Let’s begin with a story:
Two young travelers set out in search of a restaurant whose reputation had made it famous among all those who know fine cuisine. When they found The Bistro, they were impressed with its highly trained staff, its beautiful dining spaces, and its extensive menu. Of course, The Bistro was an expensive place to eat—$2000 for an all-day, eight-course feast! What distinguished The Bistro from other restaurants was its mission–not only to feed its honored guests but to teach them to prepare all its entrees and special courses. Excited and hungry for the feast ahead, the two young travelers paid the hefty fee and found open seats at one of the beautifully-laid tables. When the first course arrived, they sampled the food tentatively, taking small bites and watching closely the reactions of their peers. Before the servers carried out the second course, the chefs, who were trained in various culinary arts, counseled the guests to be adventurous in their selections. “But I’m only interested in a few of these foods,” said the young woman with some alarm. “Most of the soups and small plates are things I know I won’t like!”
The chef tried to soothe her anxieties. “You might be surprised how much you like them. After all, isn’t trying new things the reason you came to The Bistro?”
At another table, the young man was having a similar conversation. “Just bring me a double bacon cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake,” he demanded.
Again, the chef tried to encourage interest in other foods. “The featured item in the next course is being prepared by a visiting master chef. Aren’t you even a little curious?”
The young man crossed his arms. “I didn’t pay $2000 to eat food I probably won’t even like. This is my dinner experience, so I should get what I want.”
Seeing the young man’s resistance, the chef let him make his choice. “Yes, this is your meal, and ultimately you get to decide whether it is meager or magnificent.”
For the rest of the feast, the young dinner guests persistently avoided foods that might challenge their palates, complaining when anything unfamiliar was placed in front of them. Seeing his dinner guests’ discontent, the maître d’ asked why they were so glum. “I came here knowing exactly what foods I plan to eat for the rest of my life,” said the young woman, “and I had to eat all of this other stuff, too.”
The maître d’ nodded. “What makes you so sure that you’ll be satisfied with the same small meal every day?”
The young woman opened her mouth, but nothing came out. And she felt a seed of panic in the pit of her stomach.
The young man stood, brushing crumbs from his lap. “I came primarily for The Bistro insignia pin that will show everyone that I’ve eaten here. That token will win me the respect of everyone who has never eaten here.”
Again the maître d’ nodded. “Yes,” he said, “it is an honor to be known among The Bistro’s clientele.” He followed the young man to the door. “The Bistro insignia pin will set you apart from all the people in this world who don’t have one,” said the maître d’, “but what will distinguish you among all of those who do?”
And with that, the young man found himself on the sidewalk, knowing very little more about the culinary wonders of the world than he did when he had arrived.
An education, no matter how formal or tattered, is worth very little if it does not change the person it afflicts. I choose that particular condition, affliction, because education is both a costly and a painful endeavor—a bit like the sharp leg pains that disturb our sleep all through adolescence. And so much of our education comes in the form of stories—historical narratives, cautionary tales, nursery rhymes, and quadratic equations that riddle even as they teach. It doesn’t require a far stretch of the imagination to conceive of a liberal arts education as an orientation to life through the experience of engagement with a diverse, broadly peopled, and complexly plotted human narrative. Scott Russell Sanders offers a compelling discussion of ten specific powers of story—any story that plucks the strings of our shared humanity.
The fifth power, he contends, is the education of our desires: “The root meaning of educate is to lead out, as if everything a student learns were already inside, waiting to be released” (Sanders 2000, 92). If a person can muscle past the dread that precedes intellectual discovery—that all-too-common belief that the things of geometry and Renaissance paintings and Shakespearean sonnets are duller than and as heavy as the stones every gardener has had to haul out of a freshly turned field—then a liberal arts education can lead out the curiosity holed up inside us that is just waiting to be turned loose. “What stories at their best can do is lead our desires in new directions—away from greed, toward generosity; away from suspicion, toward empathy; away from an obsession with material goods, so dear to a consumer culture, and toward a concern for spiritual goods” (Sanders 2000, 92). I would argue that the same is true for the courses in a liberal arts curriculum. Learning is an experience of discovery, but it is also hard work and sometimes disappointing. The heart of the calling to teach within the framework of a Christian liberal arts perspective is to help students recognize and seize upon joy, even if in the middle of a tedious semester that joy is the flecked glimmer of gold panned from so much river muck.
The Evolution of AU’s Liberal Arts Identity and Curriculum
For decades, many four-year colleges took a “buffet” approach to liberal arts education, believing that students were best served if they were made to sample content from as many disciplines as possible. However, a buffet does not necessarily produce an excellent meal, particularly if a person’s choices at this buffet are indiscriminate. A better metaphor for the kind of educational experience that a liberal arts education should provide is a gourmet feast, planned, prepared, and enjoyed through collaboration between skilled culinary experts and the novices they are mentoring. The hunger that brings many students to college is common enough, but the object of many students’ appetite is predictable: a credential with which they can secure the job of their dreams. Although not a bad ambition, this vision of professional achievement and financial prosperity, it is one that sometimes eclipses all other motivations, causing students to contract their ambitions around a very narrow set of expectations.
