Designing a Building with W.B. Yeats: Sweat, Anguish and the Tradition of Liberal Learning at Drury
By William Garvin
On a bright spring afternoon not too long after I started working at Drury, a gaggle of freshmen entered the F.W. Olin Library. They approached the reference desk and asked if I could help them locate a copy of one of William Butler Yeats' best-known poems, "The Second Coming." As I led the group to the stack location to pull the appropriate volume, I asked the students if they were in a British literature class. "No," one of them replied as he took the book from my hand. "We're architecture students." It turned out that they were taking an architectural foundations class with Professor Alkis Tsolakis. Professor Tsolakis had asked them to examine the imagery in the poem and translate that imagery into a design concept for a building.
The students took the book to a table and crowded into a huddle to give thepoem a quick initial reading. As they read Yeats' description of gyres widening away from a center, of anarchy being unleashed upon the world, and of passionate intensity, lack of conviction, and a beast slouching towards Bethlehem, their faces started to take on looks of profound concern, followed by something akin to absolute bewilderment. Finally, one of the students turned to the classmate at her side and muttered in horror, "Oh my God! What are we supposed to do with this?" There is a reference in the poem to innocence being drowned, and at that moment those freshmen looked like they were gasping for air as the current pulled them under. They were drowning in the complexity of the assignment.
While these freshmen undoubtedly knew that they were enrolled in a liberal arts college, their design project with W.B. Yeats might have been their first encounter with the real consequences of their decision to attend such an institution. The predicament they found themselves in had been set in motion almost 120 years earlier by a group of Congregationalist home missionaries with a passion for New England-style higher education. In the opening sentences of the Articles of Association for Drury College, the first trustees declared their purpose of "founding and forever maintaining a school of liberal learning" that would provide the "youth of both sexes" a program of instruction "which constitutes what is commonly known as a 'liberal education.'" A promotional pamphlet published a few years later in 1878 likewise describes a Drury education as "liberal," "thorough," and "comprehensive." An education at Drury College, it added, sought to produce graduates with "minds disciplined on all sides."
While the term "liberal" in this context is sometimes translated as "liberating," it is more often described as signifying an education that is "broad" or "wide" in scope. In a program of liberal learning, students are asked to engage in a broad course of study beyond the boundaries of their major. This is a central article of faith in a liberal education and is based on the pedagogical conviction that the world cannot be understood through a single disciplinary lens: it is best viewed and known through a number of lenses. An architecture student who knows something of the imagery of Yeats' poetry gains a deeper understanding of the visual organization of structures; an art history major taking a class in economics has a greater understanding of the milieu that inspired Otto Dix and other artists of Weimar Germany; the physics major taking a drawing class better understands how Einstein's ideas about mass distorting space and time might be best understood and expressed through visual metaphors. The belief is that such a syncretic curriculum does not confuse or dilute learning and thinking; on the contrary, it enriches one's understanding in all fields of study.
But there is an even more important element to a liberal arts education, something that the old 1878 pamphlet, with its talk of "minds disciplined on all sides," was driving at. Almost a decade after those freshmen came into the library looking for Mr. Yeats, I was digging through the papers of Drury President James F. Findlay in our archival collection. I discovered a folder containing the speech Findlay delivered at his inauguration on November 29, 1940. In that address, "The 'Whole' College Educates the 'Whole' Student," he describes his vision of a liberal arts education. As one might expect, Findlay initially makes the standard "depth and breadth" argument. The strength of a liberal arts curriculum, he says, is that students "are not forced to concentrate on one narrow field of human thought," but are instead asked to study a wide variety of subjects. A liberal education means that the student must be versed in the sciences, in literature and language, in mathematics, in history and political science, in music and the arts, and in the social sciences. Narrow fields of study, Findlay warned, would produce "mere technicians, well trained in vocations, but lost in the maze of social, economic and political complexity of the modern world."
It was nicely expressed, but it was pretty much inaugural "boilerplate" at a liberal arts college. As I read through the rest of the speech, though, I came upon a passage that immediately brought back the memory of those hapless freshman architecture students drowning in the language of "The Second Coming." Findlay argued that, above all, a good liberal arts education "ought to contain those things which will demand sweat and anguish from each student in the process of giving birth each day to mental progeny." The ultimate goal of a liberal arts program, he said, is to produce graduates "not trained to one single system of approaching a problem," and whose minds are "capable of stretching and shaping" as they tackle and resolve complex issues.
So while Findlay agreed that a liberal arts curriculum should "give breadth and depth," he argued that broad and deep course requirements could not by themselves create a complete liberal arts education. "It is not enough," he said, "to clip off a certain number of credit coupons, one for each course taken, and then claim that an education has been achieved by…exchanging…such coupons for a sheepskin" at graduation. The true test of liberal learning, Findlay concluded, "is whether or not the student, after being acquainted with the knowledge in these separate fields, has the wisdom to see their inter-relations and the mental ability to weave them into a pattern by which they achieve synthesis." The true test is whether or not the student can raise a building out of the words of an Irish poet
Of course, it is doubtful that any of our students will go on to a career where they'll be required to design a building based on a W. B. Yeats poem. But they will be faced with problems that are just as vexing, ones that will make them gasp to themselves, "What am I supposed to do with this?" These will be problems that can be addressed not through the simple application of a narrow body of rote knowledge, but only through a synthesis of broad and deep learning, different ways of seeing and unique bents of thought. In a world of increasing complexity, our graduates will be asked to bridge wide gaps of understanding between disparate professions, beliefs, technologies, cultures and nations. Using "minds disciplined on all sides," they will have to reconcile things that to most seem irreconcilable. When it appears that everything is spinning out of control, they will have to pull things back to the center, find the conviction to do what is right, and build new and humane solutions in a world where others see only anarchy.