An Eloquent and Harmonious Education, Part II

This is the second installment 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.

With such long-standing tension between liberal and professional studies, is it worth trying to resolve the conflict? I’m sure that there are colleagues on both sides who would be happy with a divorce. As they would say, there are irreconcilable differences between a life of the mind and a life of appetites; between pursuing truth, goodness, and beauty and training for an occupation; between cultivating habits of mind with intellectual virtues and mastering technical skills; between ivory tower contemplation and real world application; between luxury disciplines for those who can afford them and marketable diplomas for those who need them. Indeed, it’s easy to see this divorce at some colleges where they are no professional programs or no liberal arts majors. But more common is the increasing disparity where professional and STEM programs take up more than half of the curriculum while general education accounts for less than one-third of it. And even then GE courses can be directly tied to a professional program or STEM major.

For instance, at Harvey Mudd–a premier “liberal arts college” in Claremont, California–the core curriculum is heavily weighted toward its STEM majors. As Harvey Mudd’s website says,

At most colleges and universities, the core curriculum provides an overview of the arts and humanities for students to sample. At Harvey Mudd, it’s something else entirely. The Common Core at Harvey Mudd is an academic boot camp in the STEM disciplines—math, physics, chemistry, biology, computer science and engineering.

Of the thirteen required Common Core courses at Harvey Mudd, eleven are STEM courses. This effectively makes Harvey Mudd’s GE part of the STEM majors. The breadth of liberal education is pushed aside to make room for more specialized training and research.

So, you may ask, what’s the problem? Haven’t we seen great advances in knowledge, technology, and progress with the German research model applied to academic disciplines, especially the STEM fields? Doesn’t a knowledge-based economy require more professional expertise and sharper skills? Why shouldn’t liberal studies be diminished, or discarded, so that students can take more courses that build up their professional prowess? Or, taking the other stance, what has Athens to do with Wall Street and Silicon Valley? Why shouldn’t the liberal arts be free from the business of life?

Four Reasons and Ways to Resolve the Conflict

There are several responses that can be given to these questions. I will outline four reasons with their attendant approaches tonight. One approach is to undo the irony of the modern university. Currently the term “university” stands for institutions that focus on endlessly disconnected subjects (and sub-subjects) of specialized research and training. Seeing this state of affairs, Clark Kerr, in his 1963 book entitled The Uses of the University, aptly coined another term for these institutions: multiversity. Kerr also explained how these institutions could still be called universities:

[Former president of the University of Chicago, Robert] Hutchins once described the modern university as a series of separate schools and departments held together by a central heating system. In an area where heating is less important and the automobile more, I have sometimes thought of it as a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.

The gist of this joke still holds as universities have arguably become more disconnected disciplinarily. An etymological and historical response to the modern university reminds us that term “university,” which means “turned into one,” once stood for the capacious educational goal of seeing the diversity of all knowledge as one whole, as seeing reality—God’s Truth—holistically, hence the need for broadly studying life in its multiple facets. If we wish to be universities, where all branches of knowledge are “turned into one (whole)” in order to see the Truth and act on it, then we must have a holistic education that keeps liberal and professional studies connected. A classic example of this Knowing and Acting on Truth model is the university of the Middle Ages where studies in the trivium, quadrivium, ethics, politics, economics, physics, and metaphysics provided the broad foundation of knowledge and intellectual habits needed to excel in the professional studies of law, medicine, and theology.

Another response is the Employable Citizen model of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (or, AAC&U). In the wake of the Great Recession and onslaughts on the economic benefits of liberal education by politicians, venture capitalists, and the like, AAC&U went on the offensive to make liberal education viable and valuable to today’s consumers. As part of this campaign, AAC&U redefined liberal education as follows:

Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

This definition is quite commendable as it highlights a broad liberal education and its benefits for society. It joins vowels and consonants—higher arts and lower arts—as specialized majors, which include STEM and professional studies, are wedded with a broad liberal arts foundation. The definition closes with the sales pitch that liberal education is skills preparation; it trains students in key skills that are transferrable to multiple jobs and applicable to solving many problems.

This approach has become a veritable marketing mantra. What do America’s CEO’s want from employees? They want workers with “21st Century Skills,” workers who can think critically, communicate effectively, collaborate with diverse others, analyze complex numerical data, creatively solve new problems, and make ethical decisions. Where can future employees get these marketable skills? They get them in liberal arts majors. Several studies show that students with liberal arts degrees tend to advance higher in their careers and earn more money than students with professional degrees. A liberal arts education is worth the investment; it’s personally useful and excellent for the economy.

The appeal of this approach is evident in the increasing number of universities that are tailoring their GE requirements and learning outcomes to these marketable skills. For instance, selecting a random example, the GE outcomes at the University of Hawai‘i-Hilo are divided into six parts: critical thinking, information literacy, communication, scientific and quantitative reasoning, human interaction and cultural diversity, and, last, collaborative skills and civic participation. Students take GE classes that satisfy these skills-based requirements.

Yet another response to why liberal and professional education should be kept together is that society needs people who can think and act empathetically to solve real-world problems. They need to be able to ask fundamental questions, identify dilemmas, and address them compassionately. They need to understand the functions, promises, and limitations of their profession historically and philosophically. They need to comprehend human nature and human-created systems. They need empathy for others to create ideas, products, systems, and solutions that benefit society. Technical training alone will not accomplish this, only a capacious view of life where professional and liberal education are wedded will bring this about.

