Practical Art, Practical Science

Brenau University President Ed Schrader and Jake.
Brenau University President Ed Schrader and Jake.

To help commemorate the university’s 135th anniversary and to celebrate the opening of the new Brenau Downtown Center in Gainesville, planners for this spring’s Brenau Gala developed the theme “The Art & Science of Brenau.” That truly captures the essence of the university.

The Brenau Downtown Center represents a nexus of that expression. 

First, it is the home of the new Doctor of Physical Therapy program and future programs in health science professions. Second, it is the home of the university’s newest arts center, the Manhattan Gallery, which showcases dozens of pieces from Brenau’s permanent collection that have New York connections. The center also contains a fully functional theater in which students will practice the arts of acting, dancing and singing. There, too, is space allocated to a physical therapy clinic where doctoral candidates will practice what they have learned (see Learning by Heart also in this issue). 

We emphasize “practice” because it is essential to learning – perhaps today more than ever. 

Why? Students today, more than ever, need to see an “end game” for their educational pursuits. They require assurance that what they learn in any class will have practical application in the real world. In short, they want to know that their university education will help them get jobs or advance careers. 

It is still true, particularly at the undergraduate level, that many still come to college to find what they want to do in life, to kick tires on myriad career options. However, even with that mindset, they want to know precisely “How can I get there from here?” and “What is my college or university doing that will help me get there?”

That desire for practical results also is reflected in many demands that are being placed on colleges and universities by politicians, by the public and by our own commitment to education to demonstrate that we are effectively and efficiently delivering preparation for what life may hold in store for the students who pass through our portals. 

However, here is an interesting nuance: with all the movement toward “measuring outcomes” in terms of employability of college graduates, none of the proposed forced measurements seem to address the things that employers uniformly say they want in prospective employees. Certainly, employers seek proficiency in industry-specific skills; but, according to hosts of research, the most sought-after traits in recent graduates are the so-called “soft skills” that one cannot easily measure. These include communication skills, a broad world view, curiosity about how things work, appreciation of the arts, culture and life outside of the workplace. To me that is a tailor-made “job description” for the Brenau graduate who is steeped in liberal arts. 

But does Brenau put it into practice? Is it “practical”?

As much as possible, Brenau tries to make it so. That is what the physical therapy clinic will be about. On top of that, Dr. Mary Thigpen, the director of clinical service for physical therapy, is charged with developing clinical training relationships with physical therapy practices and professionals throughout the region. Dr. Kathye Light, chair of the department, has a broad plan for getting students and faculty more involved in the community through social service and community support programs. Keep in mind that all of this will happen within a functioning art gallery, where students also will accumulate practical skills of maintaining and displaying important paintings and sculptures. 

The university has many other opportunities for students to gain practical experience by either working or displaying their work in real world settings, such as the theater programs we do through the Gainesville Theatre Alliance. In the past year, a variety of students, including non-arts majors, displayed works at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (see the High Exhibition 2014 photo gallery). And, as part of the academic partnership we enjoy, Brenau students regularly work in internships at the High. One of the busiest people at the university is Jill Goforth, director of clinical experience in the College of Education. She oversees securing and filling more than 60 practice teaching slots a year for undergraduates. The new MBA program in entrepreneurship includes the opportunity for candidates to attend a variety of noncredit business professional seminars by top CEOs and executives who have started and grown companies to multimillion-dollar enterprises. Almost all academic departments either require or encourage undergraduates and graduates to engage in internships and other practical “clinical” experiences in their fields. 

When history records Brenau University’s legacy it will say, “Here was a university that took a practical pathway to preparing students.” Brenau is where education meets life. 

Ed Schrader, Ph. D.

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