Implemented in 1974, the Cultural Life Program originated from three areas of the university: in academic life, as a turn from pressure toward conformity; in religious life, as an exploration of calling; and in student life, as a way to enhance community.
Students at Furman, previously a Baptist-affiliated institution, were in the routine of attending religious events as part of their university completion. However, as the liberal arts school oriented itself toward national prominence and an increasingly diverse student body, these older requirements came under question. Students would often try to complete homework or sleep during these mandated events, or even skip them entirely. In the words of a student editorial in The Paladin, “…students were often being forced to listen to something of questionable worth in spite of their unquestionable disinterest.”
Gordon Blackwell, the university president famous for ending segregation with his accession, called for an exploratory committee to reconsider this graduation requirement. Composed of students, faculty, and administrators, the committee looked at other schools’ models and wrestled with Furman's own needs. Thomas Buford, chair of that committee, was keenly interested in developing a college experience that resisted the pressures of what he called “techne”— the impulse in a fast-paced, productivity-oriented society to craft the entire educational process around the acquisition of instrumental, technical knowledge and skills. Rather, he advocated for the liberal notion that the individual ought to be the ethical priority, not merely a means to other goals; that the cultures of the world contain all the tools for individual education and fulfillment; and that students had to take an active role in drawing the connections to make this happen. Thus, the committee designed a program to reflect a larger goal of cultural appreciation and individual fulfillment, and drew from across the academic life of campus to enact that education. Events were to hold students’ attention and orient them to a process of learning not given to schedules, disciplines, and grades. The experience of an event could illuminate the creative aspects of human imagination and understanding, across disciplinary or geo-political borders.
Over the years of the Program, two positive aspects of the academic experience were noted. First, and most noticeably, the cultural life of the university increased. With greater attendance and interest at university programming, pressures were placed on the arts and lectures as important sites of cultural learning. Editorials in the campus newspaper and Bonhomie student yearbook noted the important effect the Program had on “exposure” and “appreciation” for the arts. By 1987, a student noted that the cultural scene on campus mirrored the quality of the nation’s best cities, with high quality lectures on biotechnology and spectacular Shakespeare productions drawing great student attendance. The second positive academic outcome was the lifelong effect on students’ intellectual curiosity. In a survey distributed during the 2006-2007 school year, results showed that the group most supportive of the Program was alumni, not faculty or students. Events forced these former students outside of their typical comfort zones and served as truly unique and memorable experiences during the education process.
As a historically Baptist college, the university required students to attend chapel twice per week. Students were designated seats and other students, “chapel checkers,” would note attendance records, with attendance as a requirement for graduation. L.D. Johnson, Chaplain, and Jim Pitts, Assistant Chaplain, shifted this emphasis with their arrival to Furman in 1967, with the reduction of services and the sponsorship of a lecture series entitled “Religion-in-Life.” Ecumenical in focus, the chaplain’s office used campus connections to bring in speakers from all walks of life, to speak about their journey in faith and their vision and purpose in life.
With a generous endowment donation from Frank Espey, the first neurosurgeon in Greenville, Johnson and Pitts sponsored well-known speakers. The program brought in Christian progressive voices such as Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farm and Christian activist for racial equality; Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity; and Dr. Tony Campolo, sociologist and noted Christian speaker. Political voices and activists included Vietnam veteran John Kerry, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, and civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Dr. Benjamin Mays. The Religion-in-Life series continues to bring similar speakers each year as part of the Cultural Life Program.
As the basis for the Cultural Life Program, the chapel events were central to the Program’s orientation as a point of connection and exploration. Students and individuals across campus played a role in bringing voices from beyond the Furman community. Donors and alumni gave back to generously support campus life. All guests were invited to eat, drink, and visit with students to engage in personal discussions. Out of these experiences students were challenged on their understanding of faith and tested to find their calling. Student Oliver Vernon Burton, for example, became the biographer of Dr. Benjamin Mays due to interaction in the Religion-in-Life program. Other students went to work in economically impoverished and racially diverse areas to implement the values imparted by the speakers. In short, students explored their own life goals in confrontation with faithful leadership, social resistance, and selfless sacrifice.
Student Life Origins
Perhaps most implicit but most fundamental in the Program was the constitution and reconstitution of Furman’s community. In 1967, one of the weekly chapel services became “Convocation” (the term comes from Latin, meaning “to call together”). Convocation included a variety of events, such as student government meetings, Furman theater productions, and lectures. The original Convocation program was housed within Student Life, under the coordination of Marguerite Chiles, famous for saying, “There is no piece of paper on my desk more important than the student in my door way.” That “calling together” continued to bring dialogue between faculty, staff, and students under the Cultural Life Program title, without the limitations of the grade-oriented course model.
The attendance requirements shrank over the years, even as the number of available events increased dramatically. Students were originally expected to attend all eighteen events in the lecture and chapel series. But attendance was not consistently or equally enforced, and punishment levels were unevenly distributed. As attendance requirements lowered and as the types of events expanded to include theater, debates, movies, and plays, students came to embrace the CLP requirements. By the 1978-1979 school year,the rigid “per-term” requirements were dropped, with the only requirement being that students attend a total of 48 events to graduate. That number was then reduced to 36 total events for the 1999-2000 school year and 32 for 2008-2009, as the school transitioned to a semester system.
These reductions came in response to increasing pressures on students to be more productive in courses and internships, to be involved in increasing numbers of extra-curricular activities, and to be bombarded with more electronic media in an increasingly interconnected world. Still, the requirement continued to resist the distractions and “techne” that break down community. CLP events were a living space, where students’ reactions and emotions were shared, where ideas were contested, and where collegiality and respect were modeled. Events occasionally fail to meet this mark, students continue to sometimes sneak homework into an event, or they hurriedly race through the requirement in the final weeks before graduation. But the Cultural Life Program, after decades of change, has become a Furman tradition and institution—a shared experience now spanning more than a generation and stemming from an even deeper heritage of faith, community, and liberal learning.
Compiled by Sarah Masters and Brandon Inabinet