Pulitzer Prize-winner George Anders, a contributing writer for both Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, exalts the marketplace power of a liberal arts education when graduates recognize their eclectic academic experience as an asset rather than an irrelevant accessory on their college transcripts. He believes that one of the most important benefits of a liberal arts education is the openness to new experiences that it trains in a student’s intellectual posture (2017, 21).
Anders also challenges the notion that classes in the humanities and social sciences—courses that make up a big part of the traditional liberal arts curriculum—are irrelevant to the professional fields in which many students are hoping to build a career. “New types of jobs keep coming into existence in ways that catch us by surprise. Technology opens up fresh possibilities. So do changing social dynamics; so do evolving public priorities” (2017, 80). While this kind of education DOES have intrinsic value not quantified or justified by monetary measures, it also has extrinsic value that can be clearly measured by its usefulness in both current and future economic settings.
From its beginning, Anderson University has recognized that a clear vocational focus is very helpful for students trying to navigate a path toward productive citizenship, but that this focus should NOT restrict a person’s preparation for the future life they imagine. Rather, a person’s calling should excite and expand her appetites and interests. A liberal arts education, when it is pursued with curiosity and enthusiasm, is an excellent way to begin the ongoing process of making a life rather than merely making a living.
As a faith-based institution, AU has its roots in the Church of God Movement. The group of Christians who were part of this early church movement understood their calling to be loving God with one’s whole self and loving others with the same tenderness, zeal, and compassion with which Jesus loves us. This is one of two great commandments that energize the Movement, the other being Jesus’ command to His disciples to go into all the world—their own homes and neighborhoods as well as the far-flung corners of the globe—and make more disciples by introducing people to the person and gospel message of Jesus Christ. Those in the Church of God Movement believe that relationship with and obedience to the Holy Spirit is transformative—a relational and ongoing experience that enables a person to rise above the crippling effects of sin and share freely the good news of Christ’s resurrection (“Our Beliefs,” We Believe 2003). These beliefs motivated the second generation pioneers of the Church of God Movement to establish a Bible Training School with four distinct disciplinary schools in order to properly equip the next generation of leaders to carry out that calling. In its original conception, this Bible Training School did not confer degrees or offer academic majors. Yet, this fundamental recognition—that knowledge can be gained, that important vocational skills can be nurtured, and that wisdom can be shared—seeded what would become an accredited university with fully developed graduate and undergraduate programs and a diverse population of students, faculty, and staff. Even when the Bible School course curriculum was designed specifically to prepare members of The Gospel Trumpet Company for ministerial and missionary work, students were required to complete courses including English Grammar, Rhetoric and Composition, English Literature, Medieval and Modern History. By 1923, courses in psychology and sociology were also required. Although they were fully committed to the school’s mission to prepare young adults for religious vocations, Anderson’s first president, John Morrison, and first dean, Russell Olt, were also committed to education for service outside the church. Morrison and Olt shepherded the school from Bible Training School to its second identity as an accredited, degree-granting college. Theological training was still at the heart of the school’s educational mission, but Morrison and Olt recognized that Christians were doing missional work in all areas of society. Consequently, they expanded the curriculum to include courses in business, education, music, the sciences, and literature.
This foundational academic preparation began taking shape in 1923 when Morrison and Olt added non-theological courses to the curriculum. “In 1927, Morrison proposed to the trustees the construction of a full liberal arts curriculum. Dean Olt and President Morrison envisioned a curriculum that would lead to a full bachelor’s degree” (Strege 2016, 52). By 1929, the College of Liberal Arts had been established, and the school’s name was changed to Anderson College and Theological Seminary. In addition to their theological training, students were required to complete courses in subjects such as geology, general psychology, history of western Europe, mathematics, survey of American literature, botany, French, Elizabethan drama, Victorian literature, modern European history, philosophy, sociology, Chaucer and early English literature, and American government (Catalog 1929).
