Photographs by Rafael Tongol
If you’re the sort of lifelong learner who’s interested in just about everything, then you’re likely an ideal candidate for the Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) program at Rollins College. The eclectic classes — from ancient Greek literature to the origins of rock ‘n’ roll — are what attracted Realtor Chris Bauman to enroll in the fall of 2016.
“I looked at the list of requirements and electives, and I was just blown away by what was available,” says Bauman, 50, a busy professional who, like most of his peers, is able to pursue the degree because courses are offered in the evening, through the college’s Hamilton Holt School. “I said to myself, ‘I want to learn all of that.’”
Bauman’s adventurous attitude is typical of the 50 or so students who enroll in the MLS program each year. They range in age from twentysomethings to sixtysomethings — and run the gamut from executives to retirees to stay-at-home parents.
All seek intellectual stimulation, personal enrichment and the company of kindred spirits. Few — aspiring college humanities teachers being the exception — pursue the MLS with the primary goal of mastering a more marketable trade.
The point is learning for the sake of learning — although, program advocates say, critical thinking skills and a more expansive worldview are certain to enhance just about any activity, personal or professional.
Most MLS students are well-established in careers and simply “cherish and enjoy the life of the mind,” according to Tom Cook, a philosophy professor who directs the program.
It all sounds rather rarified. And perhaps it is. But it’s also fun, say professors and students — assuming your definition of fun encompasses reading great books, thinking deep thoughts and debating weighty ideas.
Classes are taught by an elite cadre of faculty consisting exclusively of tenured or tenure-track professors — no adjuncts — who are academic all-stars in such fields as art, music, literature, philosophy, religion, science and more.
“We had a policewoman come through the program,” recalls Cook, a good-natured bear of a man who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Vanderbilt University. “She says it made her more thoughtful and reflective on questions of justice.”
Liberal Arts Ethos
The MLS program was started in 1987 — it turns 30 this year — with a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The grant covered, among other startup costs, the outfitting of a wood-paneled classroom in the Cornell Hall for the Social Sciences.
Rollins launched the first MLS program in the state, but it’s no longer the only one. Today there are four, with the University of Central Florida, the University of Miami and Barry University in Miami Shores offering comparable degrees.
Rollins, however, remains one of only a handful of non-university MLS programs in the country.
Although the distinction between “university” and “college” can be muddled — especially nowadays — colleges are typically more focused on undergraduate education. They’re also usually smaller and less likely to offer vocational or professional training.
Rollins, with about 2,600 undergraduate students, does offer some master’s degrees in addition to the MLS — most notably a highly ranked MBA program through its Crummer School of Business. But the 128-year-old institution remains firmly rooted in the liberal arts college tradition.
Nationwide, there are about 90 institutional members of the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs (AGLSP), which is headquartered at Duke University.
MLS programs or their equivalent are offered at such prestigious universities as Dartmouth, DePaul, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Stanford and Vanderbilt. But only about a half-dozen small colleges, including Rollins, offer graduate degrees in liberal studies.
Some institutions appear to have cobbled together MLS programs by bundling seemingly random assortments of existing graduate-level courses. Rollins, however, requires five sequential core courses designed specifically for MLS students.
The core courses, which emphasize various aspects of Western civilization, are augmented by electives and a thesis project. The 48-hour program can sometimes be completed in three years, although many students — especially those immersed in demanding careers — may take longer.
“We don’t encourage the seven-year plan,” jokes Cook, who nonetheless understands that other responsibilities sometimes make it difficult for students to take more than one reading-heavy course per semester. “We know we’re catering in large part to working people.”
Fast-track or slow-track, a liberal arts college is the most logical place for advanced liberal arts studies, notes Rollins President Grant Cornwell, who has written and spoken widely on the value of a liberal arts education in a world where STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is increasingly emphasized.
