When Aron Aji, PhD, came to St. Ambrose University as dean of the college of Arts and Sciences in 2006, he brought an idea he thought just might transform the curriculum across the campus.
His faculty would emphasize the concepts of community service and community outreach in the classroom. Students would tackle discussions with inquiry and reflection, and find ways to discover the connections between the courses they took and the way one leads a life. And together, faculty and students would propel an innovative university forward, intent on living the message it sought to teach.
Much to the new dean's surprise, however, that quiet plan failed to capture the imagination of anyone on campus.
"It probably felt to some people like putting new clothes on a very old body, a body that had already been very mature, very alive and very productive here," he said with a characteristic chuckle.
Aji, of course, was not the least bit disappointed to discover that his plan already was a core philosophy and approach to education that had been deeply woven into the fabric of this Catholic liberal arts institution since its founding 130 years ago.
by Ted Stephens III '01, '04
On a spring afternoon in his tidy, second floor Ambrose Hall office, Aji reflected on what he believes are the foundations of a liberal arts education.
"Inquiry, reflection, integration, engagement, creativity and transcendent thinking-these attributes were fundamental to the training of the classical leader," he began.
"During the Classical period, the liberal arts comprised the training free citizens received, ostensibly to run the state-and not just in the political sense," he said. "It was also so they might run a harmonious society, one that enjoyed not just leisure and wealth, but also the finer interests in life like the pursuit of beauty and truth."
And, he said, these were fundamental to the educational experience students get at St. Ambrose. Coming to Davenport from Butler University in Indianapolis, Aji found a community where investigation mattered. He found a campus where classroom conversations and debates were not just an exercise that led to a test and an eventual grade, but where a search for deeper meaning and a clearer understanding of one's self led to rewarding lives long after a grade had been computed and a diploma delivered.
Indeed, that is the St. Ambrose Thomas Higgins '67 found when he arrived on campus in the mid-'60s.
"St. Ambrose was a lifeline for me," Higgins said from his office in San Francisco, where he currently is the CEO at Berkeley Energy Sciences Corporation. "I spent my freshmen and sophomore year at a Catholic seminary, and when I decided that the priesthood wasn't for me, I knew that I wanted to go to a liberal arts school-a Catholic liberal arts school."
A political science major who would found and direct a number of private and public companies after serving in President Jimmy Carter's White House administration, Higgins recalled an academic experience that was "strikingly good" due in part to charismatic leaders who approached teaching as a partnership between faculty and student. Legends like Rev. Joseph Kokjohn '50, PhD, John Norton '56, PhD, Rev. Edward Catich '34 and Sr. Ritamary Bradley, he said, defined the very essence of the liberal arts. They did that as individuals who were intensely involved in the lives of their students, as people you would have respect for in the classroom and a friendship with beyond it.
Aji thinks that is part of what makes a St. Ambrose education so very relevant today.
"There are people for whom boundaries are blurred. They move freely through fields of knowledge but also fields of engagement," he said. "I think a lot of that has to do with creating a community that matters. Curriculum alone cannot transform. But community can. Imagine taking courses that may seem arcane and obscure to you, but then imagine these courses addressing topics that become the subject of campus conversation. That's what education is really about."
Over the course of the past few years, St. Ambrose has taken additional steps to grow that dialogue across campus. In particular, a series of yearlong projects that bring lectures, performance and discussion centered on a topic relevant to the world right now-from the inaugural Darwin Project in 2008 to the coming school year's Race Matters-have connected the academic life with life beyond college.
But the connection between lessons for life and life's lessons existed here long before 2008.
Now a member of the St. Ambrose Board of Trustees, Higgins said he became increasingly aware he was following a path established at St. Ambrose as the years went by.
"The thing about education-about the liberal arts-is that you have to have a certain amount of humility. At first you take a course because it is something you are required to do. But eventually, a core instinct kicks in, and you want to investigate more about these things, these people, these places," Higgins said, pausing for a moment.
