In a time when enrollment in the humanities is sharply declining, Renaissance scholar Sarah Ross ’97, associate professor of history at Boston College, visited Bowdoin yesterday evening to stress the importance of the liberal arts tradition. Her presentation, titled “Building New Lives with Old Books in Renaissance Italy,” primarily dealt with her research on the value of the humanist teachings, not only in our time, but throughout the ages. 

“If you Google ‘Crisis in the Humanities’, there are tons of hits about useless majors: ‘don’t major in English, don’t major in History,’” said Ross in a phone interview with the Orient. “We’re in a moment of time where anti-intellectualism is rampant, perhaps because scholars aren’t selling what they do very well. Everyone is focused on teaching students just the practical skills for the job market, and in the process, space for emotional, spiritual and artistic exploration is sacrificed.”

In her defense of the liberal arts, Ross told the stories of two distinct protagonists whom she encountered in her research on the Italian Renaissance. The first, Laura Cetera (1469-1499), received an education from her father, who taught her a wide range of subjects, from moral philosophy to mathematics to astrology. Using her breadth of knowledge as an adult, Cetera became a strong public speaker and advocate for feminist causes such as women’s education and marital rights. The second, Francesco Longo (1506-1576), worked as a physician and used his extensive library of humanist teachings to find meaning in the war-torn, diseased world around him.

“I thought her presentation was amazing,” said Christabel Fosu-Asare ’18, who attended the lecture on Thursday. “She focused a lot on the idea of liberal arts—how the humanists were doing it back in the Renaissance and how we Bowdoin students are doing it today to change the world. I loved how Dr. Ross used letters written by Laura Cetera and connected them to the idea of feminism, which goes back a very very long time.”

Ross was invited to speak by Bowdoin’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Colloquium, an interdisciplinary organization which brings scholars to campus. Aaron Kitch, chair of the English department and co-director of the Colloquium, found Ross to be an “obvious fit” for this symposium. 

“Aside from the amazing history and philosophy in her lecture, [the audience] will get to see how someone has grown from their liberal arts degree and has used it to become an accomplished scholar,” Kitch said.

Though Ross felt a penchant for history and English even in high school, she found her passion for classics and Renaissance studies here at Bowdoin, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1997. She went on to Northwestern University and received both an M.A. and a Ph.D in history. In her graduate work, she specifically explored how women fit into humanism and the liberal arts during the Renaissance, a topic which she still enjoys researching. Now as the director of the history core at Boston College, she teaches hundreds of students each year in both undergraduate and graduate courses while continuing to research Renaissance history. 

After almost twenty years, however, Ross was overjoyed to set foot on Bowdoin’s campus again, saying that she was “giddy with delight” to return to a community that meant “a tremendous amount” to her. 

“It’s surreal for me to be back,” she said. I just hope Bowdoin students don’t take this place for granted. I encourage them every day to pause. To look around. To understand that they are so lucky to be at such a special place that values the liberal arts and gives them an environment to learn boldly.”