated, to exercise basic rights, or to participate in the political process. In this way the concept of ‘nature’ is often used to cut off attentiveness. If one already knows everything about the other’s ‘nature,’ then there is no point to investigation or to ‘letting the other speak’. When we begin with the concept of essence to deny clear claims of particularity, or when ‘nature’ is a used as manipulative or controlling concept, as a technique of mastery rather than mutuality, then ‘nature’ subverts care and its focus on the particularities of place 20. But when we turn this hierarchy around, and begin with a respect for the importance of particularity and place, then these starting points transform our conceptions of nature and the natural. We can then begin to recognize that natures are never unified, but plural 21. We can recognize that by starting with the particular natures of the individuals, events, and places that we care about, we can begin to draw legitimate generalizations about what is good for those individuals, or beneficial for particular places. When our initial response to a particular place is to approach it with an attitude of caring interest, its nature is no longer something that prevents it from making claims on us; it becomes, instead, an object of ethical regard with its own unique demands and requirements. And then it becomes possible to work with that particular place, with its strengths and within its constraints, in ways that are not destructive.

This attitude of recognizing the importance of the particularities of places that comes from an ethics of care is central for an adequate sense of care for the environment. We cannot engage with an abstract environment because environments are always local, though never unconnected to other environments. There simply is no such thing as an abstract, universal environment because any environment is first of all a particular place 22. What is good for one environment, for example, can be disastrous for another. Fertilizers are beneficial for farms, but enormously destructive in the fragile ecosystem of the Everglades, for example. Nor can environments be treated as fungible, as if we could justify the loss of rainforest by setting aside nature preserves in temperate climates. If we are serious about meeting our ethical responsibilities to the environments we live in, and to the individuals (of a variety of species) who inhabit those environments, we must begin from an attitude of openness to the particularities of those environments, and not try to impose a one-size-fits-all set of requirements on every environmental context.

The sciences and the humanities are both needed to provide us with the abilities to be attentive to the particularities of place. The sciences are well designed to offer interpretative schema that allow us to listen to a particular place and to let it speak 23. They offer important tools for monitoring changes and stasis, for drawing conclusions about long-term trajectories, for categorizing the inhabitants of a place and their relationships, and for evaluating the various sorts of interventions into the place that are caused by humans, by other species, and by other forces in a particular environment. We cannot attend to a place adequately without relying on the sciences.

At the same time, the sciences alone are not sufficient for attentiveness. The humanities discover and preserve the stories of a place, provide the ground for creative work, challenge the imagination, and relate particulars to the broader world. The humanities also offer a wealth of critical resources that can enhance the self-awareness that can provide warnings when the search for knowledge becomes a matter of control rather than attentiveness, and can situate studies in the broader historical, social, and philosophical context. Because science depends heavily on categorization, for example, it becomes an easy matter for scientists to assume that the categories they rely on are absolute facts about the world. A humanities perspective can function to remind scientists of the ways that categories have changed and shifted in the past, and to encourage a sort of humility about today’s categories and their probable changes in the future. The concept of a gene, for example, while a useful heuristic in some contexts, can also blind researchers to the flexibility and fluidity of the interactions between DNA and the rest of a cell 24.When scientists assumed that there are individual units called ‘genes’ that determine every aspect of a cell, they concluded that any part of the DNA that is not a ‘gene’ is simply useless information. But more recent studies are consistently demonstrating that so-called ‘junk DNA’ plays vital structural and informational roles in the cellular environment, a discovery that took a long time to make because of the categories being used to think about this particular environment.

Both the sciences and the humanities, then, have a vital role to play in our study of places and individuals. Both need to begin with an attitude of care, and a respectful willingness to approach a particular place with attentiveness, whether the place in question is a rainforest, a Midwestern farm, a watershed that runs through a large city, or the intracellular environment of a particular type of cell. All of these come to us with their particularities and their own tale to tell, but unless we approach them with care and concern, they cannot tell that tale adequately, nor can we learn from them how we should respond. This attitude of attentiveness, then, will in turn reflect back to both the sciences and the humanities, requiring both fields of study to learn to begin with contextualization rather than abstract universals 25. Universals divorced from attention to particularity become (at best) empty slogans or (at worst) techniques of oppression. But until there is strong sense of the ways that universals are only valid when rooted in the particularities of attentiveness to places and specifics, neither the sciences nor the humanities can be fully ethical.

