THE ARTS IN THE LIBERAL ARTS
BELOIT COLLEGE COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS, 15 MAY 2000
President Ferrall, all
you about-to-be alumnae/i, good old faculty, distinguished guests,
families and friends:
I am just delighted that Beloit has had
an official Year of the Arts. and I'm delighted to say something
about the role of the arts in the liberal arts. But I have to ask
myself: with such splendid people on the platform here, why was
I selected to speak to you today? One reason might be that
when you get to my age you discover that you are, willy-nilly, a
custodian of the history of your time. I'm remembering Memorial
Day when I was six and I was taken to shake the hand of a Civil
War veteran who recalled that when he was my age his father had
taken him to shake hands with a veteran of the Battle of Bunker
Hill. That battle (of course you all know) was in 1775. So
there's only one hand between mine and our land before it was a
nation. More to the point, since coming to Beloit in 1954 I have
been, though not an artist myself, profoundly engaged in the arts,
as teacher and as editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal.
(Oh, I have to mention parenthetically
that I was delighted to learn that Beloit's Year of the arts was
also Queer Year. Of that I'll say no more, except that I am thinking
fondly of the many students, faculty, administrators, and alumni/ae
of the past, among them some our most distinguished, who would have
reason to rejoice at this news. End parenthesis.)
What I want to do here for a few minutes
is share some of the history of the arts in the liberal world of
Beloit College, as I have known it for almost a half century. I
have to begin my story in my last months teaching at the University
of Colorado, when I accepted the assistant Professorship in English
here at the munificent salary of $4000. When I told my Boulder colleagues
where I was going, I got an interesting range of responses. The
director of the University Museum lit up: "They have magnificent
archaeological collections. Wait till you see their Mimbres pottery."
My friends in the theater brought me the latest issue of Theater
arts to show me a story on Kirk Denmark's program, including
the innovative Court Theater. A painter friend said, "They
must have a good art department. I see they just had Ben Shahn there."
And I already had a subscription to The Beloit Poetry Journal,
by then almost four years old. The school sure looked good to me.
There was, however, a professor at Boulder who had actually taught
at Beloit briefly. He was dismayed. "You won't be able to stand
it, Marion," he exploded. "It's the most puritanical place
I've ever been. I even had to pull down the shades if I wanted to
light a cigarette." Well, I didn't smoke, so I decided to take
My arrival in '54 happily coincided
with that of Miller Upton as president: a new president is always
a turning point in a college's history. Beloit had just completed
a year-long self-study, underwritten by the Ford Foundation, which
recommended a radical revision of the entire curriculum. In addition
to interdisciplinary majors, it proposed a substantial core curriculum,
including a sophomore course in the arts. Although the faculty had
approved the plan, there was substantial resistance among some senior
professors. President Upton brilliantly exploited this ferment by
immediately establishing six, not three, academic divisions and
asking each division to define what an educated person should have
learned in it. Our conclusions were intended to define graduation
requirements. I chose the new division of Creative arts. and despite
the Ford report's emphasis on appreciation, we decided in our division
that a person should not just learn about something. We should
take a stab at actually doing it: write a story, paint a portrait,
sing or play an instrument or compose a song.
The arts were already strong at Beloit,
but pigeonholed within academic departments. We immediately went
to work in extending the arts across the curriculum--and beyond.
I want to discuss the arts in the context of the academic history
of the college--with two more brief parentheses.
First, as for myself: I went right to
work on The Beloit Poetry Journal. Not only did I handle
the business and the screening of submissions--as I still do--but
I compiled a chapbook of folksongs I'd been collecting and I even
once designed a cover. In my literature classes I learned to integrate
film and the other arts into the literary matrix. My creative writing
class met in the Wright Art Center, in a seminar room where the
entire west wall was a glass case displaying the college's ravishing
collection of Chinese court robes. I had never seen, nor have I
since beheld, such gorgeous brocading, such glowing patterns of
birds and trees and flowers and dragons. It was my first glimpse
of the strength of the China connection at Beloit. One hand would
not go very deeply into the history of China.
Parenthesis Two: While I'm on the
subject of what Beloit's new world meant to me, I have to
mention that my office mate in the English Department was David
Stocking, one of the young Turks on the Ford committee and an editor
of the Beloit Poetry Journal. By Thanksgiving we were engaged,
and on the last day of classes we were married. So in Dave Stocking
I found the best possible companion and partner for my life in teaching,
scholarship, and the arts, including the applied arts of child rearing,
bird banding and wilderness canoeing. Close parenthesis.
Beloit's new direction meant not only
a multiplicity of demands and opportunities for the faculty; it
had a revolutionary impact on the curriculum. The English Department
was especially enthusiastic about the new interdisciplinary direction.
Fred White, the brilliant department chair, was a comparative literature
scholar, specializing in utopias. He had brainstormed a radical
Freshman English program in the spirit of the Ford Report and put
me (gulp!) in charge of it. We divided the first semester between
ancient Asian texts (the Bhagavad Gita, Lao Tzu, Confucius), and
in the second half ancient Mediterranean (Homer, the Oedipus cycle,
Plato). The second semester opened with modern humanistic views
(Darwin, Marx, Freud) and closed with the Judeo-Christian view.
(Only the Greeks and the Bible had I ever encountered before.)
Most of these works were then taught nowhere else in the college.
For us, creative thinking in memorable language in any field was
art. We avoided drawing a clear line between the literary arts--high
poetry, great drama, epic fiction--and powerful texts in philosophy,
biology, and psychology.
