Phi Beta Kappa Keynote 2017: Liberal Arts and the Love of Learning: Compass for Everyday Life - Ruth Brombach

Ruth Brombach, Alumnae Liaison and Class of 1960, delivered this keynote address at the annual Phi Beta Kappa Initiation Ceremony on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Every year, the PBK Gamma Chapter at St. Catherine University invites a distinguished member of the PBK community to reflect on the significance of the PBK mantra: "love of learning is the guide of life."

I want to give congratulations to our Phi Beta Kappa initiates, and personal greetings to their families, President Becky Roloff, faculty members, alumnae, administrators and friends present this evening.

A resounding “congratulations” to St. Catherine University on celebrating, this year, eighty years since we were granted a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in 1937, the first Catholic College or University in the country to be so designated. The first initiation of members took place the following year, in 1938.  

How proud each of us is of her own membership: 1957 graduate Jane Habiger Purifoy wrote to the current initiates: “I was so honored to receive the key and have tried to continue the tradition of seeking and acknowledging truth in whatever venue.  Best to all!”

The chance, offered by my colleagues in Phi Beta Kappa, to ponder the reasons I am a completely devoted advocate of the liberal arts and to explore the place of the liberal arts in my everyday life, was a great opportunity. This terrific opportunity allowed me to articulate how the liberal arts form a compass and create a foundation that helps a person to decide direction in all aspects of everyday life.

First, I want to try to be very clear about what I mean by “everyday life.”  By “everyday life” I mean my life outside the St. Catherine space with family and friends, my work in Alumnae Relations within the walls of St. Catherine University and wherever and whenever I am in contact with graduates, and, then, “everyday life” includes the way I approach, plan my  journey and decide my route through the world in general.

I want to be clear about one other term we commonly use: Liberal arts is the historically correct term that includes the arts, humanities and sciences; generally, when we say liberal arts, we mean the range of liberal arts and science subjects; however, occasionally it just feels right to me to say “liberal arts and sciences,” and, in those instances, I use the wider term.  More than once in alumnae work I have had someone question the inclusion of a chemistry or mathematics major in a discussion of the liberal arts.  It is helpful to be clear that all sciences and mathematics are part of the liberal arts category.

Where do the liberal arts fit in this frame of what I do every hour of every day, as I make my journey through each week, taking turns and going one way and, then, another, making my ongoing choices of the best directions?  Reflecting further on what I do all day, every day – the main business of my life, I decided is really making decisions.

As a small person, I might have had to decide whether to go looking for someone with whom to play or to turn toward home to complete some chores or studies. Over the years of work, family and outside activities, those decisions about which way to turn became increasingly complex with much greater consequences about where the road would lead. In alumnae work I have been immersed in everyday decisions throughout the years, and, then, in time, a major challenge arrived:

How would I walk the high road and offer the Alumnae Association guidance and leadership as it transitioned from an independent organization to an important department of St. Catherine University?

What is best for St. Catherine University?

What is best for alumnae?

What is the best destination for the journey of the hundreds of alumnae volunteers who have nudged, pushed and pulled forward this organization and the relationships it fostered over the years? 

Not easy decisions but keeping the common good of both alumnae and the University in front of us – not impossible decisions- because I have the foundation, the compass created both through my education and my knowledge of ways to learn; both help me decide where to turn.

How do the liberal arts and sciences play in these deliberations and discussions?  For more than 50 years I have been enormously fortunate to be involved in reading and discussing 10 to 12 books, fiction and nonfiction, each year, first with English professor Catherine Lupori, more recently with Professor Cecilia Konchar Farr and our reading friends Mary Jo Richardson and Judie Flahavan.  We have read about new thoughts, new movements, new ways of doing things, different ways of looking at things.  We have agreed, disagreed and revised our positions and directions –all giving experience and base to our ways of making decisions.

We have absorbed information directly related to decisions we are making.  We have watched characters in fiction struggle with similar decisions, decide in an opposite direction and make a huge mistake.  What a great way to learn! What a way to build a sense of direction, my own GPS.

