Chris Long: Putting the liberal arts at the center of the core of MSU’s land-grant mission

Jul 12, 2018

The College of Arts and Letters at MSU is a very special place,” says Dean Christopher Long. “We try to live out the core purpose of the land grant mission to put the liberal arts at the center of that mission and to enable the research and education that happens at the university to be more holistic, more meaningful, and oriented toward the broader commitments to create a just and meaningful world.”


MSU’s land grant mission imbues all that drives Long to evolve the college’s mission.

“The Morrill Act talks about creating opportunities for citizens to have a liberal and practical education. I would argue that a liberal arts education is the most practical education that you can have because you're learning how to learn. Once you know how to learn, once you know how to think critically, write effectively, communicate well and creatively, then you have the capacity to do a variety of different things and put your deepest core values into practice in your life.”

Dean Long says the mission of MSU’s College of Arts and Letters includes putting these values into practice in one's life.

“We bring the deepest values of a liberal arts education to bear on the leading, emerging technologies of the 21st century. What we're trying to do is bring the ancient values of critical thinking and of thinking holistically about what it means to be human to bear on an interconnected, digitally mediated, often very fast moving world. And we hope to help our students live meaningful lives and articulate what that involves for them and how they might actually shape a life that makes a real contribution to the world.”

Our society today is focused on providing students with a quality STEM education based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — in an interdisciplinary and applied approach.

“One of the things that is sometimes a little frustrating is the way that the STEM world is seen as divorced from the broader liberal arts endeavor. We need to understand STEM and the humanities and the arts all as part of a core human drive to deepen our understanding and engagement with the world that we share.

“What the humanities and the arts bring to the STEM endeavor is a more holistic sense of our context as human beings in a very complex world. The drive that is at the root of science, engineering, and technology to deepen our understanding of the world is also at the heart of the humanities and the arts. What the humanities and the arts bring are creativity through the arts, through artistic expression, a sense of beauty beyond just utility and a sense for a more holistic and textured understanding of why we are doing what we're doing. So combining STEM with the humanities and the arts is really the only way forward.”

Long says today’s students “are much more engaged with the world and they come to us interested in putting their values into practice in the world. And the skill set students need to hone in order to be successful are at the heart of the Arts and Letters curriculum.

“The College of Arts and Letters is the home of the writing program at MSU, and so we impact every student who comes to the university in the writing program and also through our general education program.

“The skills that students need to live well and meaningfully involve the capacity to communicate effectively. They need to be able to write well. They need to be able to speak well. They need to have a global understanding and a sense of themselves within a global context. They need to know how new and emerging technologies are operating on us, and they need to understand how algorithms function.

“So we are working with our students to give them that deep, textured understanding of new technologies even as we try to reinforce those core values of a liberal arts education where students are thinking about what matters most. What is the meaning of justice? How do you live in a way that nurtures healthy, meaningful relationships with others?”

Dean Long describes challenges and opportunities for the college and all of higher education moving forward.

“I think one of the challenges that we're facing broadly in the culture, and I think in higher education more generally as well, is the challenge around how we're relating with one another. And can we engage with one another in trusting, meaningful ways. We see the ways in which our society gets pulled apart in antagonistic positions, and we need to be able to talk to one another across differences. We need to be able to think more intelligently and with more grace and nuance across those differences so that we can begin to identify ways of moving forward together.

“That's a real challenge for us. That involves us recognizing that we're finite, that we don't have all the answers, that we need one another to deepen our understanding of the world, and that we are vulnerable in certain kinds of ways. We need to be able to be candid with each other, and we need to be able to listen effectively. Listening is such an important skill that you miss often when you look at popular culture and all the noise that's out there in social media. So we've been talking to students and working with them about how they're using their own social media presence to cultivate habits of mindfulness and to think more reflectively about the life they're living.”

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