If you follow Chris Gehrz on his any of his social media outlets, then you may have already read about his concern regarding the future of the liberal arts at Christian colleges. Among the many points Gehrz raises is that instead of just focusing on how a liberal arts degree can net students a job, we might also start by asserting that:
At the turn of the twentieth century, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois disagreed on the type of education African Americans should pursue. Washington thought African Americans should pursue a vocational education because this education would allow them to pursue the practical goals of economic independence, or self-reliance. DuBois, on the other hand, believed that African Americans should pursue a liberal arts education; exposure to the arts, literature, philosophy, and the natural sciences was the route to intellectual excellence and leadership.
These differing perspectives on education reflected contrasting ideas about the relationship of African Americans to the rest of the world. Washington’s ideas about education supported his theory of racial accommodation—that African Americans should not seek primarily to change the world in which they lived. Instead, they should seek to develop the skills that would allow them to get along as best they could in an imperfect world in which racism circumscribed black rights and opportunities. DuBois, on the other hand, did not believe in racial accommodation. He hoped that, through exposure to the liberal arts, black leaders would arise and challenge the existing norms of society to change it for the better.
For Christians, questions about the function of education are different, yet there are certain parallels. What are Christians called to do? Are they to give this world up for lost and focus exclusively on their individual quest for reunion with God in the afterlife? Or does the work of sanctification call on Christians to bring about renewal in the present world? In the process of making themselves holy before God, Christians are also called to take part in the redemptive work that Christ himself epitomized with his sacrifice on the cross. For this task, the liberal arts education has much to offer by seeking to acquaint students with a broad understanding of the world in which they live.
On the one hand, a liberal arts education can deepen students’ appreciation for God’s creation. When God had finished creating the world, he pronounced it good. Even though sin has corrupted this world, there are still evidences of that goodness. This is true not only in the natural world but in the contributions of humans, who, after all, were created just a little lower than the angels. The study of the natural sciences helps students see the intricacies of that creation just as the study of the arts allows students to understand the creative abilities God endowed to humans.
On the other hand, a liberal arts education can also show students the brokenness of creation, alerting them to the redemptive work that must still be done. While we are commanded to think upon holy things, we must also be willing to minister to the broken parts of creation. The study of natural sciences also helps students see creation run amuck just as the study of the arts shows students the darkness in the hearts of humankind.
Today, a Christian liberal arts college must retain some of the Washingtonian elements of education, equipping students with practical skills for economic independence, so that they can accommodate themselves to the world in which they live. Yet, a Christian liberal arts college must also offer students a deeper, broader understanding of the world in which they live, not only as a way of strengthening their understanding of the Creator but also as a way of creating Christian leaders to challenge the existing brokenness of society and change it for the better.
When I think about what I want for my daughter, I don’t first think of what kind of job she will have. Instead, I think of what kind of person she will be, and–to paraphrase the 1928 Book of Common Prayer–what good works the Lord has prepared for her to walk in. My hope is that a Christian liberal arts education is in her future, that it will help her grow in her faith, illuminate and challenge her mind, and provide her with a beloved community of support as she sets forth on a path of holy calling. If such a path involves some couch surfing in my basement, so be it.