The Graham School recognized its latest MLA graduates at Spring 2023 Diploma Ceremony.
One of Paul Davé’s fondest memories of graduate school took place one weekend during a class on the Ramayana with Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor Emerita of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago.
“We had spent the entirety of the quarter on this work that had been translated by a student of Wendy’s,” he recalls. “Wendy was a luminary in the field—she spent her whole career in it—and the class was a conversation between her and us. It was fantastic. It lasted three hours, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon.”
As a graduate of the Master of Liberal Arts program (MLA) at the Graham School for Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies, Davé—a finance executive—had many opportunities to take small classes with celebrated scholars. “I loved having senior faculty share their interpretations of their life’s work,” he says.
Faculty-led classes are a hallmark of the MLA. In fact, says MLA Program Director Tim Murphy, the program only hires tenured UChicago faculty. These appointments, he explains, stem both from the importance of the Graham School’s place within the University of Chicago and the enthusiasm of the faculty themselves.
“Every year, we have more faculty who want to teach in the MLA program than there are spots,” Murphy says. “The word is out that there’s something special going on in MLA classrooms.”
Davé shares the sentiment. “Compared to my undergrad classes, the richness of the MLA experience was so much more. I would attend evening classes after a full day of work and get out around 9:15pm. As I drove home, I had more energy than at any other point in the day—more than I had going in.”
His energy stemmed in large part from the dynamic nature of the MLA classroom, one brought about by the range of its students.
“Journalists, lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, fundraisers—we all come to our classes from a different approach, and we help each other,” says MLA student and civic leader Jennifer Lind of her cohort. “It’s much more interesting to look at a question when two people disagree.”
To MLA student Dave Mark, the CEO of a biotech firm, this plurality of views was among his favorite aspects of the program. “When you’re in a corporate environment, you get insulated from things, but the community of people in the MLA program is incredibly diverse: different ages, different backgrounds, and so many life experiences,” he says. “The professors are wonderful, and I love the topics that we’ve covered, but it’s the students that make it really special. I went into classes feeling a certain way about something, then had my opinion shaped just by hearing other people’s perspectives.”
Learning How to Think
In addition to the many perspectives of its students, the MLA courses themselves span a range of topics and disciplines.
“I liked the approach of the MLA program because of the interdisciplinary nature of it,” says Lind. “You have to take hard science as well as liberal arts classes, and I wanted to study and research topics I’d never considered.”
“The MLA program’s interdisciplinary curriculum teaches students how each academic field has its own way of doing things,” Murphy says. “By being exposed to different methodologies and theoretical underpinnings, our students start to see connections. After all, one of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education is that it doesn’t teach you what to think, but how.”
He likens the experience to a sort of cognitive boot camp. “The program will make you a more agile thinker and make you a more critical thinker”—qualities prized in today’s knowledge economy. A number of employers, Murphy says, have told him they prefer to hire liberal arts graduates above candidates with more technical degrees: “You can train an employee to do their job, but can’t teach them how to think.”