An Eloquent and Harmonious Education, Part I

This is the first post of a three-part essay on liberal arts education, professional studies, and vocations. The essay was originally delivered at the 81st Annual Conference of Lutheran College Faculties.

The theme of liberal arts education, professional training, and the Lutheran doctrine of vocations provides plenty of room for a speaker to wander and ponder. In this address, I will focus my thoughts on some of the conflicts, responses, solutions, and opportunities before Lutheran universities as they engage students in liberal and professional education.

Conflicts between the Liberal Arts and Professional Training

Concordia University Irvine instituted its Core Curriculum in 2010. As Director of Core Curriculum, I sent surveys to students to get their anonymous feedback on key aspects of the Core. Many questions were based on a Likert-scale and asked students to rate how well the Core courses helped them become more careful and reflective readers, broadened their understanding of the world, helped them see relationships between learning and the Christian faith, and the like. The surveys also had open questions such as “What was most rewarding about this Core course?” and “What change would you suggest to strengthen this Core course?” One student gave a robust response about the Core English and Core History pairing, in which students read great works of human experience and expression with an eye toward how these help us understand virtuous citizenship and a good society. The student wrote:

I do not know what was going through the Core boards members when they concocted this curriculum, perhaps they did not understand the fact that we students have many other classes which are more pertinent to our LIVES and future CAREERS than English [and history] reading is. . . . [S]ome of us are more concerned with the REAL EDUCATION we came to school for.

Perhaps, as professors, you have also received such a comment from an occupationally-driven student who sees no value in a liberal arts education for the real world.

The year after this comment, I attended a conference offered by the Liberal Arts Institute of the Association for Core Texts and Courses. The conference was held at Notre Dame University with this theme: “The Research University and the Liberal Arts College: Examination of the Research Ideal and Liberal Education.” The conference had a stellar line-up of speakers to tease out how the liberal arts model, which focuses on broadly educating citizens for life, can work with the German research model, which focuses on ever narrower specialized knowledge. The conference’s underlying lament was that the liberal arts (or, more accurately, the humanities) have been supplanted by specialized research in science and professional programs. This usurpation occurred because STEM and professional majors bring in barrels of money (through grants, endowments, or profit from new products or technologies) along with buckets of students seeking degrees with immediate utility and profitability. The anguish over the humanities’ low status led one participant to blurt out that what he loved about philosophy was just how “useless” it was. His expression and language were euphoric in recalling seminar discussions where texts were discussed for their ideas without concern for their utility. His face twisted (as if having eaten lutefisk) at the idea that philosophy, or any liberal art, would be evaluated on its usefulness.

These experiences mirror the conflict that we all too regularly see between liberal arts education and professional training. But this conflict is not new; it’s found in prior generations. In his 1995 book entitled Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education, Bruce Kimball notes that with the rise of professional and technical studies at universities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some liberal educators reacted by drawing a deep distinction between liberal and professional studies. They adopted the position that “only a ‘useless’ education can be called ‘liberal.’” It’s common to hear proponents of this position today further distinguish between “education” and “training.” Studies that are professional are merely “training,” transmitting technical skills to be mimicked. Only studies that contemplate life and lead people out of ignorance and vice can be called “education.”

A rift between liberal and professional studies also appears in Philip Melanchthon’s era. In his 1531 oration entitled, “On the Order of Learning,” Melanchthon reacts to students who neglect the study of the “lower arts,” scorning them as “useless for life,” and, instead, run straight to the “higher arts” out of “ambition” and hope for “gain.” These “lower arts” we would call the liberal arts, or historically the trivium and quadrivium. The trivium is the three language-based ways of knowing—grammar, logic, and rhetoric–with, in Melanchthon’s era, an emphasis on eloquence and reading classic texts in their original languages. The quadrivium is the four math-based ways of knowing—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The “higher arts” we would call professional programs, or historically the culminating study of law, medicine, or theology.

Melanchthon exhorts students to view professional and liberal studies together through the metaphor of eloquent speech and harmonious singing.

Vowels excel in having their own sustainable sound, just as the higher arts do. But vowels cannot give rise to speech and song without consonants, which are the lower arts. Vowels and consonants need to work in concert to create orations and choruses. The higher arts need the lower arts as their foundation for students to become fully articulate in their multiple callings within the state, family, work, and church.

Roots of the Conflict

What are some of the causes of this conflict between liberal and professional studies? Melanchthon indicates that the students of his day sought after position, prestige, and money, so they prized professional studies with their apparent immediate pay off. Martin Luther, in his 1530 “Sermon on Keeping Children in School,” blames Satan and parents. The devil wants to keep people from learning—where they become wise administrators of justice and eloquent preachers of the Gospel—and, instead, focus people on “trade and commerce” so that they prize making money-making and become idolatrous “servant[s] of Mammon.” “Carnal-minded” parents also curtail their children’s liberal arts education by pushing them quickly onto the professional path. As Luther says, quoting the typical parent, “Ha, if my son can read and write German and do arithmetic, that is enough. I am going to make a businessman of him.”