A prime example of this approach is the d.school model. The Institute of Design (or, d.school) at Stanford joins liberal arts and technical studies in order to create better solutions to people’s problems. The d.school model is team-driven with members from diverse disciplines that bring multiple ideas, methods, and abilities to the table. The design model has 5 basic steps that begin with empathizing with people to understand them, their context, beliefs, values, needs, and problems. The model then moves to defining the particular problem to be solved for a specific audience. The ideation step focuses on thinking broadly and creatively about the audience, the problem, and its possible solutions. The prototype step develops quick, inexpensive models for the designers and audience to interact with and experience the models’ potential as solutions to the problem. The testing step is where the team asks the audience why the prototypes worked or failed, what was beneficial or helpful, what needs improving. It provides another chance for the team to empathize with and understand the audience so that the next prototypes can be improved to provide a better solution for the people. Repeating or re-arranging these steps may be needed to arrive at the solution.

Versions of Stanford’s d.school model are popping up around America and Europe. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, for instance, has started a 6-unit Innovation in Honors lab for its honors students spread out over two semesters. This Innovation Lab has a disciplinarily-diverse team of students and faculty partnering up with community groups to identify their needs and propose solutions informed by their broad academic insights and abilities.

A fourth, but by no means the last or least, response that I offer tonight comes from the riches the Lutheran tradition. Why should Lutheran universities bring vowels and consonants–higher and lower arts, professional and liberal studies–together? As stated earlier by Melanchthon, it’s so that the curriculum combines in ways that produce eloquent speech and harmonious song. It’s so that students who receive this kind of an education graduate being fully articulate in their many callings in life–as citizens in the state; members of one’s family; as workers in world; and as saints of the church. This eloquent and harmonious education is necessary for students to become thoughtful, virtuous, and faithful citizens who excel in serving their neighbors.

Martin Luther also had much to say on this topic. Luther’s direct writings on education include his 1524 letter “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany that They Should Establish and Maintain Christian Schools” and his 1530 “Sermon on Keeping Children in School.” The thrust of these texts is that liberal education for all young men and women should be supported by politicians and parents because God works to preserve and promote the temporal and eternal welfare of humanity through the vocations that God gives each person in the home, society, and church. Justice cannot be administered well, economies cannot be managed properly, God’s Word cannot be read rightly, and the saving Gospel cannot be preached persuasively by people who are insufficiently educated for these tasks. In arguing to the councilmen that education is a public good, Luther states:

Now the welfare of a city does not consist solely in accumulating vast treasures and building mighty walls and magnificent buildings, and producing a goodly supply of guns and armor. Indeed, where such things are plentiful, and reckless fools get control of them, it is so much the worse and the city suffers even greater loss. A city’s best and highest welfare, safety, and strength consist rather in its having many able, learned, wise, honorable, and well-educated citizens. They can then readily gather, protect, and properly use treasure and all manner of property.

Moreover, as Luther says in his explanation to the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism, “If we want capable and qualified people for both the civil and the spiritual realms, we really must spare no effort, time, and expense in teaching and educating our children to serve God and the world.” For Luther, the education needed to cultivate intelligent, wise, and virtuous citizens to serve God and the world through their many callings in life is a liberal arts education, which leads on to professional studies.

The catalyst for this educational outcome is the Gospel. This is best seen in Luther’s 1520 letter entitled “The Freedom of a Christian.” Here Luther outlines “the whole of Christian life in brief form.” His central thesis is the apparent paradox that “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” In developing this thesis, Luther shows that in Christ people are freed both from having to fulfill the law to merit eternal life and from the eternally fatal consequences of sin-filled failure. This liberty from the law comes by grace through faith in Christ. Through the “wedding ring of faith,” believers are united with Christ and each–bride and groom–exchange who they are and what they have with each other. In this marital exchange, Christ takes on peoples’ sin and death, and gives them his righteousness and eternal life. Freed by Christ from condemnation under God’s law, believers are now the “freest of kings” as God works all things for good to serve their salvation. At the same time, Christians are re-created in God’s image. As new creations in Christ, Christians pursue works with the “freest of service.” No longer concerned with doing good works to serve and save themselves, Christians are completely free to love others and care for their needs. “Faith is truly active in love” as Christians whole-heartedly serve their neighbors as Christ served them. Luther poignantly summarizes and applies this Gospel-motivated, neighbor-centered life of love with these words:

My God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ. . . . The works of all colleges, monasteries, and priests should be of this nature. Each should do the works of his profession and station, not that by them he may strive after righteousness, but that . . . he may submit his will to that of others in the freedom of love.

This Lutheran Vocations for Service model is profoundly applicable to higher education. It combines vowel and consonants–higher and lower arts, professional and liberal studies–so that students become fully articulate in fulfilling their vocations of service to others in the state, family, work, and church. It’s applicable to both Christians and non-Christians. As Scripture reveals, God gives vocations of service (or, responsibilities) to all people as part of God’s ongoing gracious work of creation. Through people and their responsibilities, God quietly works to care for others. One example of this comes from Isaiah 45, where God calls Cyrus, the polytheistic Persian king, to free the Israelites from Babylonian captivity. Cyrus didn’t recognize his God-given call, but God worked through Cyrus all the same to care for Israel.

As valid and applicable as God’s common callings are to Christians and non-Christians, a Lutheran university would miss the crux of God’s call if it limited vocations to the doctrine of creation. The heart of God’s call, as Luther explains, is faith in Christ, who liberates believers from sin and self-centeredness for lives of Gospel-motivated, neighbor-centered love. Justification by grace through faith in Christ is the center and propeller of the “Vocations for Service” model, one that Lutheran universities should boldly and winsomely embody for the benefit of their students and the neighbors they are called to serve.

Taking this approach that liberal and professional studies can–and should–be brought together for the good of others, what should universities be working on now? This will be the subject of the final installment.

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