An Eloquent and Harmonious Education, Part III

This is the final 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.

If, as has been argued so far, liberal arts and professional studies should work together so that students excel in all of their vocations of service to others, what should universities–particularly Lutheran ones–be working on now? In closing this essay, I highlight three educational opportunities.

First, is the chance to rethink and reform general education. It’s frequently been said that you can tell a university’s educational philosophy and mission by its GE requirements since these are required of all students. Reflecting on this point, Derek Bok, in his 2013 book entitled Higher Education in America, observes that

the typical college curriculum may lack a convincing rationale, but it succeeds brilliantly in satisfying the concerns of all the principal interested groups.

In other words, the prevailing educational philosophy for GE is to placate everyone by politically accommodating each department’s territorial claims, rather than construct a curriculum that directly achieves the university’s educational goals within the limited units available in GE.

With these observations in mind, some questions are in order. What does your university’s GE reveal about its educational philosophy, about its vision of being an educated person? Is your core curriculum propelled by a Lutheran vision of education? What are the essentials and variables of that vision? How well are those understood, agreed on, and implemented by faculty in their GE courses? Finally, what prevails at your university: an awkward, muddled core born out of detente to departmental demands or a carefully crafted core that economically enables students to achieve the university’s educational goals?

The second opportunity is rethinking how professional studies is wedded with the liberal arts at the undergraduate level. Or, using Melanchthon’s metaphors, combining vowels and consonants—higher arts and lower arts—to create eloquent speech and harmonious singing in students so that they become fully articulate citizens in their diverse callings in life. Is another reformation needed here? If so, what models will Lutheran universities adopt, adapt, and create to bring professional and liberal education together in a happy, fruitful marriage? Should liberal and professional studies be sequenced as is done today with GE mostly preceding major courses? Should the sequence be retooled to create more connecting points for students and faculty? Or, should liberal and professional studies be intertwined in individual courses, paired up in linked courses, or combined into one curriculum? Moreover, what proportion of liberal and professional studies do students need in order to achieve the university’s overall vision for undergraduate education? And, no small question, how will we bring this happy, fruitful marriage about in face-to-face, online, and hybrid courses–or in a competency-based curriculum?

Finally, there is the opportunity to lead the way on reforming graduate professional education. In his book Higher Education in America, Bok assesses the three big graduate professional programs of our time: law, medicine, and business (yes, theology has fallen out of this triumvirate). In each case, Bok finds gaping holes in graduate ethical education. As Bok notes, just 29% of graduate students receive a course in ethics related to their professional field. This is cause for much concern since these graduates are the experts that the public relies on to do what is right in both basic and complex matters.

Lutheran universities have the chance to bring the shared liberal arts tradition of moral philosophy to bear on graduate professional education.  What’s more, they can bring in the doctrine of vocations with its ethic of Gospel-motivated, neighbor-centered, Christ-like love.

If Lutheran universities care about their theology as a living faith, they can’t simply develop the relationship between Lutheran theology and academic disciplines at the undergraduate level–particularly when graduate students sometimes outnumber undergraduates.

Graduate students also need carefully crafted curricula that cleverly wed professional studies with the liberal arts and the doctrine of vocations. Neighbors in the state, family, work, and church would certainly benefit from this fruitful marriage. So, what would a Lutheran approach to graduate professional education look like? What curricular changes and resources would be needed to accomplish this vision?

Admittedly, these opportunities may be easier to imagine than to incarnate, so I leave us with two words of wisdom. The first is from a historian of Lutheran higher education, Richard Solberg. In his 1997 essay addressing the question “What Can the Lutheran Tradition Contribute to Higher Education?” Solberg ends with this sobering assessment:

The most serious critique one could level at Lutheran higher education in America is that it has failed to fulfill the educational challenges implicit in its own theology.

If this assessment is still valid, and I submit that it is, then Lutheran universities should return to Melanchthon, who—having raised up the lofty goal of bringing vowels and consonants together for eloquence and harmony—also issues this charge: “What is beautiful may be difficult, [but] industry conquers difficulty.”

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