The Benefit of a Liberal Education
“Yet suffer me to speak unto Thy mercy, me, ashes and
In the autumn of 1984, I walked onto the North Georgia College campus (it was called NGC then) for the first time as a student. The air was crisp and the light golden and I was master of all things, wise beyond my years.
Only after a decade passed did I understand what a privilege had been extended to me in allowing my unwashed feet to tread the hallowed precincts of this college. In those days, I thought it was my right to be here – by birth, grades, SATs, a scholarship, my talent as an artist; it was my right and there were none who might legitimately question my presence.
21 years later, the sheer foolishness and vanity of such beliefs cause me to hang my head in shame and to smile a little at myself.
That I was a barbarian when I walked through the gate of this place only slowly dawned on me – and that is, perhaps, as it had to be. I am thankful any light at all ever pierced the midnight veil of my willful foolishness. I believed that I had been admitted into this college due to my merits, my excellence, when the truth was that colleges exist in part to help transform sleepwalking, immature people into more fully conscious adults. And I was sleepwalking and immature to say the least.
A rough stone ripped out of the quarry could not have had as many edges, angles, faults, cracks, and imperfections as my soul did in 1984. And then college went to work on me. There were sharp chisels and merciless hammers here, the instructors who unwaveringly, and yet with deep care, held up a standard that was to be met regardless of my inclinations to sloth, my belief that half-reading was as good as attentive reading, the call of the ridge parties, beer, the girls.
In those days, there were Ms. Elsa Ann Gaines and Mr. Guy Laile in the English and Literature Department, people for whom my “good enough” was never good enough because it was not my best.
They were people who opened up worlds to me I barely guessed existed: the heroic, virtuous, world of Homer, Plato, Virgil; the Christendom of Everyman and the doubting Classicism of Erasmus; Pope’s and Voltaire’s rapier-keen wits; the fire in Lord Byron’s revolutionary eyes and the wicked smile on his lips; the melancholy wisdom of Dostoyevsky; the glorious mysticism of Yeats; the verities and truths of Faulkner’s heart.
It was from Ms. Gaines and Mr. Laile that I learned true individualism, true freedom comes only after one forms a certain level of self-discipline, forms a living contact with the past, and learns to discern the valuable from the less valuable. Under their tutelage I began to see that that the choice is never simply between my spontaneous creativity and the demands of a tradition, but that who I am and my creativity are already part of a tradition. The real question is whether my contribution to the discussion a culture is will be of genuine value or superficial, inane, common.
In the Art Department there was Mr. Win Cranell who expected me to draw for hours every day and to observe, not assume. Ms. Tommye Scanlin was a model of genuine craftsmanship and taught us to care for our work and attempt to understand what we were doing. Mr. Bob Owens – he pulled me aside just before I transferred to UGA and gave me a talk I sorely needed, a talk concerning my childish, sometimes combative attitude and resistance to instruction. I have never forgotten that talk and finally, over the years, profited from it.
Dr. Peter McDonald in the Psychology Department taught me to pay attention to myself, to the influence of society and unconscious assumptions, to always question, to approach learning as an adventure and life as learning.
I walked through the gate of NGC wise beyond my years; I exited unlearned, dissatisfied with my lack of learning. And over the years I have increased my unlearning and dissatisfaction – at 39 I am far more ignorant than I was at 19. Ignorant – but aware of that ignorance. As my universe expands and intensifies, as my world of worlds grows with my awareness, I know less and less and my dissatisfaction with myself grows.
NGC and the other universities I attended chipped away at the imperfect, rough stone I was, but the end-product was not a finished statue, something complete and satisfying. Formal education only began the process and then, in the end, handed me the tools and the responsibility to be both the sculptor and the sculpture, to choose daily who to become, to be perpetually dissatisfied with who I am.
Richard Van Ingram
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