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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 3, 2003 | Vol. 33 No. 10
Beethoven to Bio-Ethics

Melissa Hilbish, associate chair, and Kyle McCarter, chair, of the Master of Liberal Arts program, photographed in Gilman Hall's Hutzler Reading Room.

MLA program celebrates four decades of a unique learning opportunity

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Janet Freedman said she wanted to pursue a master's degree right after graduating from college, but life, as it does, sort of got in the way. Freedman married and had two children, and that notion of an advanced degree sat on a shelf.

Then it came time for the children to go away to college. "I said to my son, daughter and my husband, 'It's my turn now,'" she said.

In 1995, Freedman enrolled in Johns Hopkins' Master of Liberal Arts program, one of the first such programs of its ilk, which last year turned the ripe old age of 40.

"I chose the program because there were such a wide variety of classes and so many different paths I could explore at that point in my life," she said. "I had looked at doing other [educational programs] that seemed more practical, but the courses here were so interesting, so rich, so diverse, that I decided to pursue a Hopkins MLA."

Freedman said she's glad she did. Last year, her first book was published; Kent Island: The Land That Once Was Eden (Maryland Historical Society, November 2002) is a work of nonfiction that began life as Freedman's MLA master's thesis.

"This program gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. It opened up a lot of doors and windows that I hadn't opened for myself," Freedman said. "It was a very rich educational experience that certainly paid dividends in my case."

On Sunday, Nov. 9, the MLA program will host a belated birthday gathering for itself with "The Best of the MLA: Celebrating 40 Years." The event will feature the Ralph Harper Lecture, presented by P.M. Forni, a professor of Italian literature and co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project. Forni's keynote address is titled "Between Beauty and Goodness." The event will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. in the Glass Pavilion in Levering Hall, Homewood campus.

Forni's lecture will be followed by an open conversation on the liberal arts with a panel of JHU scholars that includes new MLA program chair Kyle McCarter, the William Foxwell Albright Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies; Arnall Patz, director emeritus of the Wilmer Eye Institute and a program alumnus; Mark Blyth, an associate professor of political science who teaches in the program; Nancy Norris, former MLA director and a lecturer in the Krieger School's Advanced Academic Programs; and Diane Bockrath, a current MLA student and an administrative assistant in Homewood's Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

Established in 1962, the Johns Hopkins Master of Liberal Arts program is an interdisciplinary one that provides students with an opportunity "to explore a world of knowledge." For its first 37 years, the program was part of what is now the School of Professional Studies in Business and Education. In 1999, the MLA moved to the School of Arts and Sciences' Advanced Academic Programs.

"The program provides an opportunity for students to focus their curriculum on their own needs and priorities and serves as a resource for enrichment and continued personal growth," said McCarter, who became chair in January.

Courses are taught each term by distinguished Hopkins faculty from several divisions, as well as by leading experts from cultural, artistic, government and academic institutions in the region, including the Walters Art Musuem, the State Department and the Maryland State Archives.

MLA students enroll in small, interactive classes, picked from a range of offerings in world cultures, literature, philosophy, science, technology, medicine and society. A sample of courses includes ones on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Beethoven, the American West, Art of the Middle Ages, William Faulkner, Mapping Maryland and Bio-ethical Issues in Genetic Research.

To earn a degree, students must complete nine courses with a one-semester thesis course, or eight courses with a two-semester capstone experience. Classes are held in the evening and on Saturdays at the Homewood campus, the university's Bernstein and Offit Building in Washington, D.C., and a variety of cultural institutions in Baltimore. Class size typically falls in the 12 to 15 range, with a maximum of 18 students. [Johns Hopkins employees are eligible for tuition remission.]

Melissa Hilbish, associate chair of the program and a senior lecturer, said that one of the keys to the program's success is the caliber of faculty it attracts.

Hilbish said that what keeps the faculty coming back to teach is the quality, dedication and diversity of the students attracted to the curriculum. Former and current MLA students include teachers, doctors, soldiers, business executives, lawyers, bartenders, a vineyard owner and even a former state senator and a U.S. Treasury secretary.

"These are all people who want to be here and very much want to learn," she said. "They are a very energetic, high-level group of students from a wide range of academic and professional backgrounds. What they bring to each course is a dynamic exchange of ideas and thoughts through which both faculty and students benefit."

Daniel Weiss, the James B. Knapp Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, teaches in the program and previously served on its advisory board. Weiss, who will provide the opening address at the Nov. 9 event, calls the program "a gem within the university" that resonates to the core of the university's mission to serve the community and provide opportunities for liberal learning.

"This program satiates what is clearly a great thirst and hunger to have access to this kind of learning," Weiss said. "I feel we do an excellent job of using our own faculty and providing unique opportunities to learn all sorts of subjects."

Hilbish said the essence of a liberal arts education is to open up ways of thinking and to allow students to look outside themselves and go off in new directions.

"For many students, it is a journey. Some of our graduates find new careers based upon what they've discovered through the program; some tell us they do their current jobs better because of it; others just see the world in a new light," she said. "It's all about personal enrichment."

The program currently has more than 2,000 alumni, who Hilbish said are a very dedicated group. Janet Freedman currently co-chairs the program's 10-member alumni committee, who along with the advisory board help map out the program's curriculum and direction.

Hilbish said the program has remained relatively unchanged throughout its history. Future plans include a broadening of what is already a very ample curriculum, but Hilbish said that in the MLA's case there is no reason to reinvent the wheel.

"We do what we do, and we do it well," she said. "To the notion of reinventing ourselves, we see no point. What we have here is a very successful formula that year after year resonates with the public and draws people from all walks of life."

To attend the Nov. 9 event, contact or call 410-516-4578. For more information on the MLA program, go to


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