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Why Wofford?

An Essay from the Classroom on the value of a liberal arts education

Oct. 21, 2014, was a big day: the announcement of the Rosalind S. Richardson Center for the Arts marked a transformative moment for Wofford. It was the moment we took a giant and crucial step toward becoming the elite, national, liberal arts college we are meant to be.

For a place like Wofford with strong traditions of success in the sciences, humanities and pre-professional programs, it is tempting to simply “dance with them what brung you,” and continue to invest in those programs that have proven successful. In an increasingly competitive higher ed market, it might seem hard to justify doing anything else! But the liberal arts model that Wofford recently recommitted to with the adoption of the strategic vision, asks that we as a campus community think about not only what we already do well, but also what we can do better.

Why the arts? The advantages and benefits to the study of theatre, music or studio art in college are often discussed in terms of enrichment, “being well-rounded,” or acquiring “creativity” that may be deployed in a business or professional context. These are certainly benefits, but “enrichment” is not the primary justification for the pursuit of the arts. Rather, the study or pursuit of beauty and truth in the context of creating art is an end in itself: its value is intrinsic. Moreover, it is central to the process of personal discernment that lives at the heart of a liberal arts education: you cannot pursue work in line with your values and strengths until you know what they are.

The results of an undergraduate major in theatre, for example, include increased confidence, clarity and presence in public speaking, the ability to collaborate with constantly changing groups on complex undertakings with fixed deadlines, and a habit of results-oriented excellence; however, these are not the most significant gains. The results that are the most important are the ones that fulfill our mission statement: “….fostering commitment to excellence in character, performance, leadership, service to others and life-long learning.” Such results include:

1. Empathy. The intellectual and emotional imagination required to put yourself into the shoes of another person is one of the few things that has the potential to bridge the distances between individuals;

2. An understanding of the transformative power—and responsibility—of art to engage with the issues of justice, freedom, love, power and death, and the questions about the nature and purpose of human existence on the earth;

3. A sense of play. Life is short: you might as well play and enjoy it;

4. A habit of emotional and intellectual honesty. This is necessary for a good performance, of course, but is also necessary to solve problems in one’s life and in the world;

5. An appreciation of the balance between sound and silence, movement and stillness, light and darkness, color and black/white. The richness and variety of life and human experience is something to which we can all too easily become numb;

6. An understanding of objective and obstacle, and what one can achieve if one is scrupulously focused on clarifying objectives, identifying what stands in the way, and then working tirelessly to achieve the desired outcome;

7. And most significantly, a glimpse of the possibility of a life lived in congruence with these acquired values.

All of these skills and competencies will naturally prepare our graduates to excel in any field they choose, including the theatre—and potentially, to make a comfortable living. But this, I believe, highlights some of the crucial distinctions between education as a form of elite job training and the values of life-long learning we hope to inspire. By bringing our facilities in line with the existing academic programs, the new building will allow students to pursue these things as seriously on the stage and in the studio as they do in the classroom and on the athletic field.

Why Wofford? When it’s completed in the fall of 2017, the Rosalind S. Richardson Center for the Arts will be many things: a beautiful addition to the campus, a monument to one man’s love for his wife, an amazing facility for theatre, studio art and art history—but most significantly, a dramatic testament to the truth of Wofford’s commitment to a true liberal arts education.

by Dr. Mark Ferguson ’94 chair and associate professor, director of the Wofford Theatre