STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 12/05/2013

The Promise of Religious Liberal Arts Colleges

By Thomas A. (Tal) Howard

Tal Howard in class

Doomsayers are proclaiming that the writing is on the wall for liberal arts education and higher education in general. It is portrayed as lurching toward a cliff, like many other sectors of the economy in recent decades. Mention of “the University of Phoenix” or “MOOCs” or “the Minerva Project” strikes fear in the hearts of the tweedy set, just as handloom weavers once trembled at the sight of textile mills.

This offers religious college and universities a propitious opportunity. Many have been quietly keeping aloof from the very things that have soured so many on the state of higher education.

Education about things that matter, Aristotle tells us in his Ethics, is more about emulating a person than about mastering a precept. Developing lasting mentors and true friends over the course of four years is barely a blip in college rankings. But it may be the factor that matters most.

The patchwork of faith-based schools in this country is a vital legacy of the American experiment in religious liberty. In the 19th century, when many European nations were centralizing education as a function of the modern state, the United States became a virtual hatchery of private, small, church-related liberal arts colleges. Today those range from large institutions such as Notre Dame and Baylor to smaller ones like Gordon College. These schools have defied the odds and weathered many crises and continue to compete in the predatory eco- system of higher education. It is time for them to look within and boldly and creatively articulate what sets them apart.

It begins with people, and not virtual ones. Personal mentoring and leisurely interaction between faculty and students have long been the heart of faith-based education. The soulless PowerPoint-driven lecture cannot substitute, and neither can any amount of MOOCs. Education about things that matter, Aristotle tells us in his Ethics, is more about emulating a person than about mastering a precept. Developing lasting mentors and true friends over the course of four years is barely a blip in college rankings. But it may be the factor that matters most.

Student teacher meetingGordon helps young people discern a vocation, not just a career. The vision is this: 18- and 19-year olds should think of the arc of their lives not primarily in terms of credentials, prestige, or power, but in terms of a calling to a higher good—an orientation of the whole person away from vices such as sloth, pride, and avarice and toward virtues such as justice, courage, prudence, and charitable service to others. It is not enough to lead an interesting, distinguished or successful life; we should also lead a good one.

Institutions of higher learning should double down on the liberal arts ideal, on what Plato and Platonists ever since have regarded as the exhilarating eros of truth-seeking—something lost on rightist utilitarian approaches to learning and sneered at by guardians of leftist orthodoxy on elite campuses. Great books courses, common core programs, and capstone seminars flourish at Gordon and at many religious colleges. Young people still converse with Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, Erasmus, Locke, Adam Smith, Tocqueville, Jane Austen and many more.

And such figures are not treated simply as benighted foils to our enlightened present nor as fodder for sophisticated deconstruction, but rather in a manner, to quote Donald Kagan, “to keep alive the possibility that the past may contain wisdom useful to the present.”

In the early Middle Ages, monasteries preserved the highest in the classical world for posterity. St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians provided a clear theological rationale for this: “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Schools like Gordon earnestly desire to carry forward this ancient dialogue between Athens and Jerusalem, between intellect and piety.

To be sure, many liberal arts colleges that are not explicitly religious share some of these values. And religious school themselves are far from perfect: their rhetoric can exceed their reality, their budgets show much red. They often fail to fully practice what they preach, and some persist in fighting the confessional polemics of a bygone era.

But there are valuable qualities that are distinct to Gordon and other religious liberal arts colleges. They recognize that a life given to Mammon alone is hollow. They acknowledge the claims of community and tradition, and cherish the eros of learning. Their faculty tend to be more politically diverse than those at elite colleges. They are repositories of moral seriousness in a culture of ironic incredulity. Most importantly, Gordon and colleges like it recognize that the dignity of our humanity, particularly in the realm of learning, longs for a transcendent horizon, a supreme wisdom and highest good—what Dante called “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

This essay is adapted from an earlier one that appeared in Inside Higher Ed (Sept. 19, 2013).

Thomas Albert Howard, Ph.D., is a professor of history and directs the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College. He is the author of two-award-winning books, God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide (Oxford, 2011) and Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (Oxford, 2006), and the editor of The Future of Christian Learning and Imago Dei: Human Dignity in Ecumenical Perspective.


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