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May 7, 2017 at 11:07 pm

Schoen Keynote: Rethinking Knowledge and the Liberal Arts in a Fractured Age

Dr. Brian Schoen

Dr. Brian Schoen. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission

Dr. Brian Schoen, Associate Professor of History at Ohio University, delivered the keynote address titled “Rethinking Knowledge and the Liberal Arts in a Fractured Age” at the 17th Annual Marshall University College of Liberal Arts Research and Creativity Conference.

He discussed how our own “unprecedented” times have parallels in the mid-19th century. Then, as now, forces of globalization and a communication revolution heightened anxiety and unleashed questions about immigration, race, and border security and forces that polarized the U.S. polity, ultimately leading to the Civil War.

Held April 20-12 in Hungtingon, WV, the conference showcased the research and creative works of over 100 undergraduate seniors from across different departments.

Schoen highlighted a number of ways people in the United States sought to mitigate against some of the destructive tendencies during that time, leaning on constitutional forms and a fervent faith in democracy, as well as joining benevolent associations, like churches and civic organizations. These effort, he argued, were viewed as a means of blunting some of the hyper-individualism that contemporary observers like Alexis de Tocqueville frequently noted could destroy U.S. community.

Schoen’s keynote address also stressed that in our own “fractured age of post-modernism, fake news, ideological rigidity, and identity politics,” the humanities and social sciences are particularly crucial for avoiding “nostalgia, cultivating dialogue and truth telling, and creating solutions.” Our own communities, he stressed, “need citizens capable of thinking historically, morally, and systematically about the past and the present.”

To meet this challenge, however, scholars and students in the liberal arts might need to suppress an urge to see ourselves as merely “knowledge generators” working in narrow subfields and self-assuredly deconstructing the world around us. We might instead burst out of our own bubbles and collaboratively appreciate the classical roots of the artes liberales—roughly defined as the skills necessary to make “one worthy of being a free person.” Schoen ended his address with a challenge for the roughly 100 graduates and their faculty: to pursue wisdom, a higher virtue or gift that their education would help them attain but give them no monopoly on.

For more on Schoen, including his teaching and research interests, visit his History Department profile.

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