Tag: liberal arts

The Fearless Christian University

casefoundation.org
casefoundation.org

Sometimes the internet takes me interesting places. I’m just sitting here, trying to think of how to structure this piece that’s important to me. As I try to find graphics to illustrate my thinking, I happen across one of the serendipitous moments that brings together everything I was thinking.

Honestly, I just wanted a picture that communicated fearlessness. But the picture at the left led me to the website of the Case Foundation (chaired by Steve and Jean Case, formerly of AOL Time-Warner) and their Fearless initiative. Looking deeper, I discover that they had just given $100,000 to Georgetown’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative. But that led me to a new story about the creation of The Beeck Institute for Social Impact and Innovation and its new director, Sonal Shah. Two twitter friends had happily posted of Shah’s appointment but the import was lost on me when I read it this afternoon.

I’m happy for Georgetown. I really am. But the instruction to be fearless, take risks, be bold, fail forward are things Christian Universities can and should take seriously. Consider this quote from Jean Case from the Washington Post story linked above:

“When the millennials look at the world, they see daunting challenges that have dogged us for a long time,” she said. “This generation says, ‘wow, these are big problems, what’s the best way to find new solutions?’ And they don’t think in the old-style ways.”

She’s right, of course. This generation is looking to engage the broader culture in ways that are markedly different from prior generations. As I’ve written before, it is incumbent on Christian Universities to take bold steps, to risk conflict and criticism in order to free up our students to address the key questions that lie before the evangelical church.

One of the challenges of Christian Higher Education is that the academic sphere can often take a back seat to other elements of university life. Its not anti-intellectualism per se. It has more to do with the historic difficulty of competing with our research peers. We had fewer PhDs, hardly any research support, too many classes, few graduate programs, and so on. So the positioning of the university often seemed to involve life-long friendships, possible mates, rousing chapel services, and floor Bible studies. Yes we have classes too but we didn’t know how to talk about those.

Not surprisingly, that has made us overly defensive about tuition costs and student loans. We’ve tried to avoid the fact that the kind of transformation that Jean Case is calling for requires risk. There are those who claim the risk isn’t worth it, that degrees are overhyped, or that college degrees are interchangeable. That’s why a recent study sponsored by the American Association of Schools and Colleges was so important. They found that over the long run, liberal arts graduates outperformed their more technically oriented colleagues in both earnings and positional authority. Any gaps that existed in the short term were overcome due to the stronger critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills of the liberal arts grads.

Last week was Marx week in my sociological theory class. We were talking about alienation as the separation of work from meaning. Naturally, I turned the conversation to student learning and explored the ways in which the structure of higher education isolates student creativity (because the means of production favor mastery). Moving from that to a liberated approach to learning (as in liberal arts) requires upsetting the powers-that-be.

In another class this week, we spent a little time debriefing the Ham-on-Nye debate. It provided a sharp contrast to how G.K. Chesterton engaged those atheist friends like H.G. Wells or G.B. Shaw who disagreed with him on faith matters. He maintained friendship but was willing to banter on important issues. I think the class got the point — they generally saw the Creation Museum debate as a sideshow that didn’t lead anywhere.

A conversation with another group of students illustrated the need for fearlessness. The topic was a perennial one I’ve heard since I started teaching three decades ago: open hours. The students weren’t asking new questions, but they were asking with new insights. Who were the donors or trustees that were afraid of dealing with issues of romantic relationships? What generation were they from? There was a political tone (in terms of leveraging positive change) that was eye-opening.

Read the Chronicle of Higher Ed or Inside Higher Education and you come across the same arguments over and over. We need to move to competency-based education. The future is in non-traditional students. Three year degrees will be the rage. More vocational-technical training is called for. Lower costs and forgive debts. More adjunct instructors. Fewer administrators.

In my judgment, none of these take us very far because they ignore the central questions. How have we prepared students to engage the issues they’ve inherited from us? What factors contribute to their growth? How have they learned to deal with complex issues that are politically fraught?

Last week, Kent Barnds, an administrator at Augustana College in Illinois wrote this intriguing piece in Inside Higher Ed. Frankly, I think his prescription could have gone much farther but his diagnosis is in line with my search for fearlessness. He asks some good questions:

We need to ask ourselves: Why is the residential campus experience of utmost importance to a contemporary undergraduate education? We must identify the sorts of learning that can only occur in such a setting, and validate, or better identify, the learning competencies that occur outside the classroom on a residential campus.

For my money, he makes too much of the inside-outside distinction of the classroom. The real issue, as I see it, is to empower the students themselves to ask the right kinds of questions and for the institution to be brave, to risk failure, and to engage messiness just to see where that takes us. I think that’s what the Case Foundation means by failing forward.

