What I Learned from My “Liberal” Arts Education, by Emilee Rosell

Corrigan’s Editorial Note: Emilee Rosell took her very first (English Composition II) and very last (World Literature) college classes with me as her professor. She’s now graduated with a BA in English. In this reflection essay, she looks back on what she learned in that last class, and throughout college. I cannot say how inspired and encouraged I am by the learning Emilee writes about in this essay. I’m humbled and grateful to have been able to contribute something to the process. May we all grow in the ways she describes. The “Engagements” she cites are her own work completed in World Literature.

Now, at the very end of my college career, I recognize that I have often brought some amount of resistance into courses such as these—the ones that seek most to change and enrich lives. On the surface I wanted to believe that because I was raised in a reserved, conservative Christian home, I was merely resisting “liberal” sentiments. What I was really turning away from, however, was something much more profound. Indeed, this university that I have attended for four long years is a liberal arts university—did I perhaps really believe that I could dig into my studies as deeply as I wanted to without coming away with these “liberal” sentiments? The connotation of the word was almost entirely negative to my freshman mind.

But what I found most threatening about “liberal” ideas was not the fear of being politically misled. Instead, what I resisted so deeply was this transformation of mind and heart. It involves an abolition of the old as well as a beautiful creation of the new, and this was a risk I did not want to take. Indeed, I never expected to find myself as transformed and changed as I am today. And it was sometimes just as agonizing, frightening, and painful as I imagined. But every heartache and every joy that comes with caring more deeply and thinking more profoundly has been worth the cost.

Truly, I have found my experience in this World Literature course to be transforming—appropriately, at the moment when I, about to graduate, hoped I had nothing left to learn from my undergraduate degree. Our experience of life is a mere brushstroke in a masterpiece of art. There are ideas, fears, hopes, sorrows, and joys that we have not convinced of, let alone experienced. But our lack of understanding or perhaps misunderstanding of these things by no means makes them invalid. On the contrary, it makes them all that more valuable in understanding the life that God has set before us, composed of many peoples and of many cultures.

I started this course with the hope of gaining a broader knowledge of literature around the world. What I came away with, however, seems to be so much more. It’s no longer about my understanding of stories everywhere, but instead about the lives, voices, and struggles of other souls. I realized that as I read these stories, “I had connected so deeply that I was truly moved to grief for both Chief Mshlanga and his people” (Engagement 17, on Doris Lessing’s “The Old Chief Mshlanga”), and that I felt “a longing that more people (not just women) would recognize when their values have been violated and refuse to allow themselves to be changed into something that they hate” (Engagement 18, on Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s “Wedding at the Cross” ). Indeed, my understanding of the world has been altered not through my ability to get something out of a reading, but rather through the ability to quietly and humbly connect with other people.

Through documenting the various times and place that I read each text, as the weekly writing assignments in this course required, I discovered that I read most productively in the morning before the day has started and after I have had a coffee. Furthermore, I realized that I read best without music. Surprisingly, I also discovered my deepest readings have been in public places, such as a busy café (Engagement 22) or park (Engagement 15). These discoveries are more valuable to me than anything I could have hoped to achieve from this course! Now, for the rest of my life, I can seek these times and places in order to attain more contemplative and reflective interactions with texts. As an avid reader, this has changed my life for good!

Although it was uncomfortable, I forced myself to “stretch myself” throughout the semester, trying to engage with texts in other manners than I was used to. Despite my resolution at the beginning of the semester to only write “academic” journal responses, given choices on how to engage with course readings, I ended up drawing three pictures during the semester, one journal response, and a fictitious letter. These engagements not only helped me connect in a more creative manner, but the experience has altered the way in which I plan to engage with stories and poetry in the future. Additionally, creating these engagements challenged me to be more mindful of being contemplative. I found that during some engagements, I had “breathed deeply and tried to leave behind my . . . anxieties [and] . . . paused numerous times in the story to glance up at the water and meditate” (Engagement 15). And by the end of the course, I “allowed myself to stay with the ending of both the course and the text before moving on [with] the engagement” (Engagement 24). These are practices that working through these engagements caused me to attempt and benefit from.

Through this course, I recognized that connecting with people is just as much about separations and disconnects as it is about similarities and connections. Indeed, we prayed this every morning in class. But without being consciously aware of looking for these separations and connections, I found them and attended to them. To my surprise, I recognized during a reflection that “my way into [. . .] the text was feeling that I could not truly tap into or connect with it” (Engagement 17), for the narrator also felt this disconnect. Truly, “there are stories and beauty there that we as Americans cannot know or tell” (17), but this does not mean we cannot both recognize and reflect on these separations.

I have not only gained what I wished to from this course, but I have also found that I was moved and transformed in a way that I did not expect. I have become a better reader by learning about myself. I have become a quieter listener by engaging with works from all different cultures. I have become a deeper person for caring about those I do not know, and perhaps will never know. This course in World Literature has given me the inspiration and experience I need to “seek the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33) in a new way!


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