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Acclaimed historian advocates for the liberal arts

In a visit to Elon University, Edward L. Ayers argues that the arts and sciences teach the “art of expression and habit of attention.”

Univeristy of Richmond President Edward L. Ayers, one of the nation's preeminent historians on the U.S. Civil War, delivered an April 9 lecture at Elon University titled What Is Academia, Anyway?”

Colleges and universities should keep the liberal arts and sciences a central component to their education as they prepare students to confront complex global problems that defy simple solutions, a prominent historian told the Elon University community this week.

Edward L. Ayers, one of the nation’s preeminent experts on the U.S. Civil War and the current president of the University of Richmond, visited campus Tuesday as the keynote speaker for Elon’s Phi Beta Kappa evening induction ceremony. Earlier in the day he spoke on the role of higher education in a lecture titled What Is Academia, Anyway?”

The Whitley Auditorium remarks were a passionate defense of the liberal arts and a clarion call for keeping the humanities and sciences a key characteristic of a college education.“While all kinds of occupational majors are proliferating, at the most selective schools, the liberal arts are front and center,” he said. “Why would our best students work so hard to learn something useless?”

There are disturbing conclusions to this trend, he said. If many colleges and universities turn their backs on the liberal arts under pressure to solely train students for future jobs, and only the most expensive or selective schools continue to make the arts and sciences a priority, that would limit the growth of the mind to those who are privileged enough to afford it.

The liberal arts don’t simply teach “art” or “science,” he said. They teach habits; they hone “the art of expression and the habit of attention,” plus much more that’s needed to navigate a complex world. Ayers also argued that in American culture, people are encouraged to choose a side in policy or cultural debates and then defend it.

“The arts and sciences say, ‘nope you can't think that way.’ There’s nothing worth thinking about for very long that that’s simple,” he said. “The liberal arts teach us to deal with the only constant of the human experience that I’ve been able to discover, which is ‘the unexpected.’ What people expect to happen, never does.”

The liberal arts teach that the world is full of possibility and that great leaps are possible. “If we don’t understand that things can change,” he said, “I’m not sure what motivation we have for getting out of bed every day.”

Ayers is an authority of American history and a pioneer in digital scholarship in the humanities. He has served as president of the University of Richmond since July 1, 2007, prior to which he served nearly three decades on the faculty of the University of Virginia.

He has authored or edited 10 books and countless articles. His 1992 work The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2003, he authored In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863, which earned Ayers the Albert J. Beveridge Award from the American Historical Association and the Bancroft Prize for Distinguished Book in American History from Columbia University. 

In 1997, Ayers helped found the Virginia Center for Digital History and served as its director until 2001. His own project, “Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War,” won the inaugural eLincoln prize in 2000. He released in 2012 a stunning new website, “Visualizing Emancipation,” which allows scholars to view the spatial dimensions of freedom in new ways.

Ayers was recognized in 2003 as the nation’s consummate teacher-scholar—the National Professor of the Year for Research and Doctoral Universities.

“He has an amazing capacity to harness the power of technology to ask questions we care about,”  Associate Professor Charles Irons, who studied under Ayers while a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, said in his introductory remarks. “He is inspirational and collaborative ... and he excels in every theater of life in which he is engaged.”

Eric Townsend,
4/10/2013 3:10 PM