A psychiatric patient doused himself with gasoline and raised a lighter. John Thornhill, then a staff police officer at John Peter Smith Health Network in Fort Worth, watched from 15 feet away. “The lighter would come on and go out, come on and go out,” he recalled.
Thornhill, a U.S. Air Force veteran, knew to rely on communication and empathy to prevent one man’s bad day from becoming a mass-casualty event. He needed “to make eye contact, [not] stare, talk in a normal tone of voice, try and get a name, introduce myself.”
The police officer’s communication skills turned into survival skills, and everyone made it through that dangerous night unscathed. Years later, Thornhill, now a corporal and firearms instructor for TCU Police, wrote about the encounter for a class in the university’s Master of Liberal Arts program.
The 30-hour graduate program has relaxed admission requirements — a bachelor’s degree from an accredited four-year university but no entrance exam — and no mandated master’s thesis to graduate, and it is one of the feathers in TCU’s expanding cap.
In 2019, OnlineMasters.com named the program the second best in the nation, behind Northwestern University but ahead of Johns Hopkins and Rutgers. Graduate students can choose from a variety of interdisciplinary classes offered on campus and online.
Thornhill’s tale was an assignment in the Literature of Survival course. Instructor Steve Sherwood ’04 PhD said he created the class because he survived being lost in mountainous northern Mexico.
The intentional reflection of the writing process gave Thornhill perspective on how a person summons inner fortitude in a trying situation. “Surviving is about getting through,” he said. “It’s a process about how to cope and how to get through something and not give up.”
Sherwood’s course, structured around books such as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild(Anchor, 1997), which tells the story of Christopher McCandless’ ill-fated solo adventure in the Alaskan outback, is among a handful of classes he has taught since 2007.
Sherwood, director of TCU’s William L. Adams Center for Writing, has taught MLA students who are published authors (Laurie Vanzura ’82, aka romance novelist Lori Wilde) as well as younger professionals building their writing skills. “I try to bring people along, wherever they are,” Sherwood said.
Unlike subject-specific graduate programs, TCU’s MLA program does not demand in-depth knowledge about a topic. Context is key, and the more perspectives the better. “It’s about learning,” Sherwood said.
Rather than becoming subject-matter experts, students gain skills in connecting perspectives, considering paradoxical views and holding everything together in a cohesive thought-space.
Liberal arts scholars have marketable skills, Dallas-based entrepreneur Mark Cuban told Bloomberg TV in 2017. “I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors,” Cuban told the outlet. Why? Liberal arts graduates arrive in the workplace with a “different perspective.”
Sherwood said the variety of people in the classroom is part of the program’s beauty. Students from ages 20 to 70 gather over a shared passion for expanding perspectives, and the conversations often sound more like campfire chats than traditional scholarly discourse.
“There’s this sort of meeting of the minds, and I think [students] help each other,” he said. “You end up with people from all these different backgrounds, mixing and learning from each other and learning to respect people’s viewpoints.”