Lessons on a Liberal Arts Education from my Mother

Prologue

In her song, “Little Good News”, Canadian songstress Ann Murray sang about the turbulence that marked the 70s and 80s. Her line in the chorus “We all could use a little good news today” seems all the more relevant for our time nearly 40 years later.

In recent years, divisions have been increasing in the US, including disappointingly within Christian communities. While 2020 did not create the divisions, it has certainly accellerated and amplified them. Perhaps you have noted the changes, too. My particular Facebook feed became filled with vitriol against anyone not on the far right, pushing back against the scientists urging caution, mask wearing and social distancing in the age of COVID-19. Racist posts were also on the rise, rejecting the pain and hurt people of colour were expressing. It was depressing to see people whom I had once admired replace their messages of love, service and inclusion with messages of anger and antipathy towards those who were different. Ultimately, I had to shut down my Facebook page and resort to primarily my friends from home who shared my values and concern for the marginalised, even if not my faith.

With this backdrop, two themes have kept emerging as antidotes to the hate, enmity and chaos of this year:

  1. If ever Christ’s admonition and commandment to love one another is needed, it is now; and
  2. More people need to take courses in the humanities/liberal arts.

But how do these two things go together? Simple. Christ taught us to love our neighbour as ourselves, and a humanities education helps us unpack what that means in practical terms, teaching us to understand the human condition, develop empathy, and seek equitable treatment of all of God’s children, not just the ones like us. This, I would argue, is central to our mortal learning experience in. And it was absolutely the wisdom my mother taught me in our all too short time together.

Lessons from My Mother

For much of her life, my mother was told that she was not smart enough. Doors to a university education were cut off for her early in life when she and her sister were sent to a business and secretarial high school rather than one leading to higher education. Moreover, she stuttered when she spoke in public thanks to an anxiety that was reinforced as others chided her for her inability to speak “right”. It was not until her mid-40s that she found her courage to pursue her BA, facing her anxiety, pushing back against the notion she was not good or smart enough. Though it took her 18 years, one course a semester, she graduated from one of Canada’s top universities, Queen’s University, with a degree in sociology.

While some individuals and groups within religious communities reject higher education claiming it makes people arrogant and worldly, I would argue that secular education can help strengthen faith and connections. As my mother sat in classes on topics like “Sacred Spaces,” she came to better appreciate the importance of sacred rituals and spaces across different cultures, including honouring the lands and sacred spaces of our First Nations as well as more traditional places of worship. As a temple worker, her temple worship became even more meaningful as she better recognised the common human longing to understand our divinity and God-given characteristics. In a later course, she revisited her own family’s experience during the Second World War. Her class taught her to see what had happened within the context her parents and extended family had lived through rather than interpreting events from our later perspectives, a critical part of philological and humanist tradition. I remember standing in the kitchen on summer break listening to her talk about a new compassion that she felt for her parents, replacing the confusion, resentment and grief she had carried for decades. In short, it was her studies that allowed her to see events more clearly and thus find healing for her own heart through the Atonement in a deeper and more meaningful way. In every case, her education did not cause her to doubt her faith, but rather caused her to seek ways to better live her faith. Her education informed her faith and relationship with God while helping strengthen her rock-solid foundation.

Unfortunately, for some devout individuals, the value of education is often measured in the immediate payoff in terms of dollars and cents. However, I’ve come to see education in the same vein as my mother, as a means to raise us up, help us develop empathy, patience, and a willingness to see something from a different perspective. It is about opening our mind, something that is not contrary to faith, but indeed helps us demonstrate the empathy Christians are called to do.

If this life is the time to learn the nature of God and therewith develop empathy and compassion as we lift one another up, our humanities education can provide a means of accomplishing that. Gerald Greenberg noted, “The liberal arts offer knowledge and the cultivation of habits of mind that allow graduates to mature into successful, productive members of society who can appreciate others, experience and embrace the notion of empathy, and seek lifelong learning.”[i] That sounds remarkably like the goal of a BYU education. He continues noting that the humanities allows students to know themselves and others better while also learning to better “understand and grapple with complex moral issues, the complexities and intricacies of humanity” which ultimately allow us to “address difficult situations, personal and professional” as well as  “contemporary global issues at local, national, and international levels.” While tackling problems via STEM is useful and often necessary, Greenberg notes: “the humanities provide another way of viewing issues, and better decisions are made when diverse opinions and ideas are considered” (italics added).

This reference to diversity is a beautiful reminder of Elder Cook’s recent words in conference: “Unity and diversity are not opposites. We can achieve greater unity as we foster an atmosphere of inclusion and respect for diversity.”[ii] This echoes his words to BYU earlier this semester: “One area that can help us build faith is to be particularly sensitive in creating unity and being grateful for diversity.”[iii] Diversity promotes unity as individuals reconcile their differences working to ensure that solutions help as many individuals as possible rather than making decisions that privilege their own perspectives and groups. I am extremely grateful to have grown up in one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities in the world with friends from different religions, countries, languages, ethnicities, and races. Life is richer with diversity.