“The MLS program encapsulates the essence of the liberal arts ethos,” says Cornwell. “While every student leaves Rollins with a broad liberal education, MLS students’ thesis or capstone projects further exercise their analytical and critical thinking skills.”
Best and Brightest
All MLS students are screened by Cook, a specialist in Spinoza and a past winner of the Hugh F. McKean Distinguished Teacher Award. He looks for people “with the ability to write and think clearly, and who are lifelong learners.”
College transcripts — which sometimes date back decades for MLS applicants — can only reveal so much, Cook says. He wants to know what kind of people would-be MLS students have become in the years following graduation.
What have they accomplished? Have they demonstrated a propensity for lifelong learning? Are they readers with an insatiable curiosity about the world around them?
Applicants must write two brief essays: one about why they’re interested in the program, and one about a book — other than the Bible — that has influenced their thinking. Two letters of recommendation are also required.
The congenial Cook — an unpretentious intellectual who usually wears sandals — reviews applications, reads essays, conducts interviews and seeks to assemble a diverse group with varied life experiences.
Those who are selected will study under professors who are as diverse as the courses they teach.
First up is The Human Order, an intense but intriguing intellectual roller-coaster ride that begins with Homer and careens through Hesiod, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil and others. It’s taught by Scott Rubarth, who embodies the liberal arts and its power to change modes of thinking.
As a teenager, Rubarth was enthralled by guns, survivalism and martial arts. He began his college career at Los Angeles Baptist College (now The Master’s University), where “we thought Liberty University was too liberal.”
Rubarth graduated with a degree in pre-theology before becoming a paramedic and a youth minister. But he grew increasingly dissatisfied with rigid fundamentalist Christianity. “I wasn’t comfortable giving kids the answers the church expected me to give,” he says.
In an intellectual about-face, he earned a second bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree — in classics and philosophy, respectively — from San Diego State University en route to a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto.
He came to Rollins from Toronto in 1997, shortly after graduation, and now holds an endowed chair as the George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Scholar in Classical Studies.
“Some people realize they were just too young when they started college,” says Rubarth, who specializes in the Stoics. “Now they’re hungry to understand the world better. They’ve come to understand that there’s more to life than the external signifiers of wealth and success.”
He describes his course as a kind of “boot camp” during which students explore the social and political thought of ancient Greece and Rome while honing their skills at writing argumentative essays.
It’s tough, with a daunting amount of reading required. But if wisdom and enlightenment are not motivation enough, Rubarth throws in a semester-ending toga party for good measure.
Another core MLS course is The Origins of Modernity, taught by Julia Maskivker, a native of Argentina who earned a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University.
Unlike The Human Order, in which writers and philosophers supposed the gods were in control, Maskivker’s course investigates the ways in which modern social, aesthetic and political thinkers sought to organize society on secular foundations.
The MLS program, she says, is “a tool for self-realization” that reinforces independent thinking. “Students are there because they want to be,” she says. “So there’s always enthusiasm and excitement. I get younger people, mid-career people and even people who have retired and are looking for intellectual stimulation.”
Maskivker, who has written extensively on the moral obligation of citizens to involve themselves in the democratic process, enjoys photography and says she would have been a novelist “in a different life.”
Other required courses are Religion and Western Culture, Milestones of Modern Science, and Masterpieces of Modern Literature.
Electives differ from semester to semester. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. For example, artist-in-residence Chuck Archard, a renowned bassist who teaches contemporary jazz, recently offered Roots, Rock and Rap, a history of popular music from the early 1950s through today.
Elvis and Aristotle in the same semester? That is the MLS program in a proverbial nutshell (or in a box of chocolates).
Past electives have included Autobiographical Writing, The Radical ’60s, The Psychology of Love and Loss, Writers of the Wild West, Poetry of the Earth, The Art of Urban Design, Middle East Culture and Film, and Engaged Buddhism. Shorter “Masterwork” courses focus on particular works of art, music or literature.
