Faculty Essays

Do I Have to Learn This?

Reflections on the Liberal Arts Symphony

“Most of the things we learn in our educational careers will never help us in real life and are ultimately a waste of time and energy. I only take those classes because they are required in order to advance, get your degree, and do something that actually matters even though the things you learned will not apply to that field in any way, shape, or form.”

–Anonymous Comment on Student Survey, Fall 2001

I have been haunted by the above quotation for years now. I keep it in a desk drawer within easy reach. As a professor of history, I consistently ask myself what this college student asked: “why must this be learned?” It is a valid question; a valid question asked not only by students in a history course, but students in mathematics, various sciences, literature, humanities, and multiple other studies within what the academic community terms “the liberal arts.”

A “liberal arts” education has been variously defined. All too often, students in most colleges and universities have been guilty of deriding the liberal arts core courses as simply “those course youhave to take before you begin completing your major academic program.” Even reading of the liberal arts curriculum as a set of “required” or “core” courses leaves the connotation that these courses are simply a collective hoop for the student to jump through, and nothing more.

Even academicians, individuals who devote their professional lives to the pursuit of knowledge within a given academic discipline, are sometimes skewed in their views of a liberal arts education. Most go to great lengths in attempting to defend and justify the teaching of their respective disciplines. It is their livelihood; one would expect nothing less. Yet, in defending a specific academic subject, professors and teachers can become just as near-sighted in approaching a higher education as the anonymous student quoted above.

What each academic discipline is part of—be it a course in New Testament Greek, or 20th Century American Music, or the American Civil War—is a much greater whole than the particular role it plays. Just as parts in a symphony, each course plays its notes in a student’s education. In a liberal arts education, an English composition course plays a complementary role to a psychology course, which then well-supplements a study in business or education. Yet, as a symphony does not perform only a single composer or work, a liberal arts education does not produce identical students and degrees. For some, the deep bass notes of physical science are followed more closely; for others, the powerful baritone of history.

Too often, instead of considering a liberal arts education as a symphony with parts playing in harmony, a college curriculum is viewed simply as a commodity. Doubtless, a higher education does represent a sizeable investment and propels many toward economic goals, yet a liberal arts education ought not be envisioned as some sort of salad bar—in which a student takes what they like and leaves (or abhors) the rest. Taken as a whole, a liberal arts education allows a person to see a larger picture of life, faith and the world God has made. Taken in pieces, a liberal arts education is only an education in the frustrating process of taking required courses in order to “do something that actually matters.”

A liberal arts education, thus, is not the study of some random, disjointed hodge-podge collection of musty subjects that somehow end up equaling a sum total of academic credit known as the “Grade Point Average.” Students (and here I use that term loosely) who worship at the shrine of “G.P.A.” are forever quantifying and parsing their “education” (again, here using that term loosely) so that they might show evidence that they have done well in the “classes…required in order to advance.” Conversely, and not so surprisingly, students who hear the symphony of their liberal arts education tend to pursue their studies with vigor, and their grades largely take care of themselves.

In a very close parallel, understanding the value of a liberal arts education is much like understanding, thus doing well, in an individual discipline. It does not take many months in school for a child to figure out that in order to do well, they have to “know the answer.” So, the pursuit of finding that answer begins; “tell me what I need to know” becomes the order of the day. As maturity begins, some begin to understand that it is not merely the answer that matters, but why and how the answer is developed as it is. A true education begins at that point. So it is with understanding a liberal arts curriculum; it is not simply about “what I need to know,” but what the whole of the curriculum means.

American education, and Western education generally, was rightly attacked in the latter 19th century by educational philosophers like John Dewey for the absolute emphasis on rote memorization. Yet, memorization is necessary; facts are vital. Dewey dismissed the importance of a standard education, and even—at times—of a factual basis from which to begin. From wandering off that path, he went far astray into the dark wood of relativism. In like manner, individual courses matter in a liberal arts education; grades matter; absolute grades exist at the end of a semester and stay on a transcript—but, grades alone can not reflect the value of a liberal arts education, nor give real meaning to it.

Of course, what every professor likes to side-step is one obvious answer to the question of “why do I have to learn this?” For, one obvious answer is: “you do not have to.” As the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell immediately admitted of his own secularist/spiritualist studies: “My first response would be, ‘Go on, live your life, it’s a good life—you don’t need mythology.’” Naturally, Campbell then quickly moved on, explaining why and howmythology is a living and relevant topic of study. Still, his immediate response is true enough: you don’t “need” it.

Certainly, for the Christian scholar, the pursuit of a secular liberal arts education is not about “needing” it to create a “good” life. Seeking God’s face and favor is the beginning of finding a “good” life in the days He gives us; Christians understand this, if they are of any maturity at all. What a liberal arts education can do, if considered as the symphony that it is, is provide a greater frame of reference for our faith; a deeper and broader context in understanding His word gives the Christian scholar not only an assurance of faith, but also offers an opportunity to develop skills to be effective people in His kingdom.

Dr. Brian Crispell
Professor of History