Most people enter master's programs to further their careers, pursuing course work in specialized fields. But for 35 years, a certain kind of person has enrolled in the Master of Liberal Arts program at Johns Hopkins University--with all the reading assignments and papers that come with it--for one simple payoff: a true love of learning.
On Sunday, Nov. 16, Hopkins celebrated the 35th anniversary of its Master of Liberal Arts program, a 30-credit degree offered through the School of Continuing Studies and designed for adults living and working in an increasingly specialized world. This is a program for people hungry to feed their intellects with knowledge of the great ideas of past and present Western and Eastern civilizations.
The highlight of the celebration was a faculty panel discussion in tribute to the late Ralph Harper, a theologian, philosopher and dedicated teacher in the Hopkins MLA program. MLA faculty discussed Harper's provocative definition of man as "embodied freedom." Afterward, past and present students and MLA faculty mingled at a reception in Mudd Hall.
Since its start, 2,400 students have graduated from the Hopkins MLA program. Some 200 are currently enrolled. They are a diverse group who represent a vast range of ages, backgrounds and professions. Yet, says Nancy Norris, director of the program, most of the students are one of two types: those who have reached a successful professional or personal plateau in life and have begun to feel a little intellectually flat, and those who are at a personal crossroads, in a divorce for example.
"Both are asking the perennial question, 'Is this all there is to life?'" Norris says. "Both are searching for meaning, for a broader understanding of humanity, and believe they can get a closer glimpse to all that by studying the works and impact of history's greatest thinkers."
In 1942, Arnall Patz was just finishing his second year of college at Emory University; he had already put behind him his science and pre-med requirements in order to spend his last two years in college taking electives and humanities courses. But, of course, that was the year the United States entered World War II- -and it would be another 53 years before Patz would ever take a humanities course.
That year he went straight into medical school, attending year-round to graduate in three years; after an internship, he immediately went into service as a doctor. Over the next 50-some years, Patz became a pioneer in ophthalmology--he discovered as a young doctor that the amount of oxygen being administered at the time to premature babies was causing blindness. Success followed his life. He continued his research to fight blindness; had a successful private practice; taught at Hopkins' School of Medicine; became director of Hopkins' Wilmer Eye Institute; won a Lasker Prize; was a husband, a father of four and grandfather to six.
But always, there was one regret: He had never studied Rousseau, never been guided into the thick of Upton Sinclair's world, never sunk his teeth into a meaty ethics course, and he had never read history's great thinkers' views on the meaning of life.
"I always felt that I had missed out on something," explains Patz. "I had wanted a balanced education, but instead mine was almost completely focused in the sciences. I was never able to shake the feeling that it was incomplete."
It wasn't until a few years after he stepped down from directorship of the Wilmer Eye Institute in 1990 that Patz began to cut down on time spent teaching and seeing patients (make no mistake, today Patz is still by no means retired) and felt he finally had the time to "finish" his education.
In 1993, he enrolled in Hopkins' MLA program, and since then, he says, he's never been happier in a classroom, where he devours courses in philosophy, literature, history and the biblical canon.
"My children thought I was a little nutty to start something like this at my age. My grandchildren, though, were delighted for me," he says. "Of course, I was usually twice as old as the other students, but it didn't matter. It was a wonderful group of people. I became good friends with many of them.
"The work is challenging; it is not a breeze, by any means. But every day after work, I found I couldn't wait to get home and get to my course work, or go to the Eisenhower Library and spend a few hours there. It's been a marvelous learning experience. I think the professors that teach in the program are some of the best in the entire university. They've inspired me--there's a palpable difference in the way I prepare a lecture."
Like most of its students, Patz focused his studies in the core of the MLA program, its History of Ideas seminars. Covering a range of subjects in the liberal arts, the seminars examine the impact of historical periods, movements, ideas and individuals. From there, students can specialize if they choose in one of four areas: Beliefs and Civilizations; Literature and the Arts; Contemporary Social and Political Issues; and Science, Technology and Ethics.
Now that he's completing his course work, Patz is busy planning a thesis that looks at ethical issues of clinical trials in medicine. In it, he recalls his own experiences in the early 1950s, when his proposal to study the effects of oxygen on premature infants' eyesight was met with criticism and considered by some to be unethical. Later, he would win worldwide recognition for his findings, as well as the Albert Lasker Award, often called the American Nobel.
"But I've never forgotten the initial criticism I received for the proposal and the feeling of having others label it 'unethical,'" he says. "Ever since then, I've always had a keen sensitivity to ethics. It will be wonderful to dig into that topic in the MLA program.
"Now my only regret is that I didn't start taking these courses when the program first started 35 years ago."