Liberal Arts at Lawrenceville

Editorial  /  by William Madonia '17  /  April 08, 2017

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” personifies itself into a distant warmth. Sitting in the audience, side-by-side with my classmates, I felt as if I already knew its story, its notes, and its pulse—but only from afar, like white space in pencil drawings or a new roommate on the first day. I had been to the opera as a child, but seeing “La Traviata” was the first time I had attempted to interpret the medium. It was safe to say that in the face of such expression and beauty, I knew absolutely nothing about how to approach it.

So, I turned to one of the trip’s advisors, Director of Music Robert Palmer, and unleashed a barrage of questions. Mr. Palmer kindly provided me with the opera’s historical context and subsequently walked me through a deconstructionist analysis, explaining to me Verdi’s use of symbolism, and the set design history of Metropolitan Opera.

I used the bus ride back to Lawrenceville as a time to revisit what I had learned. Soon, however, academic digestion turned into abstract reflection, and I realized that had it not been for the School’s Reach Out to the Arts program, in collaboration with alumnus Maurice Haukim ’66, these experiences simply wouldn’t have been possible. Imbued with a sense of gratitude, I began to wonder: How, specifically, does Lawrenceville utilize its resources to provide a superlative humanities education?

To answer this question, I began with what I knew for certain: The liberal arts is the cornerstone of a Lawrenceville education. From when Frederick Law Olmsted designed the Circle in the late 19th century to the revision of the School’s mission statement today, “House and Harkness” have stood at the epicenter of Lawrenceville life. These institutions emphasize the importance of engagement, a teaching philosophy in stark contrast with the academic acquiescence I found at the public high school I used to attend. Almost every student across America has access to classic literature or a primary source document, but it’s the Harkness table, the consultation periods, and the cordial debates in Irwin that give the material weight, the ability to impact a student’s life. At Lawrenceville, a student’s education is centered around the experience -- of both the learning itself and the living to come.

With contemporary academic culture dominated by STEM, this concept draws its pertinence from the belief that experiential learning has the power to turn abstract notions into pertinent applications. In an attempt to give Lawrenceville humanities a more relevant twist, the administration has begun to advertise, expand, and instill in the student body an appreciation for its experiential learning opportunities. During Fall Term, for example, Dr. David Orr was a guest speaker at School Meeting, addressing issues of climate change in the context of personal growth. Dr. Orr used a story of a hiking trip through Gettysburg with his son—visiting the monuments, touching the soil where soldiers had passed—to convey the capacity of experience-based learning.

In his commencement speech, Head Master Steven Murray spoke about his teenage experience restoring a fire truck over a summer. He told a story of moral maturation deeply intertwined with learning a trade, with navigating experience. The relationship between the two seemingly disparate aspects of personal growth was best articulated by the Ancient Greeks in their concept of “paideia,” the assertion that the goal of education is not mastery of one’s subject, but of one’s self. Dr. Orr, in a 1990 address to Arkansas College entitled “What is Education For,” summed it up pretty well: “The way a student learns,”he said, “is as important as the content of any particular course.”

So, I encourage you—the next time Reach Out to the Arts offers a field trip, the next time you see a blank canvas in Gruss, or the next time you see a clearing in our forest, waiting to be sculpted into a trail—take the opportunity to transform your Lawrenceville experience into a truly encompassing education.