This change was not celebrated by everyone in the Church of God Movement. Many ministers and lay leaders “wondered whether it had expanded beyond the church’s need. In the minds of some, liberal arts and professional education exceeded the purview of the church. The expanded curriculum and the character of Anderson College became contested issues” (Strege 2016, 55). Although it created a great deal of controversy and threatened the very existence of Anderson College as a Church of God school, the development of a liberal arts curriculum and the addition of courses in professional areas such as science, education and business led to a considerable increase in enrollment (Strege 2016, 87). In spite of intense pressure to return to its original mission and identity as a Bible Training School, there simply was no going back. According to Strege, “John Morrison’s successful ratification [as college president] in 1934 was a victory for liberal arts education at Anderson College and Church of God Progressive” (2016, 89). Strege further notes, “The notion of education as a liberating discovery fitted nicely with the Progressive vision of the Church of God as a community that embraced all the redeemed in Christ as brothers and sisters . . . . If not precisely a cornerstone of the undergraduate curriculum, their commitment to ecclesiological openness nevertheless resonated with the ideals of liberal arts education” (2016, 89). For many who had invested their very lives in the calling articulated by the Great Commission, these changes were radical and disturbing, igniting fear that the school had abandoned its most important work. The kind of formal education being championed by Morrison and Olt was viewed with skepticism by some and open hostility by others. Yet, Morrison and Olt never lost their resolve or their confidence that education and faithful service to God were not mutually exclusive pursuits. The strength of this commitment allowed the college to continue its unique academic unfolding.
By the conclusion of the 1930s, Anderson College’s undergraduate liberal arts program was “the backbone of the curriculum” (Strege 2016, 128). During this decade, the college offered fifteen different departments of instruction organized into four schools–a College of Liberal Arts, the Bible School, a Theological Seminary, and a School of Music. According to the 1943 catalog, the college offered four degrees and two diplomas. All of the degrees required the completion of liberal arts coursework, some demanding as many as 68 credit hours. In 1949, the course catalog outlined a Standard College Course, a traditional liberal arts program designed to be completed across all four years of study as a complement to either two academic majors or one major and two minors. These requirements remained essentially unchanged for more than ten years.
The opening paragraph of the degree requirements outlined in the 1961 Anderson College Catalog demonstrates the school’s commitment to providing students with a broad rather than a narrow education: “As a liberal arts college, Anderson College seeks to graduate students who have a broad personal competence, who have had opportunity for some specialization in the field of their greatest interest and who may have made a beginning in some professional or pre-professional field” (1961-62 Anderson College Announcements, 61). The focus—specialized study of a specific academic discipline—is identified as a beginning, not a conclusion of the student’s education. And it occurs within the context of a more comprehensive cognitive development. The “broad personal competence” identified in the 1961 catalog resulted from students’ active engagement with such disciplines as communication, world literature, history and world civilizations, foreign languages, social and behavioral sciences, natural science and mathematics, religion and philosophy, physical education, and the creative arts (Announcements, 62-63). It was the faculty’s belief then, as it is now, that an “educated person” must come into his or her vocation equipped with all of these competencies—an intellectual craftsman carrying a well-stocked toolbox and the confidence to use every tool with effect.
The language used to describe the liberal arts curriculum changed again in the mid-seventies: “Specifically, the general requirements are a response to the student’s need to expand and sharpen his ability to perceive, understand and learn; to enhance and increase his self-insight and self-discovery; and to assist positively in his intellectual, social aspirational and spiritual awareness and development” (1974-76 Anderson College Catalog, 4). The courses required for graduation were organized into two categories: Skills and Distributed Courses. The “Skills” category included English, language, and mathematics. The “Distributed Courses” were spread among six thematic areas. Area One included courses that “emphasize the individual as a person, his self-concept and his behavioral patterns of interaction to fulfill needs and wants.” The courses in Area Two provided both practice and appreciation of the arts. Area Three included courses that “set forth the major events, cultural ideas and their expressions, world views of Western and non-Western societies contributing to an understanding of self and society.” Area Four courses focused on “the behavioral patterns of man and his interaction with his social environment.” Area Five was concerned with “the scientific study of the natural environment with the mathematical and logical relationships as they contribute to the student’s understanding.” And Area Six included courses in biblical study and other areas of religion (1974-76 Anderson College Catalog, 4-7). What is clear in the descriptions of all six areas is a concern for the development of students’ curiosity about and understanding of the larger world they inhabit and an intellectual exploration of their sense of participation in that larger world.
The liberal arts curriculum in the 1980s was still concerned with this kind of broad development of the whole person, as opposed to a narrowly-defined professional preparation. The Liberal Arts Program was modified again to include 12 components: “Freshman Seminar, courses in the use of the English language, Foreign Language, Individual Thought and Behavior, Artistic Expression, Fitness, Health and Leisure, Culture and Heritage, Societal Organization, Mathematical Sciences, Physical and Biological Sciences, Biblical Study, and Senior Capstone” (1984-86 Anderson College Catalog, 6-7). Faculty encouraged students to integrate what they learned in these general education courses with the things they were learning in their major. Getting these courses “out of the way” was a counterproductive goal because this misguided ambition was based on the assumption that the ideals, compelling questions, vocabulary, and dilemmas of any one discipline or professional field were unrelated to any other. This conflict reflects a generational difference between the educator’s ideals, based in Enlightenment values and the student’s expectations, rooted in post-modern societal priorities. This conflict, however, does not override the impulse of a liberal arts curriculum. Because it is generous in its contribution to the student’s intellectual, social and spiritual growth, a liberal arts education resists compartmentalization.
