Firm Foundations: The Christian Liberal Arts Difference

DR. ANDY CHAMBERS, MBU’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, didn’t always appreciate the value of a Christian liberal arts education.

Chambers studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate at Missouri University of Science and Technology — and he stayed away from what some people call the “soft” disciplines of the humanities, such as history and literature.

“I really didn’t understand what those so-called general education classes meant,” Chambers recalls. “I just knew everybody hated them and wanted to get to their major because that’s how you made money.”

After earning his degree, Chambers decided to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and a handful of other engineering graduates were given a part-time job in campus operations. It was there that he noticed something interesting:

“I did engineering work there, but when we all talked back in our area, it was about the world, not just what we were trying to build.”

During his first Hebrew class, it began to dawn on him that he may have missed something profound about the world God created — and his role within it.

“I just started weeping,” he recalls. “The world changed for me. I was suddenly pushed back to take a different view of things. Instead of merely working in the world, I was beginning to think about the world.”

Finally, as an educator in his mid-30s, Chambers says, he came to fully understand the meaning and value of Christian liberal arts.

“If the mandate to steward God’s earth applies to me, using my mind to revel in and enjoy and be in awe of all the ways God interweaves himself,” he reasoned, “then God wants to set my mind and heart on fire with love for beauty and for trying to understand bigger questions than my narrow field taught me.”

So the man who was fully educated in theology and mechanical engineering began filling in what he calls “the huge, huge gaps in my learning.”

“I started reading old texts — texts outside theology and science,” he says. “I needed to read people who thought about the whole world and how it works.”

By this circuitous route, Chambers says, “I kind of stumbled toward a love for liberal arts.”

Perhaps we should begin by defining the word “liberal.” Chiefly because of political debates over the past century, that word is now identified in popular culture with a specific kind of political outlook — one characterized by government activism, redistribution of personal wealth to benefit the poor and marginalized and, especially in many Christian circles, a disregard for the rights of the unborn. But the origins of the word far predate the current political climate.

C.S. Lewis, the revered Oxford don, Christian apologist and author, tells us in his “Studies in Words” that “liberal” comes from the Latin word liber, which means free. “One’s mind or judgment can be liber when one is not ‘committed’ or bound by previous engagement or prejudice,” Lewis writes. “Honest jurymen who come to the case with an ‘open’ mind are liberi solutique in Cicero’s Verrines, ‘free and without ties.’ Conduct is liberalis when it is such as becomes a freeman.”

The word “arts,” meanwhile, derives from ars, which means “principled practice” or “craft.” In ancient Greece, the terms were combined into “liberal arts,” which described subjects or skills that were considered essential for a free person to participate in civic life. Liberal arts was separate from the “mechanical arts” like math. It’s also different from the modern concept of “the arts,” which includes creative expressions such as dance and painting.

Chambers’ experience raises a number of questions: What exactly is liberal arts? Does a liberal arts education provide value to students today? And how does a liberal arts education intersect with Christianity?

So what exactly is a liberal arts education? There is no one definition. In an essay in the Washington Post, Gerald Greenberg, senior associate dean of academic affairs, humanities, curriculum, instruction and programs in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University, argues that the specific curriculum isn’t important. Rather, Greenberg writes, one should focus on the result of being educated in a liberal arts curriculum:

What is that result? The transfer or creation of knowledge and the cultivation of the habits of the mind so graduates can develop and mature into successful, productive members of society who can appreciate others, experience and embrace the notion of empathy, and come to understand the joys and benefits of lifelong learning.

In other words, a liberal arts curriculum helps the student mature not only by adding knowledge, but also by developing the mind.

“There are some critics who have questioned the value of a liberal arts education,” said MBU President Dr. Keith Ross. “But I believe a strong case can be made that because of our rapidly changing world, students need multiple skill sets to succeed in life and a career, whatever that career may be. A liberal arts education, if done well, prepares graduates to think critically and communicate effectively.” Chambers agrees.

“There’s a t-shirt that says, ‘English major, will think for food.’ That’s the caricature, right? But when I look for leaders who can take responsibility for larger pieces of our curriculum, it’s fine if they are specialists in something, but I need people who can connect the dots, who can think across disciplines.

“People with a strong liberal arts foundation are often the ones who can rise and go the farthest in their careers — because they’ve been taught to think, not just taught to know a bunch of ideas, names and information.”

MBU alumni have even studied communications, history and psychology and then later become medical professionals, often working for some of the leading healthcare networks including Washington University’s School of Medicine.

For MBU sophomore Jada Jones, the Christian liberal arts nature of MBU leads her closer to Christ and helps her pursue her passions as she studies Christian ministry.

