Turning Words into Works: Overcoming the Myth of Liberal Arts' Ivory Tower

In America, it is common to hear the liberal arts described as an anachronism that hasn’t kept pace with the rapidly changing world. Critics are fond of asserting that faculty within the liberal arts disciplines (specifically Anthropology, Art, Classics, English, Gender Studies, Geography, History, Philosophy, Political Science, Religious Studies, Sociology, and World Languages) sit in their proverbial “ivory tower,” and, because of that, have lost touch with “real America.” Academics in these disciplines, the criticism continues, are paid a decent living to teach a couple of courses and write obscure books – neither of which have even a tangential connection to what’s happening around the country.

Community engaged scholarship is a direct counter to these criticisms. Our grants offer liberal arts faculty the opportunity to create real-world educational experiences for themselves and their students.

In his book Democracy and Education renowned philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey provides a theoretical explanation of why this type of learning sticks with students and prepares them to be active participants in a democratic society.

Dewey contends that a meaningful experience is signified by a continuous process of acting, undergoing, and reflecting. Essentially, each experience starts with an individual taking some interest in a situation within their community or environment. Next, the individual surveys known elements of the environment, the knowledge available to them, and previous experiences to gain a better understanding of how their desired outcome might be achieved. Then, the individual takes action to bring about a specific result. Afterward, the individual undergoes the circumstances their action brought about. Finally, the individual reflects on how close they came to achieving their desired outcome and what factors influenced the outcome.

Sarah Vitale, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ball State University, used this framework in 2020 for her Philosophy Outreach Project (POP), which was funded by our High-Impact Community Engagement Practices grant. Sarah noticed that not many high school students in her community were engaging in philosophy. She saw studies that engagement in the discipline was correlated with improved academic performance and civic engagement in students. She also witnessed her students grow their capacity for empathy, reasoning, and critical thinking. Based on this knowledge and experience, she developed a clear aim – to increase the number of high school students engaging with philosophy.

To achieve her aim, Sarah launched POP. POP provided a space for 18 Ball State student mentors to “facilitate open-ended philosophical discussions,” with more than 40 high school students. It also allowed the Ball State students to partner with both collegiate and high school educators to create a free conference as well as lesson plans and white papers that can be used as tools to encourage high school students to utilize philosophical ideas in their everyday lives. One student mentor reflected on what it meant to be a part of POP by writing that he enjoyed his role in getting high schoolers to consider the “big questions” and his experience continually influenced the way he approached problems in his master’s program.

The immediate effect of Sarah’s project referenced above does not capture the totality of POP’s utility. Other students within her community have been introduced to philosophical concepts and thinking because of the educational materials the project developed. Also, Sarah expanded her project's reach with presentations at four national conferences and published articles on the project in Teaching Philosophy and Analytic Teaching and Philosophical Praxis. The fact that the project has been referenced in Chronicle of Higher Education and American Philosophical Association indicates that the ripple effect of her project has spread far beyond her immediate community.

Mark Latta, Assistant Professor of English at Marian University in 2017, also utilized an applied approach to liberal arts for his Moving Stories project, which was funded by our Faculty Fellows grant. Having lived in Indianapolis, he took an interest in the IndyGo public transit system that connected his city. He also, however, became aware of the stereotypes and negative connotations associated with public transit and its riders. As a writer and a narrative creator, Mark knew storytelling had (and still does have) the power to connect individuals and humanize seemingly disparate groups of people to one another. Mark used this knowledge and experience in the development of his aim – to use the power of storytelling to challenge the stereotypes associated with IndyGo and its riders.

The action phase of Moving Stories started by creating a partnership with IndyGo, recruiting 46 volunteers (students and non-students) as interviewers, and interviewing almost 70 people. Moving Stories then used IndyGo buses as a conduit to share these stories by creating both interior and exterior signage. Finally, Mark and his volunteers used the collected narratives to produce art displays at the Julia M. Carson Transit Center in the heart of downtown Indianapolis.

Moving Stories had a profound impact in a variety of ways. From a policy perspective, Mark’s testimony, in which he cited his experiences in the project, helped ensure the passage of a local ordinance that implemented an income tax dedicated to the maintenance and expansion of public transportation. This ordinance, commonly called Proposal 3, has been largely responsible for the creation of the Purple Line, which is projected to serve a 61% minority and 30% low-income population, and Red Line, which created a north-south corridor through the city and included stops near prominent employers including Eli Lily, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, IUPUI, IU Methodist Hospital, Ivy Tech Community College, University of Indianapolis, and Butler University.

Moving Stories also influenced both individual and national rhetoric. In 2017, Art for America and Transportation for America chose Indianapolis as the site to launch a national conversation about “the intersection of transit and creative placemaking.” On a personal level, multiple volunteers expressed changes in their attitudes toward the IndyGo system. One volunteer who previously feared the bus went so far as to say that she “could now see herself as a bus rider,” and the project had inspired her to continue her civic action.

Sarah and Mark’s stories illustrate that faculty don’t have to choose between this false dualism of academically rigorous work that contributes to your discipline and work that makes a difference in your community. You can do both! We have grants available now that can enable you to do just that.

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