I’m still working this out, but I think I can begin a list of questions students would engage if we’d let them. I hope my readers will add to my list.

1. How do we engage questions of sexuality in this complex world? More pledges and platitudes are not sufficient for a generation that has sexuality permeating the culture. “Just wait” will be an increasing challenge for these students who, if they follow trends, won’t marry for another 5 years after graduation.

2. How do we have conversations about alcohol? Can we dispense with slippery slope arguments and acknowledge the normality of alcohol in the evangelical world? What steps can we take so that students uncover the space between teetotaling and binge drinking?

3. How do we engage complex political questions? What can our students teach us about how they view issues of poverty and human trafficking? Why are they so much more engaged and passionate about the topic?

4. How do we reconcile a vibrant faith with scientific literacy? What’s the role of technology? Is everything progress?

5. What does a simple lifestyle look like? Why are my students attracted to intentional community and what does that suggest about a consumerist society they engage?

In each of these questions and many others we could suggest, the key will be for us to have the courage to let them explore their answers. If we’re bold enough, they just might lead us to where we all wanted to go in the first place.

 

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.

Governor McCrory, please meet Mr. Buechner

Higher Ed sources were abuzz this week when North Carolina governor Pat McCrory told Bill Bennett that he wanted to focus on education that led to jobs instead of the liberal arts. Specifically, he contrasted programs that lead to jobs with pursuing things like gender studies (which Bennett had been mocking). In the interview, McCrory suggested that “educational elites” are encouraging programs that won’t lead to jobs. This last bit paints a horrendous picture of faculty members, suggesting that we delight in our students pursuing liberal arts programs that won’t lead to jobs.

Many other people have blogged on McCrory’s remarks over the past few days. Inside Higher Ed’s Matt Reed (formerly Dean Dad) had one of the better autobiographical responses. Reed describes the ways in which his own liberal arts education benefitted him. He goes on to recount what data has shown for years — employers (read “job creators”) are looking for the skill sets that liberal arts provides. There really is little evidence of a decided advantage in majoring in the “get me a job” major without the breadth of experience and perspective that makes liberal arts education unique. (BTW, most accrediting agencies require that accredited institutions provide some breadth of general education programming). Others have rightly pointed out how having students aware of issues in gender studies could be of great value as we navigate the challenges of modern society (did the governor watch any news during the 2012 election cycle?).

This focus on jobs instead of preparation for the future is negatively impacting educational institutions, including and maybe especially Christian universities. We’re regularly told that parents are concerned about student loans and that we need to be prepared to share our “success stories”. I’m an idealist, but I happen to believe that all of our graduates are successes. Almost none of them wind up like Chris Farley’s character “living in a van down by the river”. Admittedly, college has gotten more expensive relative to inflation but it still reflects an amazing return on  investment. Data consistently shows that lifetime earnings for those with college degrees far exceeds those with only high school degrees. We’ve been telling our students that since they were young, so it’s no surprise that they have expectations of getting jobs when they finish their education.

The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA conducts an annual freshman survey, exploring attitudes toward social issues, study skills in high school, and reasons for going to college. Here is the graph on reasons for college attendance from their 2012 survey.

HERI

The chart shows the changes over the last 36 years on three reasons why students go to college. Students are asked to evaluate a variety of reasons in terms of their importance. it’s critical to recognize that these aren’t mutually exclusive categories: they could rate all reasons as very important. The data shows some significant increase in those interested in better jobs and minor increases in terms of making money and general education. What strikes me is the relative stability of these three factors from 1982 to 2006 — not only are they all important but they are still supported as “Very Important” by over 60% of college freshmen. While it does appear that the economic downturn and college debt issues have pushed the job numbers up, the general education numbers went up as well, gaining roughly 10 percentage points in less than a decade.

I got some anecdotal insights into this tension in my senior liberal arts capstone class Monday night. I had them in groups trying to explain the SAU mission statement to a high school freshman. One of the groups responsible for “the study and application of the liberal arts” explained that breadth is good because you find things out about yourself along the way and might even switch majors to something you’re passionate about. I asked about the oft-repeated meme that general education courses were boring and nobody wanted them. The student responded that sometimes that particular course didn’t work for you but did for someone else. It was a wonderful testimony to why we study a variety of fields — even gender studies!

Embracing the liberal arts is especially important at a Christian university. We live in community and interact with others whose interests differ from ours. We have to know how to navigate that reality and we learn to do that through courses, chapel, and cafeteria conversations. Along the way, we’re expecting a light to turn on, for a student to say “I know what I’m called to do”. That’s not about their job but about their life.

Frederick Buechner puts it best. In his book, Wishful Thinking, he defines vocation like this: It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God. … By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.

Governor McCrory (and those other job-obsessed folks like him) meet Frederick Buechner. Please.