When the attentiveness to place that generates good science and robust humanities is our starting point, we also find that we are pushed back into a fuller recognition of the ways that we do and should care for the individuals and environment in which we find ourselves. The techniques that allow us to hear the story of a particular place are also techniques that are likely to make us care deeply about that place 26. Researchers who study marine environments mourn when oil spills destroy centuries-old coral reefs. Researchers studying mosquitoes learn to respect the ways that such fragile insects can be so successful in surviving and reproducing. And we can multiply examples here—our point is that the attentiveness that generates understanding also generates a caring response to that which is studied. This care need not lead to stupidity, of course. The researcher studying mosquitoes is unlikely to endorse allowing mosquitoes unlimited access to human blood. But an understanding of the ecological role mosquitoes play might make a researcher less willing to use the techniques of absolute annihilation that were typical of ‘mosquito control’ efforts in the past. Such techniques have taken a terrible toll on the environment in many countries, and have not been particularly successful in any case because they often do more damage to natural resources for mosquito control (songbirds and fish) than they do to the mosquitoes themselves.

When we begin with an ethics of care and with a robust sense of the particularities of place, then, we find that the relation between worldview and praxis becomes more complex. There is an interplay between particularity and general principles. Rather than abstract principles determining our findings about particular places, we start with an attentiveness to particularity, and draw abstract conclusions after the fact, tentatively, and with contextualizing qualifiers. Generalities inform the tools of interpretation, analysis, monitoring, and action that we use to pay attention to a particular place, and the place modifies the generalities. Rather than a linear, top-down hierarchical model of understanding, then, we need one that has multiple feedback loops, built-in techniques for allowing that which is studied to talk back to us, and a respectful attitude toward the particularities of an individual that prevents us from erasing that difference for the sake of abstract principle.

Cultivating Citizens: Place and Formation

In the context of a democratic, pluralistic polity, citizenship must involve, among other things, the capacity to engage those who are different and yet share the same place we inhabit 27. This engagement is based on the willingness to listen to the voices that are not our own, and the disposition to deliberate productively to construct a vision of the common good, while remaining alert to the relationships of power and domination that are embedded in the physical and metaphorical architecture of our places. A liberal arts education is uniquely able to equip students to participate as citizens in a diverse public space, to present and represent particular identities and concerns as well as be attentive and receptive to the perspectives and identities of others. Moreover, the process of critical thought that is involved in liberal arts training is one of the most effective instruments to deconstruct the systematic power imbalances that underlie public discourses and interactions.

In order to achieve these goals, the liberal arts must take on the challenge to develop a critical pedagogy of place with specific attention to the civic dimension of public engagement. Liberal arts education must affirm the essential role of place (and its practices and habits) that shape our identities, and then reflect critically and constructively on the particularities of the environment in which the college operates. This should include helping students reflect critically and with theoretical depth on how places are created, helping them understand the dynamics of power and place, and equipping them with the tools to both diagnose unjust place-formation and imagine and implement just place-formation. In other words, this would mean that we acknowledge that human beings exist within a cultural context, in a particular “situationality” which leads them to not only critically reflect on their experience, but to critically act upon it 28. Peter McLaren and Henry Giroux explicate this point: “At the most general level … a critical pedagogy must be a pedagogy of place, that is, it must address the specificities of the experiences, problems, languages, and histories that communities rely upon to construct a narrative of collective identity and possible transformation 29.”

From a political point of view, such a proposition requires an acknowledgement of the social and cultural realities that lead some members of any given community to positions of power and privilege and other members to positions of disadvantage and oppression. For instance, in a predominantly white ethnic institution such as Calvin, it is very easy to overlook the racialized nature of what occurs in most classrooms and most cities. This may not be conscious or intentional, but happens because much of our academic discourse ignores or renders invisible how whiteness shapes, influences, and places boundaries around what we “know” (and/or what we “don’t know”).

The vision and task of a liberal arts education involves place in an essential way, even if the link is not always made explicit. Thus, the task is to elucidate the link between liberal arts education, a sense of place, and a conception of citizenship and civic engagement, as well as offer opportunities to tie theory and practice together.

