English Ain’t What I’m Here For!
Freshmen vaguely recognize that a college education is valuable. “After all,” they readily say, “I’m paying a lot of money for one.” But students can’t buy an education like they buy a car or a basket of groceries. They can only pay for the opportunity to acquire an education (and even then they pay less than the full cost thanks to generous donors). Once purchased this opportunity must be exercised, often at the price of great personal exertion. Thus, it is vitally important that students be motivated to acquire an education. Such motivation only emerges from a deep appreciation of the value of the education. This is perhaps the main reason capable students fail in their first year of college. They don’t understand why they should take seriously the classes that they are required to take, the assignments they are asked to complete, or the information and skills they are encouraged to learn.
There is no doubt that a liberal arts education is valuable. Never has the economic premium for a college degree been greater. In the sixties college graduates could expect to earn 25% more over their lifetime than high school graduates. Now they will likely earn 85% more. As impressive as this may be, it is a trivial reason to get a college education, emphasizing as it does the economic over the more important aspects of life.
People, created in the image of God, are more than income earning/consumption machines; and a college education should focus on more. Otherwise we end up like those Joseph Conrad described as “starving their souls to nourish their bodies.” Some college degrees are of course primarily technical; that is, they are focused on a specific job. As such they serve their function admirably. But a liberal arts degree is designed to enrich the whole human experience by providing students with the skills and information necessary to understand and fully participate in that experience. By the way, the business world is coming to understand that these are the very skills that are most likely to produce long term useful employees; but that is again an appeal to narrow economic interests. And a liberal arts education is concerned with higher motives than the merely economic. As Plato long ago suggested, just as the essence of a knife is cutting and therefore the improvement of a knife is in sharpening it, so too the true essence of a man is in understanding and therefore improving man must be focused on improving his understanding. This is indeed the focus of a liberal arts education. The concept of which began with the Greeks who recognized that such an education was necessary for a free and self-governing people. In fact it is today called liberal (from the Latin liber, meaning free), because it trains the free man not the slave, whether he is enslaved legally, politically, economically or spiritually.
Sometimes students come to college saying that they don’t care about all of that history or physics or literature or that they hate math. As one student said to his English teacher in the movie Cheers for Miss Bishop, “English ain’t what I’m here for!” Such statements, which are unfortunately too frequent, are not so much a judgment on the subject as the students intend them to be; they are more of a judgment on the students who utter them. A student’s dislike of math or English or any other academic subject in no way diminishes its usefulness, truth or beauty; it only indicates his lack of understanding and appreciation. To the educated person there are no uninteresting academic subjects, for education reveals the depths and beauties of every topic that it touches. Moreover, a technical education without a background in liberal arts can be dangerous. Flannery in his essay on liberal arts education points out that the horror of the German pogrom against the Jews was conceived and carried out by one of the world’s most scientifically and technically educated nations. Technical training alone is insufficient to guarantee a good life for either an individual or a nation.
A liberal arts education is not so much focused on any specific, limited information, but on the general skills of reading, writing, thinking and speaking, which enable the educated person to learn and adapt and perform well in almost any situation. That is why a liberal arts education includes math and science as well as literature and music. That is why it includes history and psychology as well as grammar and public speaking. That is why it includes physical education and sports as well as classroom and library research activities. Not everyone will be equally talented or equally interested in all of these areas; but the real student will not sneer at any of them either, because learning more about any one of them enriches the study of all the rest. And the combined studies enrich the mind and life of the students who take them seriously. Not only does such an education introduce students to realms of understanding previously obscured, but simple day to day activities are also enriched. Even reading the comics is a different experience for the educated man than it is for the uneducated.
As a personal example, one of the genuinely enjoyable parts of working at Florida College is the faculty lounge where the faculty gathers for a few minutes each day to discuss whatever topic comes to mind, sometimes math or science, sometimes politics or current events, sometimes scripture, sometimes TV shows both old and new, and sometimes sports. But no matter what the topic, the conversation is always lively because these are educated people who bring a plethora of information and skills to even the most trivial topic. In some ways that epitomizes to me what a liberal arts education is all about: interesting people talking about interesting things. College is not a teaching environment like high school. Instead it is a learning environment where students who take responsibility for their own education are encouraged to join the conversation and in doing so to develop the skills and information necessary to making a contribution today and to perpetuating that conversation into the next generation.
Liberal arts education at Florida College is especially valuable; for it is always in the context of the Bible. Unlike a secular education, which may well be hostile to the Faith, the liberal arts at Florida College, infused as they are with daily Bible classes and taught as they are by Bible believers, enable and encourage students to develop a biblical world view.
This is no time for Christians to retreat from education. There has never been a time of greater need for an educated defense of the Gospel. This defense must be made not only by an appeal to moral authority, though that is always basic, but through an understanding of science and psychology and history as well. A liberal arts education at Florida College equips students not only to defend their faith in the educated world of today, but to push back the encroaching borders of materialism, determinism, feminism, environmentalism, sectarianism and humanism and thus to join with the apostle Paul in “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”
Dr. Thaxter Dickey