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Humanities, arts and sciences dean shares lessons in the liberal arts

Former English professor Alan Silva is St. Kates greatest liberal arts proponent.
Former English professor Alan Silva is St. Kates greatest liberal arts proponent.
Rebecca Zenefski 10

Alan Silva’s parents never went to college. But that didn’t stop them from teaching their son some valuable life lessons — including the desire for a well-rounded education steeped in the liberal arts.

“My parents would have liked to have gone [to college],” says Silva, assistant vice president and dean of St. Catherine University’s School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences (SHAS). and College for Women. “But their families didn’t have the money to send them, and they had too many demands placed upon them. My mother was expected to work in her older sister’s store, and my father was expected to work on his family’s dairy farm.”

In his keynote address at the 2010–11 Opening Convocation, Silva shared his thoughts about the liberal arts with students, faculty and staff members. His presentation, titled “Lessons in the Liberal Arts,” was apropos. This academic year is the “Year of the Liberal Arts” at St. Kate’s, and Silva has big plans for a launch next spring of the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences.

Open to learning

Silva’s first lesson in the liberal arts — self-examination or introspection — comes from his mother, a Catechism teacher for 58 years. Silva, who grew up in California, would sit in on her Baltimore Catechism classes some Monday afternoons before heading off to school. (Baltimore Catechism was the standard Catholic school text in the United States from 1885 to the late 1960s.)

“I cannot recall many of the specifics of those lessons … but I can remember how my mother taught her 8- and 9-year-old students to think of self, of others, of God,” he says, adding that “conscience” was a word she used often.

“When I would ask her if I could do something,” Silva recalls, “knowing full well that I could not or should not, my mother would nearly always say, ‘Alan, what does your conscience tell you?”

His second lesson — critical inquiry, or asking questions to deepen the learning experience — comes from his father via a junior high school project about professions. Silva and his classmates each had to interview someone in a profession they could see themselves doing. Silva, who dreamed of becoming a meteorologist, found a professor who taught physics, astronomy and meteorology at the community college near his home.

“Mostly, I remember my father talking with me about the interview on the ride over to the professor’s house: ‘What kinds of questions are you going to ask, Alan?’ ‘What do you really want to know?’

“And then I remember similar questions on the ride home: ‘What did you learn tonight, Alan?’ ‘Did anything surprise you in what he said?’”

Silva’s mother is responsible for his third lesson in the liberal arts: the value of work. She never gave in when Silva pined for a gadget or toy he had seen on TV or in catalogs, but this didn’t deter him from badgering her. “It’s only $9.95” or “on sale, it’s only $14.95,” he’d exclaim.

Then, one day, she had had enough: “Alan Joseph. You know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

“I had no idea what she meant,” Silva says. “But I knew she was serious. … Did I even realize the value of work? Did I even know how much parents had to work in order to buy something that only costs $9.95?”

His final lesson — love what you do — comes courtesy of his dad, after Silva’s first day of work at a poultry plant. Silva was 16 years old, and he had the unenviable task of putting frozen turkeys onto a conveyer belt, sweeping up feathers and innards, and washing down the floors at the plant.

Liberal arts: Alan Silva’s four lessons

  • Self-examination or introspection
  • Critical inquiry
  • The value of work
  • Love what you do

“I was tired, sweaty [and] dirty,” he recalls. “I went into the garage and sat there for a few minutes, waiting for the outpouring of sympathy from my parents.”His dad came home, and Silva announced that he wasn’t going back to the poultry plant. His dad’s calm response: “Alan, whatever work you do, you will do a lot of it. Find something you want to do and do it well. Now, get washed up. You mother has dinner.”

“My father was not going to tell me to go back to work or not to go back to work,” Silva explains. “I had to decide what to do based on what my conscience told me, on the questions I had learned to ask about myself and on what I have learned about the value of things.”


Love for the liberal arts

In the fledgling days of St. Catherine, at the dawn of the 20th century, educating women to lead and influence meant immersing them in the ï¬ï¿½ne points of literature, chemistry, philosophy and mathematics. Today, more than a century later, liberal arts remains foundational for every student at St. Kate’s.

A liberal arts education offers so many of what career experts call “transferable skills” — skills a student can carry from one job to another, no matter what the field. It’s also flexible preparation for graduate school.

Students at St. Kate’s don’t just learn about Plato’s philosophy or study women’s place in society; they learn how to analyze more critically and how to make decisions in an ethical manner — and perhaps most important, like Silva in his youth, to think for themselves.

“In this year of the liberal arts, I want to call us back to this critical thinking and ethical decision making,” Silva says.

“More receptions and rallies and rituals will come [as we launch the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences in 2011],” he adds, “but beyond all of this will be the work each of us does every day to live out the lessons of the liberal arts, to expand our learning into new forms of inquiry and self-reflection, to activate our potential, and to be who we truly are. This is a year for all of us to commit ourselves to the liberal arts.
Read about Silva’s thoughts on liberal arts at St. Kate’s in an October 2009 SCAN story,  “Living the Liberal Arts.”


Oct. 5, 2010 by Pauline Oo

See also: Liberal Arts