Art of learning for its own sake

The Education Beat

Reunion: Johns Hopkins master of liberal arts graduates celebrate the program's 40th anniversary.

November 09, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

LOUISE White was three years out of college and working at Hutzler's when the mail brought word of a new master of liberal arts program at the Johns Hopkins University.

"It was 1962," she remembers. "I'd been loose for three years, and my mind was restless, and I thought, `Here comes Louise.' I got on the No. 25 bus and went to Hopkins to apply in person. To my amazement, they accepted me."

Imitated by numerous universities since 1962, the MLA program was radical in its time. It was, and still is, interdisciplinary, drawing on some of the university's best professors and outside scholars willing to approach the Socratic ideal of the "examined life." And it was one of the first programs geared to working adults, with classes scheduled evenings and Saturdays.

White picked up her MLA degree in 1965 -- she can tell you the date and even the hour -- and joined an elite group that now numbers about 2,500. Many of them will gather this evening on the Homewood campus for a slightly belated 40th anniversary celebration. The theme is right out of the liberal arts manual: "Between Beauty and Goodness."

In an ASAP world in which higher education has become increasingly utilitarian, the idea of a group of mature adults studying the liberal arts for the sake of learning is refreshingly quaint. (For the same reason, St. John's College stands out in a crowd of liberal arts college look-alikes.) The curriculum hasn't changed a whole lot in four decades, says D. Melissa Hilbish, associate chairwoman of the Hopkins program. She's teaching one of the "cultural eras" courses this fall, this one on the 1960s.

This semester, Hopkins MLA students are dipping into Faulkner's fiction, Jungian psychology, and the politics and culture of the Holocaust, among other topics.

Scheduled for the spring semester: "The American West: Image and Reality," "Evil, From Greek Tragedies to Gothic Tales," "Romanticism in Music," "The Cartographic and Geological History of Maryland" (taught by Edward C. Papenfuse, the state archivist).

Some alumni of the Hopkins program are rich or famous: John W. Snow, the U.S. Treasury secretary, for example, and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. Several prominent businesspeople, lawyers, physicians and a couple of state senators have gone through the program. Some have used the MLA degree to advance in their professions. Others have turned graduate projects into books: Kent Island: The Land That Once Was Eden started out as Janet Freedman's MLA thesis.

But the majority of Hopkins MLA graduates are, like White, famous only to family and friends. They're teachers, cabdrivers, artists, a vintner, Hopkins employees. Ordinary people seeking education for an extraordinary reason.

"I did it just for the joy of learning," says White, who did public relations work for several nonprofit organizations before retiring. "You're sitting there in a wing chair outside the Hutzler Reading Room [of the Hopkins library] while other people are at work or at home having dinner, and you're reading Joseph Conrad."

One of White's first seminars, on 18th- and 19th-century social thought, was rough going, she remembers. The professor, Hopkins historian David Spring, possessed an intimidating intellect, and White and some of her fellow students began to doubt themselves.

"One evening well into the course, one of my fellow students just blurted out, `Dr. Spring, are we any good?' He paused a second and smiled and said, `Yes, as a matter of fact, you're better than my day students.'

"That was when I knew I'd make it."

City schools need CEO with leadership skills

City schools have scheduled a forum "to discuss the qualities and characteristics that are important for the next chief executive officer to possess in order to provide leadership for the school system." The open session is 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at North Avenue headquarters.

Here are some thoughts to get the forum started:

The 12th "permanent" school chief since 1960 must have a keen intellect, a cast-iron stomach and the patience of Job. No matter what race, he or she will be branded a racist before being sworn in. A sense of humor is a huge help.

Most of all, the new CEO must be a good leader. Leadership is an acquired skill. It's astonishing that so many previous chiefs, chosen after long and diligent searches, totally lacked it.

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