by Barbara Black
A group of alumni spoke movingly about what Concordia's Liberal Arts College had done for them at a morning seminar in the College's Mackay St. quarters during the recent 20th anniversary celebrations.
Julie Amblard was in the LAC's first class, 20 years ago. With a background in the sciences, she was thrown by the admissions committee's standard questions, "What is your favourite book, and who is your favourite artist?" She told her interviewers (Professors Fred Krantz, Harvey Shulman and John Laffey), "My peers want to get a job; I want to get a life." She was in.
"It was an odyssey of discovery," she recalled. "They had opened up a Pandora's box." She was working at Club Med, and took her required books with her on three-month cruises, reading when she wasn't on duty. Books were a great conversational opener with the tourists, particularly when she was doing a project on Freud and feminism.
She went on to undertake a Master's in Business Administration, which she finished in France, and startled those around her by doing a marketing thesis on the Ursuline Order of nuns. It was published, and led to a job that kept her in France for seven years before she got homesick for Canada. She is now national coordinator of marketing research for a pharmaceutical company, and teaches a course in the field at Concordia.
"I enjoyed every second of the Liberal Arts College. The discipline and the ability to analyze and synthesize were invaluable."
Emmanuel Bourbouhakis is doing his Master's degree at McGill University in classics and has been accepted into the PhD in classical philology at Harvard for next fall. He said that graduate school can't match his undergraduate years at LAC for excitement. "It was a heady atmosphere. LAC gave me the purpose, the philological basis to go on into classics."
He looked around the humble basement conference space. "Professor Krantz would say, 'Look around. Sophocles is in the room, walking among us.'"
James Champagne was a student from 1986 to 1990 -- by accident, having ticked off a box on a form without much forethought. He was soon surprised at how much more demanding the LAC courses were than the ones in his program, and how much more he looked forward to them. "Hegel was pretty rough, but I think we're all better for it," he said, raising a few rueful smiles.
"I fondly remember collegiality in the true sense. We were a group, and we did things together. On Thursday afternoons, we were a large mass walking together like an amoeba down de Maisonneuve." After that, grad school was a shock in its impersonality. He still has all his LAC texts together on one shelf, like that friendly amoeba of fellow students.
Champagne now teaches English as a second language as he works towards his doctorate, and tries to imbue his teaching with the liberal arts ethos. "I try to talk about ideas, not trivia. It's astounding, the degree to which my students want to talk about things that matter."
Astrid Neuland came to the LAC from Toronto, and was a natural for the liberal arts because her German parents wouldn't have considered anything else a true education. "I wasn't the best student, but I enjoyed it," she said. "I gave gourmet dinners in my apartment, and we discussed our books for LAC." She loved the volleyball nights. ("You're not doing that any more," she scolded the current students.)
Neuland was heading for chef's school in Switzerland, but got sidelined by a job in the Niagara wine industry. Now living in Ottawa, she and her husband run their own wine agency and microbrewery; she has given more than 1,000 training sessions in the field.
"I reflect on LAC and I feel warm inside," she said. "I would recommend the liberal arts to anyone. It's the only way to go."
Ingrid Van Weert was in the second graduating class. LAC affected her so deeply that "it is like my skin, the way I see the world."
Because of LAC art historian Malcolm Thurlby, "every time I go to a city, I look up for the architectural detail. I go to churches because of Malcolm, take vacations in Europe because of him."
She went on to study law at the University of Toronto, and told the current students that "compared to LAC, law school is a piece of cake, if you can stand the tedium." When she was at U of T, debate was raging over affirmative action policies. She opposed them, and was called a fascist, a misuse of the term that deeply offended her liberal-arts sensibilities because it so trivialized the word.
"It's such a relief to know that there are people who value truth and what we know about the past. It made me see myself as part of a long line of human beings, a continuous stream of humanity. Liberal arts is a profoundly human study."