Dean’s Notes: Robbin Crabtree – The Vitality of Liberal Arts

Dean’s Notes is a periodic feature of LMU This Week where the university’s academic leaders share their perspectives with the community. The deans of LMU’s seven schools and colleges will provide updates on priorities, policies, events, challenges, and areas of interest.

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Robbin Crabtree, Dean of LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts

Robbin Crabtree, dean of LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, writes:

From my office window I can point to at least a half dozen locations where LMU students have made a difference in the city of Los Angeles.

Our students have assisted clients at the Venice Family Clinic; comforted and fed people at Sacred Heart Church in Hollywood; studied and helped improve a skid row services agency; and volunteered at numerous nonprofit organizations. The essence of a liberal arts education – and the impact of LMU as an institution – can be witnessed from the Pacific Ocean on my left to downtown Los Angeles, and even further, on my right.

Most readers of LMU This Week know they can expect a robust defense of a liberal arts education from me – and I don’t often disappoint. The centrality of liberal arts to the Jesuit tradition of educating the whole person, and instilling the discipline and values that each student can use to thrive, are my go-to talking points. The mission-infused academics, grounded in the humanities and based on the principles of a Jesuit education, allows me to tap into the ineffable language of beauty and truth and to stoke the universal longing for the fullest human flourishing.

What I’m going to do here is explore some of the applications of the liberal arts and how the depth and breadth of the liberal arts is equally vital to the well-being of individuals and of society. I’ll use the Bellarmine Forum as my vehicle for this tour.

The Bellarmine Forum is our annual showcase of interconnected events and BCLA class offerings that give life to each year’s theme. The 2019 forum, “Los Angeles: A Place for the Future,” studies the rapidly changing social, economic, political, and environmental contexts that are forging the region’s future. LMU’s teacher-scholar model is on vivid display in these programs, as faculty blend their courses, research passions, public programming, and engagement of students.

Understanding social, intellectual, and historical forces is a key component of a liberal arts education. “On Native Lands: Indigenous Histories, Environmental Justice, and Contemporary Challenges,” on Sept. 17, 2019, examined these issues, bringing that knowledge to bear on our present circumstances. Imagined through collaboration among the departments of History, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Urban and Environmental Studies, the Center for Urban Resilience, and the University Honors Program, the panel highlighted the histories of indigenous people and their ancestral lands in the Los Angeles area, particularly the Gabrielino/Tongva people in the Playa Vista region. Among their key points, the speakers cautioned us not to memorialize indigenous people as “of the past,” since indigenous people and communities are still present in today’s world, on the bluff – the very ground we stand on – as well as across the Southland and beyond. 

Understanding our present time and place is also an important element of a liberal arts education. If you were lucky enough to attend “Once Were Neighbors: Fragility of Memory and Community” on Oct. 8, 2019, you would have caught a dynamic panel of our ethnic studies scholars and other BCLA faculty as they dissected the cultural intersections, transformations, upheavals, and revivals that have shaped Los Angeles as a multicultural and multiethnic setting. This unique event captured the forceful energy that informs L.A.’s neighborhoods and explicated some of the issues, such as gentrification due to sports and entertainment developments, that threaten to disrupt some of our underserved communities. We also offered a panel of LMU faculty members and distinguished experts to talk about “New Urbanism in Silicon Beach/Metropolitan L.A.,” that looked at the changing dynamics of land use and economic development in relation to the New Urbanism movement.

Public engagement is a hallmark of the liberal arts. Some of our social science departments, including Political Science, Economics, Urban Studies, Environmental Studies, along with our newest major program in Journalism, all examine that dimension of our lives. On Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti will be in conversation with Fernando Guerra, professor of political science and Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies, as well as founding director of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles. This promises to be an enlightening discussion of the challenges and potential the city faces. It’s such an important moment to consider our complex human diversity as it intersects with urban environments, news and media, voting rights, political pluralism, and the fate of our democratic institutions. I hope you will be able to join me at that forum.

There has never been a better time to study the liberal arts. CEOs and tech leaders consistently acknowledge and promote the kind of knowledge and skills cultivated by the liberal arts, arguing persuasively for the critical role of a broad education for future success. The intellectual abilities that are fostered in the humanities and social sciences are also prized characteristics in the workforce. As a values-driven institution, LMU is sending out graduates across all academic programs who take their liberal arts and sciences Core with them to their jobs. Enduring courses in areas such as history, philosophy, and theology promote habits of careful writing and deep thinking, support their moral and ethical reasoning, and ensure students see all things in a broader context. Remember: William H. Hannon, namesake of our beautiful library and much else on campus, earned his degree in philosophy and then went on to real estate, business, and philanthropic success.

The world needs citizens trained this way: who are able to harness the power of diverse experiences and perspectives, who are deeply rigorous in their methods, and who are capable of moral action and lifelong learning. That is the value of a liberal arts education. I hope I didn’t disappoint.