Not political. Not tightfisted, pursed lips, finger-wagging shame on you for not being me. No, I mean a song on a city bus, a hug brushing aside a handshake, a laugh sudden and unafraid.
“You may not be able to stop nothing from happening,” Sonny’s mother tells her elder son, but “you got to let him know you’s there (119). Him is the Sonny of James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Being there for him is what Sonny needs, what we all need, my definition of liberal–being there for who needs you, a bond with all those who have come before, all who will come after, a gospel of shall-we-gather, a laying-on-of-hands, the grace of a liberal upbringing.
Liberal is about the business, the science, the poetry, art, and music, the philosophy, the theology, the history, sociology, psychology, political science, the theatre, the mathematics, the language, the health, the beauty of creating and distributing Good. It doesn’t purport to teach a trade. It prepares thinkers to enter a world often complacent, even belligerently ignorant of its need of change, and change it for the better. A. Bartlett Giamatti, professor of comparative literature at Yale University; President of Yale, 1978-1986; president of major league baseball’s National League, 1986; and Commissioner of Baseball, 1988-1989, offers, in his book A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University, his belief that “a liberal education is an education in the root meaning of liberal–liber, ‘free’–the liberty of the mind free to explore itself, to draw itself out, to connect with other minds and spirits in the quest for truth” (109).
Giamatti calls a liberal education “a process of self-knowledge for the purpose of shared civility. It should foster a skepticism of the Apocalyptic or Coercive Style, a tolerance for other beliefs and peoples, a passion for excellence and equity, a respect for the dignity of the individual. . . . A liberal education is a process, whereby we each make ourselves part of a commonality that respects the majesty and integrity of the individual talent” (299). This connection within a liberal arts university Giamatti labels collegiality–“the shared belief, regardless of field or discipline, in a generalized, coherent, communal set of attitudes that are collaborative and intellectual. It does not imply unanimity of opinion; it implies commonality of assumption. Collegiality is the most precious asset in any institution of learning” (39).
Enrollment and class size in most liberal arts universities encourage student-teacher interaction. Teachers and students know each other, even becoming friends. Faculty are friends as well, dedicated to teaching, while continuing their professional development (studying, researching, writing, performing) on their own time–during the summers, sabbaticals, weekends, even holidays. To teach, to serve, at a liberal arts university is a calling. A romance. Faculty who don’t love it, quickly leave it. Those who stay seldom notice the passing of the years.
I know this all sounds grand, maudlin-sentimental, even a hasty generalization, but I lived it for forty-two years. For me it’s Truth. We do what we love. Of course we do. I love literature, sharing poetry and fiction, literary nonfiction, with others who love it as well, or come to love it. Poetry, all this term implies, is people–wonderfully complex, paradoxical. Liberal Arts university people are not what my 1960s generation labeled rubber stamps. A liberal arts education offers the human experience–that which makes us human.
For Sonny, it’s jazz piano. “‘I want to play jazz'” (120) he tells his older brother who then asks how Sonny can make his living (121) as a jazz pianist. Sonny tries to explain: “‘But what I don’t seem to be able to make you understand is that it’s the only thing I want to do. . . . I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?'” (121-22). A few years later, Sonny invites his brother to come hear him perform with a jazz quartet at a club in Harlem. Sonny tries again to convey his need for creative expression, for getting out “‘that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody‘s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen'” (133).
For me, the faculty of a liberal arts university offer students an empathetic ear, listening for that creative storm straining to burst forth, proclaim light against darkness. It’s not easy in the world to find those who can, or will, listen. As Sonny’s brother watches Sonny pour himself body and soul into the piano, his brother begins to understand:
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. (137)
Sharing my love of literature with students is how I have tried to do what Sonny offers through his music–“find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell” (139).
Bart Giamatti says it this way: “the goal of the [liberal arts] enterprise is not growth or market share but intellectual excellence; not profit or proprietary rights but the free good of knowledge; not efficiency of operation but equity of treatment; not increased productivity in economic terms but increased intensity of thinking about who we are and how we live and about the world around us” (36).
Yes to Giamatti. Yes to James Baldwin. Yes to the liberal arts university, its faculty, staff, and students. We are all performing artists.
Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” Going to Meet the Man: (stories), by James Baldwin, Vintage International, 1995, pp.101-41.
Giamatti, A. Bartlett. A Free And Ordered Space: The Real World of the University. W. W. Norton & Company, 1988.