“I didn’t really experience that much community and openness about faith when I went to public schools,” said Jones.

“I have the freedom to talk about what I’m struggling with, areas I want to grow in and what I am passionate about.”

A liberal arts education, if done well, prepares you to think critically and communicate effectively. -Dr. Keith Ross

If those are the benefits of a liberal arts education, what about a Christ-based liberal arts curriculum, such as those that MBU offers?

To find answers, it might make sense to return to the origins of higher education itself.

Before the rise of Christianity in the first century, the concept of higher education did not exist. Early Christians, however, quickly established schools; those who sought to become members of the church went through a two- to three-year teaching program, according to ChristianEducation.com. In the 2nd century, Justin Martyr established catechetical schools in Ephesus and Rome. Clement established a school in Alexandria, which educated prominent Christian leaders such as Origen and Athanasius in doctrine, mathematics, medicine and grammar. By the 4th century, church and cathedral schools, maintained by pastors, taught men and women Christian doctrine, grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy.

The first universities were founded in the 13th Century in Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, teaching theology, law and medicine. The first university lecturers were the missionary monks who came from a long-standing tradition of doing both physical and intellectual work.

As Europeans colonized the New World, they began founding universities based mostly based on denomination. Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, was established in 1636 as a Congregational college with the express purpose of training clergy. Yale University also began as a Congregational institution, while Princeton University started as a Presbyterian college. The Great Awakening of the 1700s spurred another rise in universities across the colonies. By 1842, Catholic priests founded the University of Notre Dame.

As time passed, however, the Christian worldview receded from most universities, and many of them departed from their Christian roots. In turn, the church began to shift its focus from universities to seminaries that were physically separate from undergraduate institutions. And like their secular counterparts, many of the Christian-focused universities that persisted became more focused on getting graduates ready for the working world than on teaching the liberal arts.

“In a world where access to any information is a few keystrokes away, these institutions emphasize that education is about formation and transformation as much as it is about information.”

Dr. Julie Ooms

Dr. Julie Ooms, associate professor of English at MBU, argues in a recent piece she wrote for Christianity Today that reducing Christian higher education to job training is inconsistent with a full commitment to students.

Her solution: Rather than focus on the concept of “job,” Christian universities should focus on “vocation.” In an article for “Christianity Today” Ooms writes:

This word is derived from the Latin root vocare, meaning to call. Teaching and study must be viewed as a calling, which recognizes that there is One who is making that call. I have a calling, a vocation, and that calling is not at odds with my need to buy groceries, pay rent, or go on the occasional vacation. I don’t have to choose between making money or having a fulfilling job because my vocation includes my wage-earning job, along with my involvement with my church, my care for friends and family, even the way I keep and open my home; to all of these things, I am called by God.

Christian universities that offer curricula based in the liberal arts can best fulfill this need, Ooms argues. “Strong liberal arts programs help this vision for Christian education reach students and parents,” she writes. “In a world where access to any information is a few keystrokes away, these institutions emphasize that education is about formation and transformation as much as it is about information.”

At MBU, students learn their subject matter. But they also learn how to think — and specifically, how to think about life’s meaning beyond college and a career.

“Mark Twain said, ‘The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you found out why,’” Dr. Ross says. “We’re helping students find out the ‘why’ — what is my purpose? Why was I created?”

For MBU alumna Ainsley Little, studying at MBU not only helped her find her why, but prepared her how to treat patients as Christ would treat them, and to spread Christ’s light. Less than six months after graduating, Little not only worked at Mercy as a nurse, but led a patient to Christ.

“The elements of nursing exude Christ’s light, and I feel that my job and the ability to share Christ’s light is such a blessing,” said Little. “My professors helped me not only understand the nursing curriculum, but how to use my calling for Christ’s glory.”

Although some may assume that a Christian-based liberal arts curriculum is limited, the opposite is true, Dr. Ross says. “It enables students to broaden their horizons and to see the world through a different lens,” he says. One example is the legacy of racism exposed by recent racial injustices, he said.

“We can reflect upon how abhorrent racism is to God and should be to us all, as well as acknowledge its direct opposition to everything the gospel represents,” Dr. Ross says. “We can lament together and work toward meaningful racial reconciliation in our generation.”

MBU junior Jada Jones, appreciated the chance to speak and address racism and Christ’s viewpoint during a panel discussion following Floyd’s death.

A Christian liberal arts foundation also can help us appreciate the exquisite beauty of God’s creation.

“Liberal education, done well, teaches us to see the beauty, mystery, and glory of God in all things, the good and the broken, and fuels in us a desire to engage the whole world with our whole being for His glory,” Chambers says.

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