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Calling to Question:

150 Years of Liberal Arts Education at the University of Minnesota
August 6, 2019

The history of the College of Liberal Arts is now 150 years old, and three floors below ground on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank campus, over 200 boxes contain that history. These boxes represent only a fraction of what’s held by University Archives, and it’s easy to feel awed by the sheer scale of these repositories. It’s also easy to be daunted, even defeated, by their contents.

Box after box, folder after folder, bureaucracy is a common feature of the College's records. That is the nature of an archive, especially one at a large institution like the University of Minnesota. Another is that the archive most often immortalizes the voices of those with positional power at the U and elsewhere.

Another challenge to telling this history is simply its vastness: over 150 years, countless students, faculty, and staff—each with their own story—have passed through CLA. Departments have been created and have changed, merged, or disappeared. Capturing all the stories of a century and a half is an impossible task.

It’s hard to know where to look, or for that matter, what to look for. By leveraging the coded language in memos, meeting minutes, and budgets, the personal stories that comprise the College of Liberal Arts can be unveiled. Drawing attention to bureaucracy in the archive can illuminate its oppression of individuals and groups — and how it works to erase counternarratives in the archive.

Calling to Question brings forth these counternarratives in the archive to highlight stories from CLA that demonstrate how questioning has been used to challenge the status quo and create a more equitable learning environment. Other stories feature a different questioning—questioning the value and usefulness of liberal arts and even of academic freedom, the very foundation of a liberal education.

Does liberal education belong to the academy?

Ask the female Ojibwe and Dakota language teachers who were not considered faculty but held knowledge and wisdom for their culture far beyond the understanding of anyone at the University in 1969.

Can comedy be a tool for education?

Ask the sophomores in 1876 and 1877 who were expelled for satirizing the juniors and University faculty, or the players of a 2006 production of The Pope and the Witch, which discussed difficult topics of addiction, AIDS, and abortion—despite protests from Catholics.

How has racism been embedded throughout the College of Liberal Arts over time?

Ask the Afro-American Action Committee in 1969 or the Latin Liberation front in 1971, which lobbied for the African American Studies and Chicano Studies departments, respectively. Ask the Black students in 1939 who protested a racist production of the play Porgy or Forrest Wiggins, the first full-time African American professor who was fired with unjust cause.

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