Whatever the topics, each day is filled with decisions so – how do we build for ourselves and for our students the best and strongest foundation for making those decisions? 

Reading history, absorbing the geography of the world, asking why, why and why? Why do one group of people do things this way? And those who live in other countries do it another way? Why do one group worship trees and another worship certain animals? Or the sun and the moon and the stars?

It always comes back to why? And how do we find the answers? We find them through digging, hunting, searching; we find them wherever we choose to do our learning. A person might choose computer, books, online resources, video – or the narrative of someone teaching?

And, as many questions as one clears up on any one day, I suggest that we open an equal number of new questions and possible new roads to follow and new directions to go; and so the process goes on – and all of the answers pour into and influence the decisions we make, big and small.

Some questions might be: Where to go to school? For whom to vote? What to cook for dinner? And bigger issues: What kind of work to do? Do I want to be an attorney? How about medicine? Should I be a professor? To marry or not ? And, if yes – who to marry?

In my own case, I was fortunate to find a great person to marry, with history and English undergraduate majors, a strong compass created through his belief in the value of the liberal arts and the ability of the individual person to create a path forward by imagining destinations and creating the roads to achieve them.

And, then, for us, the little ones appeared and, with additional responsibilities came the need to guide each young one in a right direction – when we didn’t even know what direction was correct. Watching, learning the personality of each, was part of the process.

I will tell you a quick story that you might not believe but it is absolutely true! 

I remember looking at the tiny face of our first child wrapped in blankets and directed at me in either complete rebellion or serious indigestion and whispering to the two-hour-old child: “You will major in a liberal arts subject, whatever you want, whatever subject you love, and then frost the bachelor’s work with a post-baccalaureate degree to prepare yourself for some life’s work.”

And, apparently, the indigestion went away because child three gained a bachelor’s degree with a major in psychology from St. Catherine’s and earned a master’s degree in counseling; child two loved history and used his subsequent MBA to work in the world of finance; it was child one, the one to whom I first whispered about the liberal arts in his early hours, whose response jolted me most: He duly reported that he was declaring a major.

I responded, “Wonderful!  What is the major?”

Our oldest, child one, said: “Microbiology.” And, even after all of my talking about and promoting the liberal arts, I stared at the phone and actually said: “What in heaven’s name are you going to do with that?”  But, because it’s a liberal arts major, I gulped again and said, “Great!”  - knowing it would fit beautifully into professional fields; now, with his liberal arts base and graduate studies he is well prepared to make the tough decisions he needs to make, all day every day.

Thus, we come back full circle to the essential work of all our lives: making the day-in and day-out decisions; and what best prepares us for the turns and bumpy patches in this life of decision-making? The core ingredient is the study of liberal arts and science subjects: grappling with the thoughts of philosophers over the ages; walking with theologians who try to reconcile the lives and needs of women and the post-Vatican II work of the Catholic Church; considering the volumes of new work by environmentalists, some gentle and cajoling and some angry and impatient, but all worthy of our time and thought – because continual learning and continual exposure to new thoughts, new research, and additional insights give us the background, the foundation, and the basis for making decisions, knowing which direction to turn, the essential and common ingredient in the lives and professions of us all.

Many more times than one, in working with alumnae, I have come up against a dead end, a road to nowhere, and I have had to mentally retreat, regroup, revise my direction of discussion to find a common base, a common beginning point before attempting to move on for the benefit of St. Catherine.  I really believe my background, my reading and most of all, my experience based in liberal arts gives me the capacity and strength to do this.

There is one more challenge to a liberal arts major: You have all heard it. It is the challenge that a liberal arts major is an impractical major. I do so love to consider this idea!

We can actually measure the value of learning scientific methods and the newest discoveries in science; understanding the psychology of how people think is enormously helpful in all areas; if we study enough history we shouldn’t make all the same mistakes over and over, should we?  Languages and literature open up entire cultures to us – we can even understand why some people don’t get along very well with others.

Is that practical learning? It is the most practical. It is the learning that opens our eyes, opens our minds, enables us to see and understand others and enables us to live in increasingly cramped quarters on this planet.

It is the learning that shows us the right direction – that becomes our compass!