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IN MY OPINION

In praise of faith-based liberal education

Reverence isn’t what liberal arts students most need. To start with, they need to learn how to use facts and think independently.

By CHRIS BARKER | APR 01 2015

As a Canadian teaching at a Methodist college in Kansas, I’d like to weigh in on faith-based liberal arts education south of the border, and to explain how I think it works, when it does work. I am speaking simply as a teacher to other teachers about competing styles of liberal pedagogy. Midway through my second semester as the faculty member responsible for teaching all political science and legal studies courses at a Christian college, I have provisionally concluded that you can teach effectively at a religious college without teaching in a religious way. In a tightly constrained job market, colleges rooted in the tradition of a religious denomination may even offer an attractive, encumbered-yet-free intellectual environment for junior faculty.

In a recent article, Gilbert Meilaender captured a position that is popular among those who teach the liberal arts at schools with religious affiliation. He argues that liberal education is in trouble, and that the professoriate needs to keep the wheels of worship and reverence turning in order to combat the transformation of modern education into a soulless technology. Dr. Meilaender wrote this about “the free self-transcendence” offered by liberal education: “The liberal arts should help us to understand the truth about our lives — which means, in part, the truth of our contingency and neediness, and, ultimately, our dependence on the divine.” For him, the proper response to the technocracy of contemporary education is not to put more emphasis on liberty, but to renew the place of “worship.”

This debate has been around a long time: witness Allan Bloom’s famous argument that students’ minds are so open that they’re closed. One flaw in Dr. Meilaendaer’s approach is that, outside of the prep school students who have been told throughout their lives that they are special, prestige-less and property-less young students tend to have an excess of reverence, not a deficit.

At my college, there are many ways of building community, for example, faculty members collaborate with students in holding discipleship classes, chapel, and by performing community service. After (only) six months teaching in this environment, I feel that it is not our sense that we are dependent rational beings that will “save” modern liberal education, just as it is not this dependence that undermines it. Faith-based techniques of “soul craft” are supplements to the liberal arts, while the arts themselves are the mainstays of independent thought. Religiously based techniques of self-cultivation and outreach allow some students to understand themselves and their pre-existing commitments better than they otherwise would. For these students, these techniques have genuine worth.

I cannot speak for my colleagues or my school’s administration, but when I look deeper into the liberty that is preserved by a liberal arts education, it is competence, not reverence, that is the core of the liberal arts. Students, as students, have respect for competence, and especially for omni-competence. They learn reverence best when they learn it indirectly, by learning from their professors why a liberal education is of high value.

If critics of the idea of liberty behind the liberal arts mean that studying dance at Scripps College or queer race politics at Haverford College is not the answer, they are partly right. A lot of foundational work must be presupposed for such activities to remain liberty-preserving, and my Midwestern students need basic humanities skills rather than these specialized or niche techniques. In my introductory criminal justice class, that means dealing with and even becoming further immersed in not-very-liberal, scientistic and commodified society: for instance, learning how to read and use FBI statistics. This allows students to make sense of their intuitions concerning racial equality and the fairness of equal procedural rights. In my class on the legal system, I focus on teaching humanities skills that they need to read and analyze complex court cases and to achieve emotional and intellectual distance from those cases, a skill that I call learning how to think judicially. This is a skill that does not come easily or quickly. In another epoch, this intellectual habit would have been given the name of a cardinal virtue, moderation, but I am happy if students practice it under any name. In comparative politics, the aim is to transmit technical knowledge about foreign states that are outside the students’ frame of reference, to provide the experience that is necessary to improve moral and political judgment about our country, or any other country.

Different students need different liberties and also need to take different liberties with their background/families/customs. Teachers can’t know in advance just what is causing students not to think, and partially liberating them from bad intellectual habits can come from one intervention among many. The replacement of vague moral generalizations or unreflective moral intuitions with statistics and survey data, as factoid-driven as that may seem to educators, can be liberating. But of course, students also need to trust their instructors, to have well-rounded instructors who teach the whole person, and who do so through competent immersion in specialized academic fields.

To teach reverence is to teach receptivity, but, at this particular liberal arts college, my students are already receptive to authority. My current aim is to transmit knowledge about the most important things, in more or less practical ways, to students who are in need of the art of thinking. To me, that is how to teach liberally at a faith-based liberal arts college. In my brief experience, my students have benefitted from my skills and, where their commitments and my commitments as an educator have clashed, I think that we’ve all learned from experiencing this tension. To those members of the professoriate who would never consider teaching at such a school, I would reply that faith-based pedagogy is not an impediment to academic freedom, at least when instructors are willing to acknowledge students’ pre-existing commitments and dialectically to challenge and refine them in the name of competent, liberal education.

Dr. Barker is an assistant professor of political science at Southwestern College.

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  1. William Badke / April 1, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    Thank you for this perceptive article. I teach in a faith-based university, and I resonate with your emphasis on liberal arts in a religious educational institution as informed by faith rather than limited by it. As we teach students how to handle knowledge intelligently, the goal is not indoctrination (which suppresses thought) but an expansion of their analytical abilities. Where faith helps this, beyond a moderate approach to life, is in the quest for truth that is the foundation of faith, in a tendency to be charitable toward competing views, and in lives that are driven by a perceived purpose that calls for making the best contribution to their world that is possible.

    I see no stifling of views, no rampant prejudice. What I see are purpose-driven students willing to explore their options and eager to prepare themselves for life.

  2. Lokis / April 2, 2015 at 8:41 am

    yes – let us invest in mythology big time – these gods and their fairy tales continue to foster world peace – sophomoric sophistry like this stilted wee tome give me goose bumps.

    • Mattias / April 7, 2015 at 2:44 pm

      “Its mythology” is not a very good “argument” is it – although it is ranting. The presence of God in one’s life is no mythology my friend, it is reality. You cant see it because you don’t have it.

      • Richard MacKenzie / April 8, 2015 at 11:41 am

        You assert, in response to Lokis’ “rant”, that “the presence of God in one’s life is no mythology… it is reality.” I expect Lokis would disagree with you on this point. Perhaps s/he, as I, would be interested in your argument justifying this statement. To get the ball rolling, what exactly do you mean by “reality”? Philosophers have invested billions of words on its meaning over the centuries, but in my pedestrian view some sort of objective, measurable detection of something’s existence would go a long way towards demonstrating that it is real. Does “the presence of God in one’s life” pass the test? I’m not so sure…

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