First, an authentic liberal arts education aims to form students as “good citizens.” Such an understanding of education is not just the depositing of “information” into students as cognitive receptacles, but rather education that aims to form them into certain kinds of people who are ‘habitually’ just not only within the spheres of their homes, churches, and schools, but also in their concern for the broader, plural community of the polity. In other words, the goal of education is the inculcation of virtues (good habits) so that students become the kind of people who, out of their character (what Aristotle calls “second nature”), contribute to shape and to pursue a vision of the common good 30. It might also be constructive to think of virtue formation as something akin to identity formation. Some scholars have previously articulated some useful links between identity and place. For instance, prominent geographer and social theorist David Harvey has noted that dissolution of place engenders identity loss: “It suggests a fundamental spiritual alienation from environment and self that demands remedial measures 31.” It is that alienation which fosters an individualism that runs counter to citizenship—or a nurturing of the common good.

As a result, liberal arts education must recognize the critical identity-forming, habit-forming role that place plays (for good or ill) in forming us (faculty and students) as certain kinds of people who ‘by (second) nature’ habitually pursue a particular vision of the good life. With this in mind, professors can purposefully demonstrate the connection between identity, place and citizenship. For example, “the art department… gives artists a venue to exhibit themselves. It has helped to create a figure [of the] journeyman artist, whose work must be made on site, whose presence is demanded, and who travels from installation to lecture, supported by a network of grants, alternative spaces, and universities 32.” And so the academic artist, producing a public self as a means to engage in the contemporary discourse of the field, is tied to his/her identity professionally. On the liberal arts campus, this is an excellent reason for pursuing the development of the students’ identity, persona, and citizenship. The studio art classroom is not just for developing skills or critical thinking and articulation or decision-making, but it is for the formation of citizens, whose identity is linked to place and to social responsibility. Certainly, identity is phenomenologically tied to place in its formation. Who we are is contingent upon where we are, but it is also crucial to actively engage place as a means toward citizenship, community development, and social justice. We must give students a lens to help them see and connect to the world around them. For example, at Calvin College the Urban Bike Tours and Neighborhood Walking Tours have given faculty, staff and students an opportunity to “see” firsthand how patterns of human settlement are directly tied to issues such as urban sprawl, loss of the farmland and other green space, declining tax bases in urban centers, increased environmental and health risks, and the loss of a sense of community. These tours have been used in a variety of classes from sociology, philosophy, nursing and geography as well in professional development opportunities for faculty and staff. In every instance the purpose is to cultivate a critical awareness of how past decisions have affected places and to create a vision for assuming responsibility for the particular place where we are.

Second, any functional notion of virtue must recognize that a virtue is relative to a specified telos or aimed-at vision of “the good life.” In fact, what constitutes a “virtue” relative to one story or telos can be a “vice” relative to another story or telos. Meekness, for instance, is prized within a story that narrates a gospel of peace, but denigrated as cowardice relative to a story of heroism in the face of oppressive power 33. Therefore, liberal arts education must provide the resources to critically reflect on the historical and political significance of place within a community and institution as well as articulate a telos or vision of the good life that prizes the pursuit of justice for the common good, acknowledges the existence of alternative and competing visions, and connects this with the inescapability of place. Connected to this notion, Harvey (drawing on Ernst Bloch) argues that the fostering of hope (which, according to Aquinas, is a virtue) requires the possibility of a utopian imagination—fostering the ability to imagine the world otherwise. The illusory “necessity” of capitalist ordering denigrates such an imagination; this means “a loss of hope and without hope alternative politics becomes impossible” (Harvey, p. 156). Liberal arts education should foster an expansive imagination, which envisions the world otherwise and inscribes the virtue of hope into our character.

Here the primary task of a liberal arts education is expanding the social imaginary 34 of both faculty and students, thinking in terms of what might be rather than what currently is. For example, the PLANT! project at Calvin College served as a vehicle to connect students in a sculpture class to the place of Grand Rapids. Whether or not it was a success as an art project, students acquired a deeper understanding of Grand Rapids, and of place, which will inform their future work and citizenship. This project became about seeing, and about engaging the geography and culture of the city. As students worked in groups to convert unused urban spaces into working gardens or studios or sites for discourse, they experienced a healing of disassociation and alienation and were encouraged to think about what their project could be and how it could be a transforming element in the community.

