Last year at this time, we spoke of beginnings and routine, of resolve and the quotidian habits required to weave them into a meaningful life. We set our intention to focus on five priorities through which we in the College of Arts & Letters will chart a path to national and international leadership in Arts and Humanities education and scholarship: Critical Diversity in a Digital Age; the Language School; Center for Interdisciplinarity; the Citizen Scholars Program; the Excel Network.
Charting the path is one thing, following it quite another. Yet I am proud of the way we as a College have remained focused on these five core priorities over the past year.
Last year, I promised to return to these priorities regularly to ensure that they are integrated into our daily routines and practices of decision making. Over the course of the year, we have done just that as we celebrated the power of the liberal arts at MSU and continued to weave our signature priorities into the fabric of the University.
As we begin this year, however, a deeper priority demands our attention. It involves establishing structural opportunities to pause, reflect, and plan. Perhaps this can best be understood in terms of the practices associated with creating a blueprint. Normally, I would be allergic to such an architectural metaphor, preferring the more dynamic metaphors of organic life.
However, today in celebrating the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., I came across a short speech he gave on October 26, 1967, to Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, entitled “What is your Life’s Blueprint?” In it he reminds the students that “building the structure of your lives” will require “a good, sound, and solid blueprint.”
That day King emphasized three dimensions of such a blueprint:
- “…a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth, and your own somebodiness.”
- “…the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor.”
- “…a commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice.”
In calling us to consider the blueprint of our lives, King asks us to reflect upon what a meaningful life for each of us might entail. That is, he invites us to be intentional in our practices of planning.
For the past year and a half, we in the College have been talking about how to situate intentional practices of planning at the center of our educational and professional development efforts. Bill Hart-Davidson spoke eloquently about this last fall in reflecting upon the trajectory of his own career.
What King calls “life’s blueprint,” we have been thinking of in terms of charting pathways to intellectual leadership. This formulation is designed to apply as much to faculty as to students, as much to academic as to administrative staff. Indeed, “charting a pathway to intellectual leadership” is at its core a call to live a meaningful life — the very sort of life the liberal arts education we offer in the College of Arts & Letters is designed to empower us all to live.
Thus, the deeper priority to which we are called now is to establish institutional structures that enable all of us — faculty, students, and staff — habitually to pause and reflect so we might establish blueprints for our lives by which we might put our deepest values into practice. For faculty, such an approach will reshape the tenure and promotion process so that it becomes a catalyst for innovative scholarship. For students, it will open opportunities to map a clear pathway from college to meaningful work. And for staff, it will invite us to recognize our administrative work as integral to the broader educational mission of the College of Arts & Letters and Michigan State University.
The real transformation will come only once we’ve established structures of habitual reflection that empower faculty, students, and staff to do our most engaged, interdisciplinary, and imaginative work with an eye toward those principles of beauty, love, and justice of which King spoke so powerfully in Philadelphia more than 50 years ago.