"Thirty-two years. That's how long it took me to ‘get it.' To fully appreciate it. On one hand, the liberal arts are intensely personal. They equip you to enter life and engage with life and hopefully fulfill potential-yours and someone else's," he said. "When you're young, that drive is latent, but barely realized. But once you graduate you have a set of tools that help you to grow and learn for the rest of your life. I've had four very different careers that have been interwoven a bit, but have certainly not followed a linear line."
Higgins said his education, which includes a master's degree from Iowa State University, prepared him to veer left or right when the map seemed to point forward.
"I guess there are people who can determine a life plan and follow it. I'm not like that," he said. "And I don't think life is like that. Life is seldom certain-oftentimes it is utterly perverse. The only way to make it make sense for you is to remain flexible. That is one of the insights you get from the liberal arts. There's a kind of absurdity, always hovering out there.
"As much as we may try to be, we are not computers. We are flesh and blood. We are a sum of passion and emotion as well as intelligence and analysis-all of it. You wouldn't have a happy life if you were ruled by passion or reason, pure and simple. Through the arts and humanities, we find a way to mediate life's experiences in ways that bring fulfillment."
Lessons for Life
That's a way of living that resonates with Becky (Maedge) Hayden '98 and Elizabeth Johnson '02, who both have ventured out on their own to not only realize career success but also happy lives. Being malleable in the face of opportunity and challenge, they said, directly can be tied back to the type of schooling they sought-and found-at St. Ambrose.
From her desk at Monkey Inferno, where she recently began working as a graphic designer, Hayden talked about the decision she made to abandon Spot Works Design, a freelance website design firm and labor of love she led for years, to be part of a bizarrely named start-up incubator in the heart of Northern California's Silicon Valley.
For Hayden, a new mom living in San Francisco, taking the new job meant that she only would be working 9-to-5, and not the "ridiculously long hours and late nights" that are standard for freelancing.
"It's funny how priorities change," she said. "I never thought I would go back to work for someone else, but it was the right place and the right energy, and the company is committed to shoving us out the door when the workday is done. Everyone has kids, and we have an environment that establishes family as a priority."
Johnson said it was the ability to establish her own priorities that guided her a few years ago to start CB Studios, an interior design company in Denver, after working for a series of boutique shops and design firms.
"I would say the number one reason I wanted to start my own company was to have the power to support the organizations and people who were most important to me," she said. "I can set my own schedule, which means I can allow myself to take a week off to volunteer or help with a fundraiser."
The inherent commitment to service-and the desire to work in pursuit of the happiness of others- has always been part of Johnson's life. But it was reinforced at St. Ambrose. She said it wasn't just service, though, but also exposure to business plans and financials models and creative ways to market oneself that allowed her livelihood to flourish.
"So many designers just go and study design, and don't necessarily learn to run a business," she said. "They may not know what it truly takes to be a strong communicator, or to be a good steward of resources. I believe clients notice the difference.
"Whatever our job or our life, it has to be built on establishing honest, trusting relationships, and pushing boundaries further than we might initially expect from ourselves or our work."
And passing that lesson on to others is perhaps one of the greatest ways Ambrosians can share the value of a liberal arts education.
SAU Trustee Daniel Broderick '82, MD, sees that in his job as a staff neuroradiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. With so many medical students coming in and out of the clinic, more and more he notices students who just want to know the answer.
"Certainly, there is plenty of memorization in the medical field. But at St. Ambrose, it wasn't just about memorizing-it was about understanding why things were they way they were. Sometimes today, it seems that people just want to know what the right approach is," he said. "We have to think far beyond that approach.
"College can be a pretty important part of a person's life. For me, it was this protected time that I could learn a lot academically, but also learn a lot about myself. It provided this space in which we didn't necessarily have to deal with the world, but rather could find out who we were and what we wanted to do and how we were going to start doing it."
Aji said the way Ambrosians live their lives infuses immediacy into what the university teaches.
"We need a community where great conversations not only take place, but are lived out," he said. "The way we live our lives adds urgency to what we teach. And that's also what compels our students to want to learn. To be inspired. That's really a very important difference about St. Ambrose."
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