Skip to Main Content

Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Nurturing a Liberal Arts Community

Irish Storyteller at Shriver Hall

Batt Burns delighted audience members with an evening of Irish storytelling in March, just one of many events offered through the Johns Hopkins Center for Liberal Arts.

Photo: Willkirk/


It has been nearly three years since the School of Arts and Sciences launched the Center for Liberal Arts, creating a home for all part-time, adult-learner liberal arts education, based in the Advanced Academic Programs.

With a structure in place to house the school's longstanding Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) program, as well as the non-degree Odyssey Program and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (formerly the Evergreen Society), administrators anticipated a strengthening of offerings and hoped some synergy would result among the three distinct programs.

Today, the center is seeing increased registrations across the board; offering courses to adult learners at Homewood, in Columbia, and in Montgomery County; and hosting wildly popular public events highlighting lifelong learning opportunities at Johns Hopkins. By early February, more than 1,000 people had signed up to attend this spring's Echoes of the Emerald Isle, an evening of Irish storytelling, poetry, and traditional music.

"One of the things we've worked hard on as part of our mission for the center is the outreach to the community," says Brian Fitzek, associate director of noncredit programs. That has translated into public events in previous years on Lincoln and Galileo; center director Melissa Hilbish says those well-attended events highlighted the center's offerings and enticed attendees to try taking a class or two. And it would seem that once they're in, they're hooked. Increasingly, Hilbish says, the programs are all serving as feeders to one another. "I have an Osher member who applied to the MLA two years ago and is now taking Odyssey courses," she says.

A number of current and emeriti Hopkins professors teach regularly in the MLA as well. "Hopkins faculty from a wide range of departments and programs are drawn to the life experiences of the students in the program," Hilbish says.

Fitzek, himself an alumnus of the MLA program, is a passionate believer in the power of the liberal arts. "The liberal arts help connect the dots, to relate very disparate ideas," he says. "They facilitate a creativity and a questioning—and that's a very powerful combination."

The center's students seem to agree. Osher has 720 members on three campuses; the MLA enrolls 120 students each year, about 40 percent of them Hopkins employees; and last semester, Odyssey saw 1,200 registrations, with its new "Odyssey on the Go" one-day courses proving especially popular.

This semester, Odyssey is offering its first online course, a survey of children's literature taught by staff member Erin Hagar. Other highlights from the spring include:

The Colossal P.T. Barnum: A one-session "Odyssey on the Go" course about the famed showman in honor of his 200th birthday, is taught by a circus historian.

The Lost Italian Renaissance: Taught by Christopher Celenza, a professor of Italian literature in Arts and Sciences, this course offers a fresh interpretation of the Renaissance's largely ignored literary, philosophical, poetic, and religious works written in Latin.

Introducing Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy: Philosophy professor emeritus Stephen F. Barker leads this class through a discussion of Friedrich Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals.

Mandarin: New courses in introductory Mandarin are part of the program's diverse foreign language offerings.