My mother exemplified Elder Cook’s words as she fought for an equal voice at the table for women on different committees. She helped others recognise how hurtful their comments could be to fellow members who were single or struggling and she used her voice to ensure the marginalised felt included. This voice was made possible from the confidence her studies gave her, allowing her to overcome her stutter. And when I rebelled against “strays” (singles with no family) joining us for holidays, her response was simple: “Why should you get a holiday and others have to be alone?” Inclusion always trumped selfishness.

So why isn’t life experience enough? In our sound bite world, knowing one person affected by something or doing a Google search now passes for many as “research” and “experience”. This leads to loss of context and the ability to explore complex issues. Consequently, views of issues are often oversimplified allowing us to reduce and dehumanise real humans at the margins of society. It also allows us to view groups as homogenous when they are more diverse than we often recognise and it sets groups up more easily for conflict by failing to see the commonalities we share. In short, it allows us to view situations in black and white, a viewpoint that was unacceptable at home. Any issue discussed was to reflect its complexity even if that did not favour our perspective.

To counter dehumanising others and oversimplifying situation, Edward Said notes that humanism “is the only, and I would go as far as to say the final resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” [iv] Having been tied to a flagpole during lunchbreak as a young girl in Toronto simply because of her Jewish last name, my mother was sensitive to racism and the suffering of others. Her wisdom to suspend judgment and listen to the perspective of others could go a long way to helping us root out racism in our own hearts as President Nelson has asked us to do. Despite her efforts to be kind and fair to others, her classes taught her to better define racism and discrimination, leading her to shed behaviours and thoughts normal for her generation. This gives up hope that our classes can help create more unity by enlighten students to racist thinking and behaviours.

What about language learning? Admittedly my mother tried to learn German to better understand me but failed miserably. And when we went to Quebec City for a short holiday, she greeted others with the thickest English accent on her “Bonjours” and “Comment allez-vous.” As a teen I was left negotiating with the hotel and restaurant workers. She never could understand that her greatest weakness could be my strength.  But she was willing to learn about these other cultures through my study and experiences studying in Montreal and Munich, learning the languages. Typical biases held by Anglophones against Francophones in Canada were shed as I explained the history of Quebec I had learned that summer which helped me understand the complexity of our own national unity. As I studied in Munich, she came to embrace my love of German culture and even started signing correspondence to me as Mutti (‘mom’ in German). In fact, our last meal together at home before she died was Bavarian Weißwurst. Her education had truly made her a lifelong learner, where she saw education as a means of seeing new perspectives to bridge divides and strengthen relationships.

When President Hinckley took his message on education worldwide, my mom heard him speak in both Ottawa and Toronto. In both sessions he stressed the value of education, especially for women. When I returned from overseas weeks later, she lamented how much easier my life would have been in the church had this message come sooner. Her own conversion to the life changing power of education made her a greater advocate for my educational efforts.

More than ever we need more people in society and the workplace who can see multiple and even competing perspectives. We need individuals armed with empathy ready to welcome those who are different into our communities. As we are asked to be more loving to one another and create unity from our diversity, we can put to work the very skills that are the hallmark of a humanities and liberal arts education. Rather than stamp out differences from our midst, we can embrace them. God made us different for a purpose (see this church video).

These were the lessons of my mother, wisdom from a life examined with the help of education. It allowed her to better serve in her ward and community and to understand who she was meant to be. Her plans to pursue a masters were cut short as she died only a year or two after finishing her degree. And when she passed away, a number of much younger students from her classes attended her funeral. Each of them expressed how her perspectives and love of learning made their own learning experience richer and more meaningful. Ultimately, our diversity can forge greater unity if we are willing to see the world with new eyes. That is the benefit of our education. That is what would give our communities a little good news.

 

This post was written by LC Smith, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow.

[i] Gerald Greenberg, “Why we still need to study the humanities in a STEM world” Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), October 18, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/10/18/why-we-still-need-to-study-the-humanities-in-a-stem-world/

[ii] Quintin L. Cook, “Hearts knit in righteousness and unity,” Talk delivered in Saturday Morning Session of General Conference, October 3, 2020.

[iii] Quintin L. Cook, “Be now weary in well-doing,” Forum Talk delivered at BYU August 24, 2020. https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/quentin-l-cook/be-not-weary-in-well-doing/

[iv] Edward Said, “Preface to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition,” Orientalism. New York: Penguin, 2003.

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1 Comment

  1. Rob McFarland says:

    LCS:

    This is an important document, a great moment of personal intellectual history! Thank you for sharing it with us-
    Rob

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