There are fifteen weeks of classes at Pepperdine this semester, and today is the exact mid-point.  There have been some lovely moments and experiences in my Great Books and American history classes. The following was the loveliest of all.

My history survey course includes weekly quizzes, and two weeks ago the quiz was about nineteenth-century immigration.  There were questions about German and Irish immigrants, and I also threw in the following extra-credit bit about Scandinavians.

Imagine that Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders were running for the White House in the 19th century. Which one would most Norwegian immigrants have voted for? Why?

Upon reaching the EC, one of the students looked up and asked aloud in complete innocence, “Who are Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders?”

It was one of my favorite moments in academia. It illustrated and confirmed the value that I’ve long placed on higher education in the liberal arts tradition.

What is this education?  There are different answers, and one answer is that it is a time to be away from contemporary and even pressing concerns of the world, so one could learn better about the world and its people.

A paradoxical proposition, this, and lofty.  But as the sociologist Daniel Bell once noted in a commencement address on the subject of Jewish humor, the job of college isn’t teaching students wisdom – it’s impossible anyway. Rather, it teaches them ways and perspectives of seeing and understanding and analyzing and interpreting the world.

Learning these ways and perspectives is an enormous enterprise – and demanding. A liberal arts education in college calls for extraordinary commitment on the part of its participants, especially students. Change the world later if one must.  But for now it is to seek and enlarge one’s knowledge and, possibly, one’s depth as a person.

Another point is that a liberal arts education calls for a commitment to community. The communal dimension to learning is as enormous in composition and consequences as it is underrated in articulation and discussion.

In this case, the student is a senior and a student-athlete.  She majors in one of the natural science fields and plans to go into medicine. In my classroom, she has been among the informal leaders through excellent participation, both on her own and in small groups.  She is also a leader of sorts in her sport team. Among other things, her teammates nicknamed her “Grandma” because of her fifth-year redshirt status.

With a regular presence on the Dean’s List, the student illustrates something that I learned from my colleague, faculty mentor, and Pepperdine’s former AD John Watson: student-athletes as a whole have a higher GPA than other students.  She is one of those well-rounded young souls that America seems to have produced in abundance.  (I don’t subscribe to a cynical view of American students.)

It was slightly surprising at first that the student didn’t know about Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders – but only slightly.  She has made studies and team her priorities, and I suspect that her priorities later will change the world.  Moreover, she has added to the sources of inspiration for me as I continue my own commitment to the liberal arts.  I’ve taught – and learned from my students.  The liberal arts is, again, communal, sometimes in unexpected ways.

On the EC questions, “Ben Carson” is an acceptable answer because most nineteenth-century Norwegian immigrants and their descendants were affiliated to the GOP. The better answer, however, is “neither.”  Few whites would have voted for a black man in the nineteenth century – or even for an American Jew like Sanders.