“The Heart of the Liberal Arts” Speaker Series Kicks Off at Pomona

With tuition rates on the rise and student loan debt escalating, subjects in the humanities like English, philosophy, and music have come under siege for being economically indulgent and impractical. The new Pomona College lecture series, “The Heart of the Liberal Arts: Humanities in the Liberal Arts College,” seeks to challenge stereotypes about receiving an education based in the humanities. The series, hosted by Pomona’s English Department, kicked off last Thursday, Sept. 12. It will bring distinguished lecturers from various disciplines and institutions to discuss, explore, and contest the merits of studying the humanities and their role in higher education today.

Kevin Dettmar, W.M. Keck Professor of English and the department chair, hopes the lecture series will shed new light on the humanities as a discipline.

“In a perfectly innocent way, the humanities can be overlooked here because, especially at a liberal arts college like Pomona, the humanities goes without saying. We don’t stop and pay attention to them,” Dettmar said. 

He added, “There is a lot of national talk about ‘The Crisis in the Humanities,’ which just means that humanities enrollments are down nationally. That isn’t really our problem at Pomona. Our concern is more about what we, as a college, want our students to experience by the time they graduate.”

Andrew Delbanco, Julian Clarence Levi Professor Chair in the Humanities and Director of American Studies at Columbia University, was the first lecturer in the series with a talk entitled “What is College For?”

While Delbanco’s talk sought to defend the traditional college experience, it seemed at times that he conflated the humanities with education in general. Delbanco said that this collegiate experience should not be a luxury but something available to everyone. According to Delbanco, studying the humanities gives students the opportunity to “self-meditate” and to “reflect on who you are and what you want to be.” Through a humanities education and the traditional college experience, students become not only more emotionally confident, but also better listeners, more respectful toward others, more perceptive, and, most importantly, more attuned to what Delbanco called our sharp “bullshit meter.”

“I really loved the lecture,” Emlyn Foxen PO ’16 said. “His idea about how the humanities produces compassionate students was, to me, interesting and very reassuring.”

Humanities aside, Delbanco also emphasized the social aspect of college: the importance of meeting new people and engaging with students and professors from diverse backgrounds.           

“I brought my mom to the talk and appreciated him mentioning the importance of the activities you do in college and the people you meet—things that are unrelated to academics but still important for personal growth, ” Neha Savant PO ’14 said.

Although Delbanco’s talk was entertaining, for some it did not offer illuminating insight.

“Delbanco gave a classroom lecture about why college is important. He mentioned a few new thoughts, but overall he didn’t present any groundbreaking ideas,” Savant said.

Perhaps at issue was the structure of Delbanco’s lengthy speech, which heavily focused on affording college during the first half of the lecture, leaving limited time to engage the role and nature of the humanities in a liberal arts education. 

“[College affordability is] a vital national conversation to have, but a separate topic, in some ways,” Dettmar said. 

Dettmar said he looks forward to an exciting series of talks.

“I didn’t give them a script. All of these speakers have been writing about the humanities in interesting ways and asking important questions. Some speakers will have tough things to say,” Dettmar said. “All of it will be important when we’re deliberating on who we are and what we want to be as a liberal arts institution.”

The lecture series is funded by a $50,000 grant to Pomona courtesy of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

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