Third, formation, particularly virtue formation, takes practice—a habituating doing that inscribes an orientation to the common good and an attentiveness to the other into the very character of the person. Liberal arts education must provide opportunities for embodied practice and habit formation which foster just relationships and connections to place, and counter unjust practices associated with certain kinds of places—with the goal of inscribing in students habits that will outlive their college experience. In other words, liberal arts education must harness the possibilities for positive (and at times counter-) formation that is possible by inhabiting certain kinds of spaces, as well as critically reflecting on the effects of negative habits associated with other places. Related to practice and a complementary key component, according to both Aristotle and MacIntyre, is the crucial role for exemplars. These exemplars would operate as “role models” who provide tangible expressions and stories of the one who acts justly. Exemplarity can be channeled either through first-hand encounters with persons who are exemplars or through the narratives and stories of their actions. For example, one opportunity for ‘embodied practice’ in caring for others and for place is offered through Calvin’s Project Neighborhood, an off-campus living experience in intentional community within an urban neighborhood. Guidance from community leaders, college representatives, and in-house mentors provides upper level students with role models as well as opportunities for personal growth and for making an impact in the community. Focused reflection and learning is integrated into the Project Neighborhood experience through an interdisciplinary seminar all residents participate in each semester.

Fourth, practices are inescapably material: they engage the whole person by involving the (intersubjective) body in concrete, tangible activities and rituals of physically in-habiting a place 35. In fact, there is a dialectical relationship between body and place: a body is a “first” place that both shapes and is shaped by its environment 36. Beyond that, author (and former mayor of Missoula, Montana) Daniel Kemmis insists on a “politics of inhabitation.” By this he means that “to in-habit a place is to dwell there in a practiced way, in a way that relies upon certain, regular, trusted, habits of behavior… We have largely lost the sense that our capacity to live well in a place might depend upon our ability to relate to neighbors (especially neighbors with a different lifestyle) on the basis of shared habits of behavior … In fact, no real public life is possible except among people who are engaged in the project of inhabiting a place 37.” Some scholars have elaborated and reconceptualized the idea: David A. Gruenewald has argued for “reinhabitation,” that is, learning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation 38. Reinhabitation requires identifying, conserving, and creating those forms of cultural knowledge that nurture and protect people and ecosystems 39. One way Calvin is learning how to ‘reinhabit’ our place has been through our work with Get the Lead Out!, a community collaborative working to end childhood lead poisoning in our county. This issue has been identified as one of significant concern for this region. Students and faculty in several different departments have been involved in various aspects of the work—from the actual lead testing to public education work with local residents to advocating for policy changes.

Liberal arts education offers students an opportunity to connect what they are learning to how they will live rather than what they will do. Through the liberal arts experience it is hoped that students can connect with and learn about a place, realizing that the more one knows, searches and understands, the greater the interest and satisfaction of inhabiting a place. The overall challenge for liberal arts institutions is that they must look for ways to integrate philosophy and theory with practice, offering a rich learning environment where praxis can take place as an integral piece of practicing virtue. We have woven into this narrative some examples which flesh out our argument that liberal arts education can be strengthened by focusing on the particulars of place. Additional case studies are included later in the paper.

If liberal arts colleges seek to develop active citizens who have a strong sense of place, they must begin by examining their own institutions and ask how they can make their own campuses good places to live, work and learn, connect with others, get involved in the communal life of the institution, as well as connect to the larger community in which the campus finds itself. The challenges described in this paper are formidable, but (as we have noted) they also offer liberal arts colleges tremendous opportunities to intentionally define their natural, built, social, and learning environments in order to promote virtue and identity and challenge students to be active citizens throughout their college experience and wherever they may find themselves after they graduate.