Without reducing the size or scope of the liberal arts curriculum, the faculty simplified the structure of its core curriculum in 2002 by organizing it into five content areas: Christianity and Biblical Studies, History and the Contemporary World, The Aesthetic, The Environment, and The Individual (Undergraduate College Catalog 2002-2004, 8-16). These five areas of the curriculum reflected five key aspects of human experience: faith and the human desire for relationship with God, the power of story to shape our understanding of our current circumstances, our need for creative expression, our relationship with the natural world, and our understanding of ourselves as uniquely gifted and responsible to others. If our work in the world is to be productive, ethical, and satisfying, then it must be informed by and responsive to these aspects of human experience.
The faculty revised the liberal arts curriculum once again in 2015. Organized in two parts—Foundational Skills and seven Ways of Knowing (Christian, Scientific, Civic, Aesthetic, Social and Behavioral, Global and Intercultural, and Experiential)—this new core curriculum reduced the total number of credit hours required for graduation and gave this essential part of students’ educational experience greater clarity. The new configuration preserved the school’s belief that all people serving in the church and in the world should have strong oral and written communication skills, possess at least a foundational biblical literacy, practice the habits of personal wellness, and examine the complex questions of human experience through a wide range of lenses. These “lenses,” or Ways of Knowing, are relevant vocational preparation because they challenge the tunnel vision that so many people in contemporary Facebook culture have developed. For this reason, a liberal arts education has very practical, not merely esoteric, value. It can help us to become our best, rather than our worst, selves in the face of turmoil and crisis. “The university’s conception of liberally educated people involves the freeing and empowering of the total person–his or her spiritual, intellectual, aesthetic, emotional and physical resources,” says the 2019-20 Undergraduate Catalog (29).
Freeing the total person to thrive first in an academic environment and then in the world beyond the campus perimeter involves the development of essential skills and knowledge competencies. These foundational skills include competencies such as oral and written communication, empathetic listening, qualitative reasoning, biblical literacy, critical thinking and civil discourse. Rather than a “cafeteria-style” core curriculum that presents students with the opportunity to merely sample all of the disciplines that compose the modern academy with no guiding principles directing the students’ choices, this structure pursues specific learning outcomes: critical reasoning and logical thinking, communication, cross-disciplinary view, Christian commitments and practices, intercultural perspectives, and preparation for service (Undergraduate Catalog 2019-20, 31-32). It isn’t enough to know a little bit about history, science, the arts, human society, and the natural world. What matters is a person’s ability to consider complex questions from a variety of perspectives and to recognize that engineers have much to learn from artists, public health professionals must consider present crises through the lens of history, and marketing specialists can promote products and services more effectively if they understand the fundamentals of good storytelling. A liberal arts education challenges the narrow-mindedness that causes so much conflict and limits human ingenuity. Seeing the world only one way limits our capacity for empathy, for invention, and for discovery. In a world with problems as big as those facing us now, we need more than ever before to meet them with greater, not less, imaginative dexterity.
Beginning in the early 1980s, the gateway to the AU liberal arts curriculum was a course required of all first-year students: the Liberal Arts Seminar. Initially, faculty determined the thematic focus for their individual sections of this course, which was populated almost exclusively by freshmen. For example, Professor Gibb Webber, chair of the Department of English, used mythology as the context and subject matter for his students’ writing assignments and class discussions. Regardless of the topical focus or the specific faculty member teaching the class, the seminar course sought to engage students in Socratic questioning and critical analysis. By the 1990s, a series of overarching themes created a common focus for all of the students participating in the seminar: “friendship,” “justice and the good society,” and, later, “romantic love.” A common reader was used by all faculty teaching the seminar comprised of selections written by scholars in a wide range of fields, historic and contemporary. Late in the life of this course, it underwent a radical revision and a rebranding. Rather than using selected readings to engage students in discussions—sometimes debates—about a central topic, the seminar professors endeavored to nurture seven essential intellectual skills: defining terms, practicing civil discourse, actively engaging with authors and speakers, identifying purpose and rhetorical intent, identifying implied or stated assumptions and values, identifying and evaluating an argument, and constructing an argument to move people toward action.
