Liberal arts for the 21st century

The 21st Century Liberal Arts Conference will take place Oct. 15.

The College of Liberal Arts wants to take some time to talk about our nation’s biggest issues.

“I think that’s something that’s really lacking in our world today,” said Heather Thakar, an assistant professor of anthropology. “We’re so busy—when do we stop and think? We need to stop, think and reflect on what we know, what we’ve learned and how we can apply it.”

Thakar is one of many Temple professors who will participate in this reflection Oct. 15 for the first “21st Century Challenges Demand 21st Century Liberal Arts” conference. From 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., two panels for each issue of the American Dream, terrorism, water and healthcare will take place throughout the Student Center, with special guest respondents for each.

While many wouldn’t associate issues like terrorism with liberal arts, the conference is set to show how it can start meaningful conversations about these worldly topics.

“A lot of people think that the liberal arts is old and outdated but with this event, we’re kind of showing that the liberal arts has something to say to these really prominent, really serious contemporary issues,” said Amy Defibaugh, an instructor in the religion department and conference coordinator.

The panelists and moderators, all Temple faculty members, come from a wide variety of disciplines and offer a different perspective on each issue.

Alicia Cunningham-Bryant, assistant professor in the Intellectual Heritage department and moderator of the health care panel, said it’s a chance for students to see their professors in action and learn there’s not one approach to a solution.

“I’d love for students to come away with the idea that interdisciplinary inquiry is really exciting, that we can deal with so many big, incredibly tough and nuanced issues in profound ways when we think outside the boxes we tend to put ourselves in,” Cunningham-Bryant said.

An underlying theme of the conference is also to demonstrate the value of liberal arts in society today with respondents like Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center who holds a Ph.D. in military history, taking part in a lunch session panel moderated by Ruth Ost, director of the Honors Program.

“I don’t think there are that many forums for students to really see outside of the classroom what this work is like, how we think about the big questions that are challenging us today,” said Hilary Lowe, assistant professor of history and moderator of the American Dream panel. “None of us would find value in any kind of work we do if we don’t have the ability to dig through and make it meaningful.”

If anything, the professors in the panels aim to show gen-ed students how their time and dedication to supposedly “esoteric” research can contribute to humanity as a whole, Thakar said.

Thakar, who will be moderating the terrorism panel, said as an archaeologist she doesn’t expect her students to get into archaeology—but the critical thinking skills and knowledge gained have potential to impact their futures.

“We are in essence demonstrating our ability to be citizens of the modern world,” Thakar said. “There shouldn’t be an undergraduate going through gen-ed or any class with a liberal arts professor that isn’t thinking about how what they learn can connect to the lives that they are living or their children will be living.”

Even for students who aren’t majoring in liberal arts, the professors encourage and recommend students to register for the event as seats are filling up fast. Defibaugh said it’s a necessary time for students and faculty to get involved in bigger conversations.

“These are really complex issues and they deserve and need complex and thought-out, engaged solutions,” she said. “And this is how we kind of get to it, by holding these sorts of conversations.”

Albert Hong can be reached at

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