  1. Berry, Wendell. Hannah Coulter. (Washington, D.C.: Avalon Publishing Group, 2004), 151.
  2. Berry, Wendell. Home Economics (New York: Northpoint, 1987), 50.
  3. Here we follow Bruce A. Kimball, Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (New York: Teacher’s College Press, 1986).
  4. Only a handful of colleges were founded prior to the American revolution (Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, William and Mary, and a few others) and all in the Classical, liberal arts tradition.
  5. In Michigan, for example, the state’s flagship, the University of Michigan was established simultaneous to the founding of the state in 1837; and the state’s land grant, America’s first, Michigan State Normal College, was founded in East Lansing in 1849. Morrill’s legislation required that land grant colleges offer courses in the “agricultural and mechanical arts.” Both the land grant and the flagship university tended to derive their educational inspiration from the German “Enlightenment” model of education rather than the English model.
  6. James McLachlan, “The American College in the Nineteenth Century: Toward a Reappraisal,” Teacher’s College Record, December, 1978, 287-306.
  7. McLachlan, “The American College,” 305.
  8. See Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).
  9. See, for example, Edward Casey, The Fate of Place (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997) as well as his Getting Back into Place (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993).
  10. Casey, The Fate of Place, x-xi. For details, see his contrasting descriptions in Part Three “The Supremacy of Space” and Part Four, “The Reappearance of Place.”
  11. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
  12. For recent discussions on this, see Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Toward a History of Epistemic Things (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), Joseph Rouse, How Scientific Practices Matter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), Robert Crease, The Play of Nature (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993), and Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
  13. For example, in totally different contexts, see Don Ihde, Expanding Hermeneutics (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), Lambert Zuidervaart, Artistic Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) and Bonnie Honig, Democracy and the Foreigner (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
  14. With respect to a theory of hermeneutics, rather than ethics, this view of the relationship between universality and particularity is developed in the work of Georg-Hans Gadamer, especially his monumental work, Truth and Method (New York: Crossroad, 1989).
  15. See Virginia Held, The Ethics of Care: Personal, political, global (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), or Anna Peterson, Being Human: Ethics, environment, and our place in the world (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001).
  16. We recognize that care theory is not the only possible theory of ethics one might employ in thinking about the human-nature connection. For other approaches, see Mick Smith, An Ethics of Place: Radical Ecology, Postmodernity, and Social Theory (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), or Richard Fern, Nature, God, Humanity: Envisioning an ethics of nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  17. See Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (New York: North Point Press, 1990) and his Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (New York: Counterpoint Press, 2001).
  18. For two different examples, see David Orr, Ecological Literacy (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1993) and C.A. Bowers, Educating for Eco-Justice and Community (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001).
  19. For an account of teaching from the perspective of care theory, although in a K-12 context, see Nel Noddings, The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education. 2nd ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 2005).
  20. Peterson, Being Human, 144.
  21. See Soper, What is Nature?, for an account of the multiple ways the term ‘nature’ is used in common and theoretical discourses. See also William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996).
  22. Casey, Getting Back into Place.
  23. See Rouse, How Scientific Practices Matter, as well as Rheinberger, Toward a History of Epistemic Things.
  24. Lenny Moss, What Genes can’t do (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
  25. For an interesting account in the humanities that follows an interplay of particular and universal, see Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).
  26. For example, see Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1996).
  27. See, among others, Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); Democracy and Difference, ed. Seyla Benhabib (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Patchen Markell, Bound by Recognition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
  28. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition. New York: Continuum, 2000.
  29. Peter L. McLaren and Henry A. Giroux. “Critical Pedagogy and Rural Education: A Challenge from Poland.” Peabody Journal of Education. 1990, p. 263.
  30. A full consideration of this would have to flesh out what “the common good” looks like.
  31. David Harvey, Social Justice and the City. London, UK: Arnold, 1973, p. 308.
  32. Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, University of California Press, 1999.
  33. See Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, ch. 10.
  34. See Harvey, pp. 155-159.
  35. This is just to say that we must reject the reductionistic, modernist model of the human person as a “thinking thing”—a development antithetical to liberal arts education. As Linda McDowell notes, Cartesian thinking things are found in geometric “space,” not concrete “place” (Gender, Identity, & Place: Understanding Feminist Geographies [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999], p. 5).
  36. McDowell, p. 65, makes this point by drawing on Elizabeth Grosz, “Bodies-Cities,” in Sexuality and Space, ed., B. Colomina (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992).
  37. Daniel Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place. Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, p. 79.
  38. See also P. Berg and R. Dassman, “Reinhabiting California,” in V. Andruss et al (eds), Home! A Bioregional Reader (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1990: 35-38).
  39. See C. A. Bowers, Educating for Eco-justice and community. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2001.