Carrie Clay, professor of Spanish and the final faculty member to provide leadership for the Liberal Arts Seminar, sees an important connection between the three ideas inscribed on the university’s seal and the goals of not just this specific seminar course but of the entire liberal arts curriculum: “Our first year Liberal Arts Seminar students [were] challenged at various times throughout the semester to think, read, write, speak, and grapple with ideas (veritas), regardless of their immediate utility, and to do so in the light of our Christian heritage and beliefs (fidelitas). But we [did] not stop there. With an eye to educating for a life of faith and service (utilitas), students [were] challenged to apply all they are learning to a final project that requires (or would lead to) action in response to argument. Students [were] provided an opportunity to attach their ideas to service.” Although codified as the structuring mechanism for the final iteration of the Liberal Arts Seminar, these essential intellectual skills nurtured students’ ability to engage productively with their peers by examining persistent human problems and facing with courage the often contradictory ideas of the world’s best thinkers, an ambition that still runs across the entire curriculum. While eventually dropped as a course required of all students, the seminar course laid the groundwork for much of the cognitive growth students would experience in later courses, both in the liberal arts core and in their academic major. Interestingly, it also inspired another important change to the liberal arts core: the inclusion of critical reasoning and civil discourse as a foundational skill.
Theoretical Perspectives Regarding the Value, Utility and Relevance of a Liberal Arts Education
#1: Becoming More Fully Human
In The Idea of a Christian College, Arthur F. Holmes rejects the utilitarian notion that formal education is useful only to the extent that it can be used as a currency for something we desire: financial wealth, social status, professional advancement, appointments to powerful public offices. He insists that asking, “Whatever will I do with ___?” is absolutely the wrong question “because it concentrates on instrumental value and reduces everything to a useful art. The right question is rather, ‘What can it do to me?’” (1987, 29). In this regard, Holmes and Sanders are of the same mind. Both believe that our encounters with the great stories of creation should change us in significant and often unpredictable ways. What education should do, what a liberal arts education must, in fact, do, is lead out those capacities and virtues that are seeded in us as human beings and pollinate whatever follows so that we can bear fruit to feed those around us who are starving.
Of course, very few people relish the possibility of having things done to them. Whether or not we aspire to be agents of leadership or innovation in the wider world, we certainly want to be agents of autonomy in our own lives. So the idea that education is supposed to do something to us may not be all that appealing for many 21st-century students. I can imagine students reading this essay, crossing their arms protectively, and saying, “Nope, I am willing to do but NOT to be done to.” Being “done to” by anything—surprise, love, grief, hope—requires two sources of strength: courage and vulnerability. Brene Brown (2019), a research professor at the University of Houston, insists that she and her colleagues “can measure how brave you are by [assessing] how vulnerable you are willing to be.” Students who are willing to submit to the kind of instruction that a liberal arts education accomplishes open themselves to one of the two most important gifts of vulnerability: joy (the other is love). Practicing vulnerability in our relationships and daily work is possible because the unknown loses its threat, hard things lose their sharp edges, and our fear of failure is in some measure diminished.
Holmes argues that human beings have three fundamental qualities: we are thinking, reflective beings; we are valuing beings; and we are responsible agents in creation (1987, 29-32). A liberal arts education, like the one that students experience at Anderson University, is useful not because it fills our minds with textbook content about the classic subjects of academic study but because it teaches us to think critically (which means to resist hasty judgments and approach both people and circumstances with curiosity, empathy, and openness), strengthens our ability to make moral judgments and resist oversimplification, and to consider carefully the consequences of our own and others’ actions. All of this, according to Holmes, prepares us for “creative participation in the future” (1087, 33). Students may not express the idea this way, but they come to college because they believe they are deficient, unprepared for whatever future they imagine for themselves. The ambition of the faculty at AU is to acknowledge those deficiencies—in fact to celebrate them as a natural condition of youth—and to engage students with work that will help them come to see themselves as shaping agents of that future, not passive recipients of other people’s activity.
So, what distinguishes the liberal arts education at a Christian university from the general education requirements included in the curriculum at a secular institution? Many of the course requirements might be the same, but the unifying theme of the curriculum is a pursuit of “the vibrancy of life in Christ” (Undergraduate Catalog 2019-20, 4). If the goal of a Christian, liberal arts education is to educate and develop the whole person, then personhood cannot be conceived as something separate from Christ. Todd C. Ream and Perry L. Glanzer identify four specific aspects of personhood, informed by their understanding of human beings as children of God: identity formation as an expression of our likeness to God; creative capacities as a divine calling and responsibility; fulfillment of social identities; and discernment of truth, virtue and beauty (2013, 30-35). Becoming more fully human means becoming more fully a person created in the image of God. The acquisition of knowledge and essential skill competencies is a fulfillment of our identity in Christ because this kind of education makes us more like our creator.
