by Blake Mayes 14C
Sartre says that we’re all in situation. We inherit certain worlds that afford us certain choices and it’s up to us, as Nietzsche said, “to make of [our] life a work of art.” We can’t change the family that we’re born into, the city we grow up around, or the body we’re bound to. What we can change is our vision of these things and the ways in which we live out our lives. This is our creative project. Don’t kid yourself. This project is nearly impossible. It’s arguably Sisyphean. The good life is not the average life. One must cultivate certain capacities, ways of seeing, and narrative identities in order to live meaningfully in a mass market society. The liberal arts teach one how to be an individual in a depersonalizing world, giving a person the capacity to make a choice, to be a “somebody somewhere” instead of a “nobody anywhere.”
Today, much of America looks like much of America. Despite the diversity of the land, the same strip malls, fast-food chains, and “little pink houses” are all just a few miles off of the country’s interstate highways. One could be dropped into suburban Chicago, Atlanta, or Dallas and not be able to differentiate the places. For the author Walker Percy, this was a cause for the “malaise”. It robbed the protagonist in his novel The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling, of an identity and of a meaningful way of engaging his changing Louisiana landscape. Binx’s search for a sense of place in postwar America is timeless. In a world where so many live comme il faut, our understanding of where we are is the beginning of our search for our true selves. To live meaningfully, one must understand where one has come from and where one is going.
For me, reading James Agee’s A Death in the Family allows me to see my hometown of Knoxville as if for the first time. I cannot walk down Gay Street again without thinking of Jay and his son stopping in at a local saloon. Yes, I already had memories there, and yes, it already held some value for me. But it is only when one comes to realize that one’s story is part of a larger narrative that one can feel a sense of belonging. A liberal education enables us to hear the voices of the ghosts we live alongside. They whisper to us as we seek to understand their diets through anthropology, their land through geology, their struggles through history, and their loves through literature. This perspective begs us to untie our sandals, for we are on holy ground.
Today, not many people want to be saints when they grow up. In fact, people never really ask themselves who they want to be or what they want to do. The liberal arts college is one of the rare institutions still in place for a person to ask those questions. The four years that a person spends at one of these places are often four of the most disorienting, humorous, and cherished years of one’s life. Because for four years, the student gets to surround himself or herself with people who are asking the same questions, making the same mistakes, and figuring out what it means to be human. The student realizes that the “unexamined life is not worth living” and must then embark on the dangerous task of examining one’s life. Ideally, this would give one the courage to be one’s self, love one’s God with all one’s heart, and love one’s neighbor as one’s self. But the student of the liberal arts realizes that these are really the quests of a lifetime, not just four years, and when someone takes that first step off the commencement stage, he or she is finally ready to begin the odyssey.