Other causes of conflict between liberal and professional studies stem from philosophy. In his 1692 book entitled Some Thoughts Concerning Education, the utilitarian John Locke states that the educational curriculum should be the “easiest, shortest, and likeliest to produce virtuous, useful, and able men in their distinct callings.” This sounds like a noble call for an education in citizenship, until it is understood that “callings” means “occupations.” In Locke’s view, education should be the easiest, most efficient job training that will enable workers to perform their tasks. Responding to Locke, John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his seminal work The Idea of a University from 1852, states that liberal education is superior to professional education because it is an intrinsic good, self-sufficient, done for its own sake, and is not subservient to other ends. Newman’s rejoinder is encapsulated in this statement:

that alone is liberal knowledge, which stands on its own pretensions, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed . . . by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation. The most ordinary pursuits have this specific character, if they are self-sufficient and complete; the highest lose it, when they minister to something beyond them.

In making this statement, Newman echoes Aristotle, whom he calls the “the oracle of nature and truth.” In Book VIII of Politics, Aristotle draws a deep divide between liberal and servile education, between an education freed from utility and an education bound to service. Perhaps Aristotle’s most memorable passage is this:

The object also which a man sets before himself makes a great difference; if he does anything for his own sake or for the sake of his friends, or with a view to excellence, the action will not appear illiberal; but if done for the sake of others, the very same action will be thought menial and servile.

With this framework, an education for free people (hence, liberal) is concerned solely with contemplating ideas and the happiness it brings to the contemplator. Intellectual contemplation is an intrinsic good, worthy of being pursued for its sake. An instrumental education is useful for the business of life, but it’s inferior because it serves other people or things. It doesn’t exist independently for the self, but exists conditionally in a subservient posture. It’s an education that people engage in out of necessity or, if possible, avoid altogether to pursue the pure, leisurely, joyous activity of intellectual contemplation.

As we survey our universities, this division between liberal and servile, education and training, contemplation and occupation, intrinsic and instrumental is still palpable. Students come to us with conflicted thoughts and feelings about the purpose of a university education. It’s frequently cited that students today are more concerned with getting an education that garners them a good job. The Higher Educational Research Institute at UCLA has been annually surveying the educational aspirations of freshmen since 1966. In 2006, a 40-year retrospective showed that 73% of freshmen in 2006 placed a high value on their education bringing them financial success compared to only 42% of freshmen in 1966. Only 46% of the 2006 freshmen placed on a high value on college helping them develop “a meaningful philosophy of life” whereas 85% of the 1966 freshmen highly prized that goal. The 2015 data show an even greater focus on occupational ends among freshmen with 82% placing a high value on college giving them a good job leading to financial success.

But maybe freshmen aren’t as money-minded as surveys like this indicate. Steven Pearlstein recently wrote a piece for The Washington Post entitled “Meet the parents who won’t let their children study literature.” Pearlstein recounts his surveys of students at George Mason University. After assigning an 800-page biography of Andrew Carnegie for an undergraduate course on wealth and poverty, students thanked Pearlstein for letting them read an historical biography. This struck him as odd, so he asked the students if any of them were history majors. None raised their hands. In total, only one of the twenty-four students was majoring in a liberal arts discipline. Pearlstein asked the students why they weren’t majoring in the humanities and half replied rather simultaneously, “Our parents wouldn’t let us.” In another course, a freshman seminar, Pearlstein asked students how many of them would be “humanities majors if the only criteria were what that they were interested in and what they were good at.” Ten of the twenty-four students raised their hands. Pearlstein also relates the experience of Jill Lepore, a Harvard University professor, who hosted a meeting for students interested in majoring in history and literature. In the middle of the meeting, one student left because her parents kept sending her text messages ordering her to get out. One message read, “Leave right now, get out of there, that is a house of pain.” The parents feared that if their daughter chose the major she liked, she (or they) wouldn’t see a good financial return on investment.

But parents aren’t the only pecuniary pushers. The U.S. Department of Education has done an excellent job setting the agenda of higher education in America and framing it, but not in a way that helps liberal and professional studies work together to produce capable citizens for their multiple callings in life. The Department of Education’s College Scorecard bluntly measures universities with bar charts on three factors: Average Annual Cost, Graduation Rate, and Salary After Attending. Given the escalated costs of higher education today, it’s understandable that universities would be put under the monetary microscope. The problem is that America’s leaders aren’t giving citizens a more sophisticated educational ideal and method of evaluating universities than mere financial return on investment.

With such a tradition of tension, the question needs to be asked: Is it worth trying to resolve the conflict between liberal and professional studies? That will be the topic of the second part.

Scott Ashmon is Associate Professor for Undergraduate Education at Concordia University Irvine