Eric Smaw, who earned a Ph.D. in the philosophy of law from the University of Kentucky, teaches an elective called Terrorism and Civil Liberties. He says a liberal arts education is in keeping with the vision of the Founding Fathers, who wanted people “to think deeply about the values they accept.”
Smaw does just that. A board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, he has lectured and published articles on human rights and racial justice.
One of his undergraduate courses, Zombies, Serial Killers and Madmen, applies philosophical questions to the actions of history’s most-despised mass-murders.
In 2013, Smaw participated in a high-profile debate regarding same-sex marriage with Michael Brown, a conservative author and theologian who was listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report among “30 New Activists Heading Up the Radical Right.”
Smaw previously taught at the University of Massachusetts, where he also did post-doctoral work. “It was a big state university,” he recalls. “I found that with 170 students in a class, nobody was getting an education at all. Here we can have a direct connection with our students.”
Susan Libby, who earned a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Maryland, also teaches electives in the MLS program, although she’s not on the roster for the coming semester.
Previously she has taught Shock of the Nude, about Édouard Manet’s painting Olympia, and Rococo to Revolution, about French art in the Enlightenment. Her particular interest is in depictions of race and slavery in Caribbean colonies under French rule.
Libby says the MLS program “teaches skills that can enhance any profession.” Plus, she says, “MLS students are absolutely fearless.” Even if they’ve had no prior exposure to art history, she adds, “they jump right in and they own it. They’re not as self-conscious as undergraduates.”
MLS students are eager to sing its praises. Among them is Patricia Schoene, a retired high school English teacher, who wanted to challenge herself and learn about subjects outside her field of expertise.
“I took the Milestones of Modern Science class and wrote a 21-page paper on quantum physics,” Schoene says. “I never studied physics in high school or college. The paper far exceeded the required length, but I had the luxury of researching questions about physics that I’ve had for years, but never had the time to explore.”
Alumni are also major boosters. Take, for example, Ben Brotemarkle, executive director of the Florida Historical Society and host of Florida Frontiers, a weekly radio broadcast about Florida history that can be heard statewide on PBS stations.
When Brotemarkle was in the program, from 1993 to 1997, he was working at WMFE-FM 90, the local NPR station. “I’ll admit that with a full-time job, there were definite challenges to getting all the work done,” Brotemarkle says. “But the classroom discussions were always so stimulating, you never wanted to come unprepared. It was a great experience.”
Brotemarkle’s thesis project evolved into a book, Beyond the Theme Parks: Exploring Central Florida, which was published in 1999 by University Press of Florida. It was a scholarly but entertaining tour of the region’s small towns, with an emphasis on historic sites, museums and obscure attractions.
Other thesis projects have included traditional research papers as well as musical compositions and works of literary fiction. Almost anything goes if it gets faculty approval, is carefully designed and researched, and relates in some way to MLS courses.
Oh, and there are the trips. MLS classes have traveled to Athens, London, Florence, Paris, Amsterdam and Istanbul. This winter, a trip to India will be co-led by Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.
If all this sounds appealing — and if you’re willing to spend a few evenings reading Plato instead of arguing with the unenlightened on Facebook — why not give it a try? The next application deadline is May 15 for the fall semester. But it’s suggested that you get the process underway much earlier.
“This is the center of the Rollins mission,” says Cook, who adds that MLS students often form bonds that endure outside the classroom. “It’s rigorous liberal arts education and the quintessence of lifelong learning.”
The Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) program is based on the premise that studying the great ideas of Western civilization increases intellectual awareness and self-fulfillment. Students read great books to revisit ideas and insights that emerged centuries ago, and to examine the relevance of those ideas to the modern world.
The program is offered through the Hamilton Holt School, the college’s evening program, and is aimed at working adults.
Applications are accepted throughout the year. New students begin the core-course sequence in the fall. The application deadline is May 15 for the fall semester, which begins in August.
48 credit hours
$461 per credit hour. There is a dedicated scholarship fund based on financial considerations and other factors.