What is a Christian Liberal Arts Institution Anyway?

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.

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4 thoughts on “What is a Christian Liberal Arts Institution Anyway?

  1. I have always believed that beyond the subject I happen to be teaching, my goal is to equip students to think about what’s actually going on in their own lives as it relates to the world around them – to analyze their own perceptions. It seems to me that making that connection is one of the surest ways to prepare students to work/live/love/adventure/etc. in a globalized society.

  2. Having finally turned in my own grades as well, I’m finally able to really read your blog and digest it.

    I find it interesting that as Evangelical Christians we are intent on changing the world, but we have trouble even seeing our own. I had a student this week remind me that even though they felt left out of Christian culture at our Christian college, that classes like mine (actually, it was a colleague’s excellent course that I guest taught while he was on sabbatical) addressed culture. And changing culture is perhaps the most effective thing we as Christians can do.

    Which reminds me that that’s what the liberal arts is also about: it’s the study of all the things that make up culture, and only when we understand it can we really be effective.

  3. Lori and Jen: You raise similar thoughts so I’ll respond to both at once. I went out of my way in the original post to avoid the phrase “critical thinking”. In part, it’s become trite. Beyond that, it gets all messed up with unpacking philosophical principles, critique of modern trends, and the ability to read and argue carefully.

    What I pick up in your comments are two phrases that I think are important elements of a liberal arts education: Reflectivity and Reflexivity. The first addresses the notion of presuppositions and assumed reality. Addressing cultural themes (is it significant that you’re both Sci-Fi geeks?) is part of recognizing that things don’t have to the way they are. That’s an important part of the liberal arts in action. Reflexivity deals with perspective. It allows one to see how one’s own upbringing creates one lens among many (another nod to the good parts of postmodernism). Knowing that allows one to engage the world from a position of true identity — it’s like knowing the ways of the force!

    Did I tell you that the tentative title of my book comes from the first Star Wars movie? It’s from the blast shield scene of the Millenium Falcon. Obi-Wan tells Luke, “You’ve just taken your first step into a larger world”. That’s what Liberal Arts is about, Charlie Brown.

  4. Christian liberal arts is a bit of a slippery one. I have a hunch this could be illustrated by taking our faculty and asking each of them to design a curriculum for a new school of such appellation. Not that we should all think the same, but ongoing defining and sharpening will help move us towards clarity and unity. All three of your hypos are worth following. Let the conversation begin!

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