#2: Pollinating the Human Imagination
The imagination must be exercised if it is to flourish. People who are accused of being unimaginative are probably merely unpracticed. Because courses in a traditional liberal arts curriculum draw students out of the siloed hallways of their academic major into surveys and seminars focused on other disciplines, students must at least consider the possibility that the knowledge possessed by people who haven’t pursued their chosen career path might have some value. Conceiving of possibility—the possibility that my lab partner might agree to share a pizza this weekend, the possibility that I might live in another country for a while, the possibility that I might own my own company—requires imagination, a belief in a preferred future. A liberal arts education can help students to see that big problems exist in the world and then inspire them to believe that the problems plaguing the human condition can be solved. Solutions to the biggest problems in previous generations required scientists and engineers to examine the problems from radically different perspectives. This is one of the gifts of a liberal arts education: it facilitates an examination of the world from a wide variety of perspectives. Students enrolled in an introductory psychology course are asked to examine human experience through the lens of the human mind. Students enrolled in a sociology course are invited to examine human experience through the lens of group migrations, social mores, and family dynamics. Students enrolled in a global literature course examine human experience through the lens of story and metaphor. All of these courses might pose for students’ consideration the same fundamental and perplexing questions, but every course will tease and test answers to the questions in very different ways, and, at their best, suggest very different answers.
As a student, I took a theology course as part of my own general education curriculum. My roommate at the time took the same class, one in which we read seminal works by theologians representing a wide range of religious traditions. These scholars were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Budhists, even an atheist or two. Halfway through the semester, my friend threw her hands up in despair, wailing, “I just want to know when the professor is going to tell us who is right!” Although it did not comfort her anxiety, our professor’s response to her request was both gentle and wise: “No one is entirely right about anything of any importance. Your work as a thinking, believing human being is to discover what those who disagree with one another share and consider the possibility that whatever you have come to believe with absolute certainty in any given moment might be wrong. This is how you will find your way to truth.”
#3: Gaining Wisdom, Which Is to Say, Humility
One of the first lessons I teach the students in any of my classes, regardless of grade classification or course focus, is the importance of humility. Humility is essential to human health and happiness because it makes us teachable and releases us from the prison of perfectionism. A liberal arts education, if embraced as a gift rather than a burden, can teach us humility because the courses in the liberal arts curriculum so often draw us out of familiar intellectual territory and toward new fields of knowledge. The student who is energized by mathematical puzzles might be intimidated by explorations of the great Renaissance painters; students who feel quite at home analyzing poetic language or imagery in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass might panic in the face of human physiology or the scientific method. Learning new ways to think is hard work, and it often creates confusion before it leads to clarity. This is exactly why it is so important to reach outside the intellectual circles in which we feel most comfortable and confident. One of my early mentors comforted my own feelings of inadequacy with this advice: You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room; you just need to learn as much as you can from the person who is. Curiosity is innate, but humility is learned. Grappling with course content that challenges our aesthetic preferences and knowledge competencies exercises our tolerance for the unknown. This, too, is necessary for the development of intellectual humility—a willingness to welcome another person’s expertise as valid and admirable.
#4: Developing Community
Establishing a new peer circle is one of the first and most fundamental tasks that new college students undertake. Very quickly, they size up a roommate, decide how to cope with sharing shower space with total strangers, and scan the faces dotting all of their orientation sessions to find at least one person who resembles them in some way. Helping students enter the macro-community of the college campus and build micro-communities through participation in various campus programs is at the heart of all student life work. Athletic teams and Greek organizations, campus ministries and social service clubs all have the same goal in mind when they recruit new students for membership. Most academic departments also work hard to nurture strong relationships with and among the students pursuing their majors.
These communities are important. They foster a sense of ownership in campus programs and spaces. At their best, they nurture a sense of belonging and assist students in what is often a bewildering process of identity formation. However, a liberal arts education offers students entry to a broader, more durable community—the society of thinking, creative human beings who share a common hunger. New York Times columnist and conservative Burkean thinker David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, describes a moral ecology that he believes would restore balance, civility, and generosity to American society. He argues that creating this new moral ecology begins when we pursue the answers to these important questions about our own identity, about the aspects of ourselves and others that can create either harmony or discord in society. At AU, we believe that liberal arts courses create a community in which these questions can be pursued. One of Brooks’ key propositions is a belief that wisdom arises from intellectual communion: “The humble person thus has an acute historical consciousness. She is the grateful inheritor of the tacit wisdom of her kind, the grammar of conduct and the store of untaught feelings that are ready for use in case of emergency. The humble person . . . understands that wisdom is not knowledge. Wisdom emerges out of a collection of intellectual virtues. It is knowing how to behave when perfect knowledge is lacking” (266). It is very difficult to gain wisdom in isolation. We need consistent, meaningful interaction with others, particularly those who know things we don’t, to become wise.
