Do you know the basic philosophy upon which the liberal arts education regimen is based? Can you recognize the influence of this philosophy in your Florida College coursework? How do you connect a liberal arts education with your key life goals? It is important for you to develop your own answers to these questions up front.
Here are three essays written by our faculty about why they believe a liberal arts education is so worthwhile. To read a particular essay, just click on its title.
–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 how mythology 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
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
Why should you take history if your field is not that? Why take math if you want to study history? Why take science when your interest is in business? The answer is found in the interdisciplinary nature of life itself. When you learn about one area, you are strengthening yourself in all areas. So consider some of the benefits of this “big picture” approach to education.
What can a liberal studies education do for me?
- It will help me develop a stronger mind. As physical exercise strengthens the various parts of the body, so a broad-based education strengthens all parts of the mind. It will affect me intellectually and emotionally, and provide motivation for success in whatever I do with my life.
- By strengthening my mind in one area of study (e.g., math), my mind will be able to grasp ideas in other areas of study, because learning by analogy is a primary way to understand concepts.
- I will learn to think for myself, to discern matters of life with wisdom and proper analysis. This is far more important than simply receiving a grade on a report card. A liberal arts education will help prepare me to think critically for the rest of my life.
- The world will become more understandable as I gain knowledge of a variety of issues and topics. I will understand that all knowledge intersects and is part of the entirety of what life and this world are about.
- I will learn how to learn. I will realize that true education is not about just getting a grade or passing a test, but is about a lifetime commitment to learning and growth. By applying myself now to my studies, the groundwork will be laid for learning at every stage of my life. The ability to learn will be crucial to success, no matter what vocation I choose.
- I will gain a context for the knowledge of God and this world. I will be able to see the big picture of life better. I will have the tools necessary for exploring this world more effectively. Most importantly, I will be able to more effectively think about God.
- I will have the tools for working in a variety of jobs in life. Critical thinking underlies virtually any job that I will perform effectively.
What can I do to acquire a liberal studies education?
- I can bring my own learning and experience to the table. Learning is not just about what others can give to me, but what I can teach others. My experience is important for helping others in their understanding of this world. My personal experience is part of the learning experiences of others.
- I can use my abilities to serve others. My education is not for the purpose of intellectual brow-beating and arrogant bragging. It is for the purpose of understanding God, His world, and helping others to navigate through this life. The proper application of learning will help to make me a better servant of both God and others.
At Florida College, our primary concern is spiritual. We believe that God is at the center of all knowledge and learning. This is why studying the Bible is vital. Of all the subjects that you will study, the Bible will always be the most important. God’s truth holds all areas of study and knowledge together, and provides the true meaning to life and beyond.
Dr. Doy Moyer
Professor of Philosophy