In 1964, when Beloit went to a year-round
calendar, we built on this foundation to develop the utopian Underclass
Common Course (UCC), pronounced UCK (we weren't very good with acronyms!).
In addition to its intellectual content, UCC was also a writing
course, but one that was taught over three semesters by faculty
from all departments. I was--and still am--enormously proud
of this course. Eventually I came to be the director and naturally
was known on campus as the Mother-UCCer. The third semester of UCC
was typically devoted to the creative process, not just in the canonical
arts, but in the social and behavioral sciences and the physical
sciences and mathematics.
In President Upton's third year I was
appointed to a committee to create an all-college honors program,
for outstanding seniors with wide-ranging intellectual curiosity.
For them we created seminars, each taught by faculty from three
different fields. Student work could be scholarly, critical, or
creative. My own contribution was a course in Living Opera, taught
by the head of the music department, the head of the modern languages
department, and myself. Our texts were the works in that year's
season of the Lyric Opera in Chicago, which we attended each week
via our Opera Bus, which carried us with our picnics and wine to
the door of the Lyric and then home, singing and snoozing blissfully.
Eventually the program dropped the honors requirement (on the assumption,
I suppose, that all Beloit students are honors students).
Third and final parenthesis: We had named
this the Porter Scholars Program after a wonderful Beloit alumnus,
Lucius Porter, who had been raised in China and was a founder of
the Harvard-Yenching Institute. Lucius seemed to us the ideal of
a Beloit graduate, for his political activism, his commitment to
a global perspective, his wide-ranging expertise in the arts and
humanities. (How pleased Lucius would be to hear of Beloit's exchange
with Fudan University, to know that we are honoring Jonathan Spence
today, and that next year's Mackey professor of creative writing
will be China's most distinguished living poet in exile, Bei Dao.)
I can't think about the arts in the liberal
arts without remembering some of the generously funded major events
that were integrated into the Porter Scholars program and UCC, bringing
in challenging people to keep us from fossilizing a good thing.
Just one example: in 1966 UCC sponsored a festival of the avant
garde, with John Cage doing a "concert" that turned out
to be a lecture/poem. Merce Cunningham and his great dance company
gave workshops all day and in the evening presented a dance program
with David Tudor at the piano. As part of that same festival the
Wright art Center mounted a Robert Rauschenberg show, and we had
a wild concert of avant garde music as well as a festival of experimental
film. We published a booklet to memorialize the occasion, including
some wonderfully imaginative concrete poetry by UCC students. Mr.
McFarrin, I wish you could have been there to share the energy of
I've talked about the impact of the arts in
the liberal arts on myself, on the faculty, and on the curriculum.
But the students were the whole point. And the students were more
than ready for the fresh air of the new administration. In 1955
they founded a campus humor, art, and literary magazine that they
named Satyre--spelled S a T Y R E--to suggest both
the comic spirit and the classical. They later changed the name
to Avatar--an incarnation of the arts. It varied wildly in
form and content, but over all these years it has never missed a
year and has always been completely the production of the students.
And then in the sixties a student underground theater erupted. The
students produced Beckett's End Game among these Indian mounds.
When the scientists vacated Pearsons for Chamberlin, the crew staged
Marlowe's Tamburlaine all over the building, with the audience
following the actors from one deserted lab to another. A student
director produced a dramatic performance of Pound's Cantos
that rivaled anything I'd seen off-Broadway or on the Edinburgh
fringe. Then there was their unforgettable Vietnam era production
of Lysistrata. (Since it was performed here again last year,
many of you will remember Aristophanes' play, in which the women
decide to stop a war by denying their men sex until they end the
fighting). The students seated the men and women on opposite sides
of the chapel basement. The war was settled by single combat between
two faculty men--a slender mathematician and a great hulking sculptor.
They strutted on in all their armor, with huge false phalluses,
and fought to the finish in a game of rock/paper/scissors.
From the sixties on, the arts served
social demands impressively. Black students became more and more
powerful in political action and the arts. I remember a stunning
production in the chapel by black women from the community and the
college in Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered
suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. And when the black students
formulated their demands for more attention to their culture and
their needs on campus, and the faculty met to consider their presentation,
we walked to that meeting down the corridor to Richardson auditorium
past a formidable row of student drummers in African costume. I
assure you we paid attention. Mrs. Bond, I imagine you remember
those historic days.
And finally (that word you've all been
waiting for), I stand here conjuring up all the great artists I've
experienced on this campus and how they have colored my life. In
1954 Pete Seeger, still unknown despite being on Senator McCarthy's
black list as a pinko Commie sympathizer, filled the chapel with
song and pennywhistle and steel drum. And I shiver remembering a
young black soprano none of us had heard of, making the chapel vibrate
with her magnificent voice. She would soon be well known--Leontyne
Price. And then there are the poetry readings! Galway Kinnell and
Gwendolyn Brooks, Albert Goldbarth and Robert Creeley and Charles
Olson, Carolyn Forché and Denise Levertov and W. H. Merwin, and
and and and. . . . When I come back to campus I feel as though I
am walking on holy ground.
I do hope you all have your own lists
of arts that have empowered your liberal arts education. President
Ferrall has made support of the arts a hallmark of his career here,
with the poetry. garden a perpetual witness to his vision. and 2000,
like 1954, is the beginning of a new administration. John Burris,
our new president, says he chose Beloit for its openness to change,
its "willingness to pursue important innovative initiatives."
We Beloiters will be watching eagerly to see what will emerge from
the new ferment in this new century, confident that the arts will
always be a radical force in the liberal arts at Beloit College.