Micro-communities are desirable because they foster intimacy. College students have many opportunities to either create or join micro-communities, but these can be isolating if the boundaries become too fixed, limiting the ideas, personalities, experiences, and pools of knowledge that flow into or out of the group’s membership. Courses in a liberal arts curriculum resist the silo effect that results inevitably from a consuming commitment to one field of study or one way of examining the world. An undergraduate education should be a generalist’s quest, not a narrow, highly specialized educational endeavor. Because they are part of a broad curriculum rather than a narrowly defined academic major, liberal arts courses pull together diverse groups of students. At a smaller institution like Anderson University, these courses typically have modest enrollment caps; even the survey courses like Western Civilization or Global Literature enroll fewer than fifty students per section. This means students experience the rigor and unique challenges of each course in close company with their peers, with some of whom they might have no obvious commonality. At their best, AU’s liberal arts courses make fertile ground of the strangeness we might feel when confronted with peers who seem to share none of our interests, ambitions, gifts, or even personal values, giving us an opportunity to discover that differences and disagreements can draw people closer together rather than always driving them apart. Dr. Doyle Lucas, professor of management in the Falls School of Business, offers this reflection: “I have always been caught by our vision of the importance of liberal arts based learning combined with developing a sense of vocation and looking for a place in which to serve. I know that both of these have been central to me as I have sought to fulfill my sense of calling in my life.” These courses are not extraneous to a transformative education; rather, in many ways, they are its essence. This is why students should choose their general education courses as carefully as they choose an academic major or seek out internship opportunities and spread those courses across the whole of their college experience rather than bunching them together like dreaded chores on a to-do list.
A person cannot become educated unless she is curious and open-minded. Nothing of beauty and very little of lasting value can be created with a fist. Yet, many students resent the liberal arts curriculum, viewing the courses with the same distaste with which one might swallow a dose of cough syrup. Consequently, they sometimes adopt an adversarial attitude toward the professors who teach these classes. Because we are naive, we often assume that whatever we need to know or whatever skills we need to perform any given task or operate in any given environment are predictable and prescribed, leading many of us to think that our education should be a simple downloading of these competencies into our intellectual bank. So we become impatient with those who suggest to us that it is actually difficult, if not impossible, to predict exactly what competencies might be necessary for the work we plan to do in the future or for the circumstances that we might face in our professional or personal lives.
I liken this attitude to a belief that a map of any landscape, once drawn, is now definitive and sufficient for navigation. Even if we assume leadership of a family business or become the fourth in our family to become a doctor, our unique life is an unexplored territory. Whatever map that history and our predecessors have drawn based on their own life experiences is merely a record of their own choices. To venture forward, we need their map AND a compass. Truth is as slippery as a fish, and it is a dynamic, living thing. In John 14:6, Jesus says that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Therefore, we must be in constant pursuit of truth, just as we are in constant pursuit of intimacy with Christ. A liberal arts education teaches us how to learn by introducing us to ideas we’ve never explored before. The human intellect and imagination are framed by limitations. Our capacity to expand these limits is great, but only if we are regularly seeking new intellectual, spiritual, and imaginative experiences. Truth is always just beyond our reach. A liberal arts education fuels our pursuit.
Alignment with Anderson University’s Mission and Ethos
In mid-summer of the year 1803, Lewis and Clark gathered recruits and supplies for their Corps of Discovery, an expedition commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the Louisiana Territory and chart a northwest waterway to the Pacific Ocean. For two and a half years, Lewis and Clark—together with 33 other men and their guides, French-Canadian fur trader Touissant Charbonneau and his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea—followed the Missouri River, crossed the Continental Divide, and discovered that the northwest river passage they were seeking did not exist. Though the vision that set their quest in motion was clear, their expectations were flawed. So they faced a dilemma: turn back or find another way to get where they wanted to go. Those who remember this American frontier story know that the expedition didn’t end on this northeast shoulder of the Rocky Mountains. Lewis and Clark pushed forward. Using horses they acquired from the Shoshone Indians, they crossed more than 160 miles of mountain terrain on foot to reach the Clearwater River. Then they accepted instruction from Native Americans about how to carve small canoes to follow the Columbia River and eventually reach the Pacific Ocean.
Those who seek a liberal education are actually seeking something they cannot currently see or imagine, a future that will include obstacles, surprises, disappointments and dangers. This is one aspect of Anderson University’s mission: “to educate for a life of faith and service in the church and society” (Undergraduate Catalog 2021-22, 4). We must be willing to move away from what is known into what is unknown so that we can fulfill God’s kingdom purposes.
Lewis and Clark’s expedition with the Corp of Discovery was remarkable for many reasons. It required courage, ingenuity, diplomacy, and unreasonable tenacity. Those on this expedition survived brutal weather conditions, fatigue, tense interactions with native peoples who saw them as invaders, near starvation, disease, injury, and immense geographical obstacles. They had to be a little bit crazy to launch and then achieve their quest, which was to collect scientific information about North American plants and wildlife and to test their belief in a northwest waterway to the west coast. Those who seek an education also believe fundamentally that there are people in the world who know more than they do. If students do not see their teachers as trustworthy guides, then they will spend a lot of time and far too much money resisting the very growth that real learning stimulates.
