To Jon Meacham, life is at once trying and fantastic. Flawed and perfect.
Meacham, who delivered the fifth lecture in the Edward Shapiro Distinguished Lecture Series, said the value of a liberal arts education is in how it helps us realize and understand that duality.
Comparing a liberal arts education to an E.B. White quote about democracy being the “dent in the high hat” and the “mustard on the hot dog,” Meacham said understanding this inherent contrast unlocks the human ability to learn from mistakes.
“I believe the liberal arts offer a kind of redemption from the sins and omissions of the past,” Meacham said. “It offers us a way of knowing and thinking so that perhaps we can right the wrongs and leave the world a little better place than we found it.”
As a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of former President Andrew Jackson, Meacham knows about the mistakes of the past. As editor of Newsweek magazine, he knows about the realities of the present. And from the issuance of the Magna Carta in 1215 all the way up to the election of Barack Obama in 2008, a common thread weaves it all together — individuals.
“The actions of individual men and women determine our course,” he said. Society doesn’t progress or advance, he noted, without the catalyst of individuals knowing and understanding how those before them have failed.
“The story of a man who was born a man and becomes a monument is more meaningful and instructive than the story of a man who was born a monument,” Meacham said.
Because a liberal arts education is the way individuals learn which mistakes, sins and omissions to correct, Meacham said, it’s important to spread the ability to obtain such opportunities as far and as wide as possible.
“The classical liberal arts education is in danger,” he said. “Families are looking anew at what they’re getting for their money and their time. But this cannot be allowed to become the exclusive providence of the already affluent.
“It’s about living a good life,” he added. “Not the good life.”
Meacham, who wrote the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Lion, spoke on Thursday, Sept. 24, in a full Student Union Auditorium.