The Unfinished Business of a Liberal Education

The Unfinished Business of a Liberal Education

When in 1924, George Herbert Lee Mallory embarked on the first attempt to climb Mount Everest, he was asked why he was determined to brave the ascent. His reply became the three most famous words in mountaineering.

“Because it’s there.”

The same desire for achievement burns in a special few of the people around us and is present in one Liberal Studies graduate’s endless search for knowledge.

Unexplored Territory

When Justin Wollenberg completed his undergraduate degree in 2004, he faced several promising professional prospects. Looking ahead, however, he couldn’t shake the nagging feeling there was something left for him to do.

“I’d read none of the so-called ‘Great Books’ and I’d not mulled over timeless questions,” he said.

His unexplored passion for the humanities had left him rattled, and he just wasn’t satisfied.

Wollenberg was drawn to the idea of pursuing a second bachelor’s degree where he could immerse himself in the great works. His sister, however, made it clear in no uncertain terms that a graduate degree would be the better idea for her brother.

“I probably would not have considered this program if not for her,” he said. “It pays to have an accomplished little sister.”

He applied for admission to the CLS graduate program in 2007, determined to settle the unfinished business of pursuing a liberal arts education. He yearned for a place where his passions could flourish and he could pursue his quest for knowledge about mankind.

“In the beginning, I couldn’t adequately articulate that I aimed to finish the business of a liberal arts education,” he reflected. “It just happened. I was blindsided by the power of accidentally coming around to the humanities.”

The Impact of One Professor’s Guidance

Wollenberg felt drawn to widely varied interests that fit under the humanities umbrella.

“When I applied to CLS, I was interested in war crimes, history and literature,” he said. “I submitted that on the application, and throughout the degree, I took time to focus on each individually. I didn’t have a thesis topic in mind when I did the course work. I studied what I liked, and it all eventually helped support my writing a thesis on a war crime in the English Civil War.”

This thesis came together under the close guidance of one influential professor, Dr. James Hart. The interdisciplinary nature of CLS degree programs meant Wollenberg would work with several leading professors from the OU campus while earning his degree. Hart, a professor who offers a variety of courses in English, Irish, Scottish and European history, was one such professor.

Wollenberg’s work with Hart started in a most unlikely place: a Starbucks coffee shop.

In a directed reading course led by Hart, Wollenberg began to read the great literature he found so lacking in his undergraduate studies. The two would later meet at a local Starbucks to discuss the books for hours at a time. Over the next year, Hart regularly set aside time to meet with Wollenberg and discuss the books and his responses to them.

“When the directed readings course was complete, Dr. Hart agreed to chair my thesis committee. Again, we met at length and began to kick around ideas for the thesis. He suggested that I write about the Putney Debates and, with youthful enthusiasm, I quickly proposed some vague topic. He sagely responded that I read more ‘until something strikes your fancy.’ And I did.”

A Rich Inner Life

Wollenberg describes his time with Hart as the best possible conclusion to the transformative experience that was his master’s degree.

“His attention to my education was unprecedented,” Wollenberg said. “He taught me how to be a better reader. He taught me how to write better. He showed me how to do original research.

He taught me how to discover ideas and arguments in books. He showed me how to be an effective encourager. The years with Hart were the most fruitful and inspirational of all those I spent as a student in higher education.”

Wollenberg finished his thesis and considers his time at the college to be one of the most influential experiences of his life.

“‘The purpose of [a liberal education] is to cultivate an inner life rich enough to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’ That’s a paraphrased quotation and it is one of my favorites,” he said. “It reminds me of the immeasurable value of my degree from CLS. It motivates me to keep learning. That cultivation is an ongoing process. Of course, there are tangible and intangible ways my degree from CLS will benefit me professionally. But the rich inner life is the benefit I’m looking forward to most.”

That is not to say his curiosity of the world is satisfied or his work as a lifelong learner is finished, however.

“Until I’ve read every book in the library and can identify every tree, bird and bug in the forest, I’m busy.”

Well said.

Note: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017.

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Mary Hopper

Mary Hopper specializes in digital and content marketing at PACS. She is the project manager for the marketing department's team of writers, manages the college's digital advertising, and serves as editor and contributor for the PACS blog and social media efforts.