“The saucer or the pencil: Considering all things”
I’m not sure that when you’re sitting in a freshman orientation class in college with your eyes, and sometimes your mouth, wide open, a belief can be formed. But in the Fall of 1960, I clearly remember a prof from Notre Dame’s Great Books program explaining to us that a liberal arts education was a way of experiencing life widely versus narrowly. “Do you want to be a pencil or a saucer?” he asked. I knew right then I wanted to be a saucer.
As I look back 40 plus years, my belief has really been about considering all things – not just intellectually, but experientially as well. A book, which Emily Dickinson’s described as a “Frigate” that takes us lands away, also can, especially when we are young, inspire us to want to do things as well. Many things.
My life has followed the ideal of the saucer. I’ve had the freedom to pursue many things. I sail Lake Michigan in all seasons, help my son grow blueberries in Michigan. I’ve had a musical about bureaucrats produced and a line of clothing for birdwatchers marketed. I’ve been a soldier in war, an author of business books on communicating, a leader and advocate for saving a famous landmark in my town of Evanston, Illinois and am learning how to grow old with grace from my 97-year old mother.
I’ve rounded up horses in Wyoming at dawn and paddled the Boundary Waters, taught courses in environment and telecommunications to grad students and worked hard to learn the most exquisite dance two mortals can share, the tango.
Belief in experiencing many things has given me a disdain for just watching as others do. I want to hit the bat, swing the club, smash the tennis ball, put on the pads.
Actually, I’ve never wanted to necessarily be the best at what I do, but I’ve wanted to understand how it feels to be the best. For example, I call my Arts and Crafts furniture projects, “E’tudes,” studies, and I usually only do a project one time.
I encouraged my daughter and two sons to follow this path and they have. At a minimum, we all are at least intellectually on the same page which does count for something at the dinner table as well as in life.
Sometimes I see among my friends those who have chosen the pencil approach to life – in the law or medicine or science or technology or business. And I realize that many times that path has been more financially rewarding that the liberal course I pursued. On the other hand, I’ve mortised a piece of oak, rode Big Red out of the stable at dawn, danced in the close embrace, hung out with the sharp-eyed legends of birding, put words in a singer’s song, helped a CEO speak more honestly, and carried a wounded child in my arms.
I believe a liberal education, the joy of considering all things, has been more richly rewarding than I could have ever imagined as a college freshman. If nothing else it has given me an understanding of what it means to have had a life fully lived.
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