Finally got grades done for the semester on Monday. The last thing I graded was an assignment I use in our senior capstone class. The class is called “The Christian in the Contemporary World” and serves as the bridge class from college to the world beyond. It relies heavily upon exploration of the Spring Arbor Concept: Spring Arbor University is a community of learners, distinguished by our lifelong involvement in the study and application of the liberal arts, total commitment to Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning, and critical participation in the contemporary world.
Their final paper is to explore the Concept in their own words, using it as a lens to look backwards at their college years and forward into their projected future. Of the four components of the Concept (community of learners, liberal arts, Jesus Christ as perspective, critical participation), it was the liberal arts piece that proved most problematic for them. To many, liberal arts is a description for the general education classes we tell them make people well-rounded. To some, it was a major distraction from the important classes in the major. At best, they had a vague sense of benefit from the experience of college but couldn’t exactly articulate why.
I’ve been puzzling over this all week. How often do we use the phrase “Christian Liberal Arts Institution”? It seems to be central to the mission of Christian Higher Education. Why don’t we do a better job of explaining it?
My pondering has led me to three working hypotheses. First, the students are right that we’ve confounded general education requirements with the notion of liberal arts. We describe the importance of a range of subjects (because it’s “good for them”). Liberal Arts, in this sense, is contrasted with that university education that focuses on specialization. It’s why many research universities moved to completely distributive requirements and added all kinds of cute course titles.
My second thought is that most of our Christian universities were birthed as Bible Colleges. They had a focus on ministerial training and Biblical apologetics. As institutions began to pursue regional accreditation, they called themselves Christian Liberal Arts institutions. But the Bible School ethos, while no longer dominant, is still a foil. We can find schools that maintain the central focus on ministry, while adding other programs to fill out enrollment options.
My third hypothesis is that our incessant job focus in recent years has diminished our ability to talk about liberal arts. The more we worry about placement rates, the job market, and loan repayments, the less we can talk about the long-term values liberal arts perspective brings.
Here’s what I want us to talk about: Liberal Arts is a perspective on life. It’s not the range of courses we’re talking about. Those are only the raw materials with which liberal arts works. It is understanding multiple perspectives, yes, but more importantly it’s about the connections across the perspectives. It is about connecting Christian faith with the contemporary world, but not in a fixed form. It’s about the exploration that allows vibrant expression of faith in a changing world. In that regard, Liberal Arts is a means of interrogating options. It is about finding balance. As Morgan Guyton wrote today, it is an expression of Wesleyan methodology (i. e., “the quadrilateral”). It’s about the process of bringing together diverse perspectives, being able to communicate those clearly, and to creatively solve problems. That’s why the American Association of Colleges and Universities has shown the same pattern for years: that employers favor the skills that come from liberal arts education.
Employers aren’t asking for employees that could tell you about art history or english literature or introductory sociology. They want people who can anticipate a world in development. The same thing the church desperately needs. The same thing our students need to “critically participate in the contemporary world“.
Christian Liberal Arts is about seeing a variety of perspectives (faith, science, economics, humanities, etc.) synthesizing those perspectives in creative ways, and following the leading of the Holy Spirit to advance the Kingdom of God. That’s a story that works on all levels and I’ll need to spend more time unpacking it next time I teach the capstone course.