More than two centuries have passed since President Jefferson asked Congress to approve funding for this expedition. Yet, the story is not merely an anecdote from the past. It is a relevant model for our future. Lewis and Clark had a physical frontier in front of them and a commission from the U.S. government to map what was unknown to the citizens of this newly formed United States. They should have failed because they underestimated the distance and the duration of the journey, they didn’t speak the language or understand the cultures of the native people whose lands they would cross, they were incorrect in their foundational assumptions about the geography of the Pacific northwest, and they lacked many of the survival skills necessary to endure and reach their destination. So why did they succeed? One reason might be that they recognized their limitations and sought training and friendship with people who possessed the knowledge they lacked. It could be that in the face of obstacles they maintained faith in their quest. And it could be in part because they found new ways to get where they wanted to go when the known methods failed. To become educated means to become willing to fail and willing to change. An education is a struggle, but it is a productive struggle. The courses in a liberal arts curriculum encourage students to struggle with hard things and to overcome whatever biases they might have developed about the subject matter examined in those courses: history is boring; literature is irrelevant to my career goals; my life will never require a working knowledge of biochemistry. These are easy lies to believe. Fortunately, a liberal arts education challenges these false assumptions, making us more receptive to new ways of thinking about the world and our place in it.
A college student’s Louisiana Territory is not an earth, wind, and water frontier, but the territory students face is a place as wild as the one that was wholly unknown to Lewis and Clark two hundred years ago. This metaphor is a fraught and imperfect one, primarily because the territory Lewis and Clark sought to explore and eventually to impose a sovereign claim upon was not unknown to everyone. Native peoples knew the land well, had made rich dynamic lives in these places, and had many reasons to resist these explorers’ encroachment upon their homes. The kind of education examined here is one that pushes students to question things like the conqueror’s narrative and move past discomfort to discover the parts of that narrative that are often omitted or distorted. Human choice always has consequences, sometimes benevolent and sometimes destructive. If an education succeeds in helping us to become more fully human, then it leads us toward a greater understanding of the complexity of the stories we live and the stories we tell.
Learning how to learn and gaining the resilience that comes from doing hard things we would rather avoid are two of the best survival skills students can carry into their future lives. Whether or not students feel adventurous, the 21st-century frontier demands that they meet the world as explorers, not as tourists. At its best, a four-year liberal arts education can train students’ intellect and imagination broadly and nurture in them a vision for something that exceeds their current grasp.
Anderson University’s mission is deceptively simple and direct. This mission reflects the university’s heritage as the flagship educational institution of the Church of God Movement and the desire of those engaged in that Movement to be of some earthly use in the world even while practicing a holiness that keeps us in close relationship with Christ. Our liberal arts curriculum reflects the belief that being of some use in this world means identifying clearly the needs of our neighbors and then using our individual skills and knowledge to address those needs, not the least of which is to discover the hope that comes through a personal relationship with a very personal savior.
One might wonder how an academic curriculum can accomplish such a high spiritual calling. Dedicated study in the academic discipline best suited to prepare students for a particular kind of work is important spiritual as well as intellectual preparation. Dedicated study of social problems, mathematical constructs, artistic movements, economic and technological developments, biological organisms and ecosystems, political actions, and scientific discoveries is also important, spiritually relevant, intellectual work. “[Educating students for a life of] faith and service to the church and society requires broader skills and knowledge than just specific job skills. To be an informed, educated member of society (and church) means knowing the basics of many fields, in order to understand the world and understand multiple viewpoints,” says Dr. Elizabeth Imafuji, dean of the School of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences.
Many students (and their parents) are quick to repeat the mantra, “A liberal arts education makes you well-rounded, which looks good on a resume.” Students are not stones to be smoothed and polished! The kind of education to which the faculty at Anderson University have devoted themselves for over one hundred years is not one concerned with the shape of our graduates; rather, the faculty at AU are concerned with the substance of our graduates’ capacity for intellectual inquiry, creativity, empathy, and ingenuity. The courses in our liberal arts curriculum, as well as many of the courses in our academic majors, nurture these capacities. For example, a course focused on the exploration of social problems, public health policies, or political systems will require students to articulate their own beliefs clearly, evaluate objectively the ideas of their peers (and their professors!), formulate counterarguments, and learn to participate in well-reasoned debate without fear of rejection or verbal assault. These traits are necessary in order to live out Anderson University’s core values: servant leadership, excellence, integrity, responsibility, and generosity (Undergraduate Catalog 2019-20, 4). And if we are to participate in Jesus’ ministry, living out the Kingdom identity that we inherit from Him, then these traits are essential for success in all the work we do, whether that work happens in the context of our professions, our church congregations, our neighborhoods, or in our families. For the student who wonders, “Well, what can I do with a liberal arts degree?” the answer, as George Anders so deftly points out, is simple: You can do anything.