What is Christian liberal education and integration of faith and learning?

I’m going to steal a line from Alan Jacobs and use this post as a “placeholder for a future book” (or article). Warning—this post includes some history by a non-historian, some philosophy by a non-philosopher, and some theology by a non-theologian. But it is, after all, a post about Christian liberal education. So these things may be fitting.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve joined a group that will be working through a next round of general education revision at Wheaton. In preparation for our upcoming “summit,” I’ve not only been working through the large amount of resource material we recently received, but also thinking a bit about some of the distinctive characteristics of a Wheaton education. Like the Sarah Lawrence College articulation of the value of education at their institution (which you can find here, if you scroll down to “Value”), I think that we should root our revision in the kind of community we claim to be, with confidence that this will drive an education that is both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable. (That is as opposed to a sort of insecurity that looks first for what students might need, worries that we don’t provide that, and then seeks to alter our identity in subtle ways in order to make sure those things happen.)

Given that, I have just two observations I want to make today:

First, Wheaton is a Christian liberal arts college. That means that a vision of Christian liberal education ought to drive our curriculum and shape the overall college experience. Here is a sketch (just a sketch—it needs a lot of filling out) of how I work that out:

  • The tradition of liberal education began as education for the free person to the end of preparing those people to participate in governing the polis. For some who were close to this tradition, participating in governing the polis was to be fully or truly human. Thus, a substantial part of the history and tradition of liberal education is to prepare people to be fully or truly human. Unfortunately, in the beginning of this tradition, access to liberal education and participation in governance—and thus being truly and fully human—was available only to a very small group of landholding men. While the beginning of the tradition was marked by this exclusivity, which we would not embrace, I take it that the goal is right: to become truly and fully human.
  • At a college like Wheaton, this idea of what it means to be truly and fully human must be informed by the Christian tradition. There are, of course, many ways to do the work of articulating what it means to be truly and fully human according to the Christian tradition, but we must do it. (Of course, there are also examples within Christian history of articulating perverse versions of what it means to be truly or fully human. The fact that there is a plurality of potentially legitimate approaches to this question does not mean that anything goes or that there is no wrong answer. Perverse articulations of this must be rejected and we often need to tell people what we don’t mean, so there may be times that we need to insist that a certain articulation of what it means to be truly and fully human is wrong.)
  • The way that I would articulate this is as follows (again, a sketch): (At least a big part of) Being truly and fully human means to be for God, for others, and for creation. There are numerous potential biblical and theological sources for this articulation of what it means to be truly and fully human. From the early chapters of Genesis through the law, prophets, and wisdom literature, to the gospels and letters of the New Testament. Similarly, one can trace this thread through theological accounts from early Christian history to the present. Jesus Christ is, of course, the preeminent example of what it means to be for God, for others, and for creation. This exposes how bound up this idea of what it means to be human is with what it means to be like God. Jesus was the perfect image of God in the sense that he was the eternal second person of the Trinity (with each person co-inhering in and being for the others), but also the perfect human being-as-image-of-God. (This imago dei connection will also do some work of providing an expansive vision of who should be included in liberal education as an education for becoming truly and fully human.)
  • If this is a legitimate articulation of what it means to be truly and fully human, then Christian liberal education should be for a life of service. This does not exclude a life of governing for some, but rather informs what governing would mean. Again, the list of biblical and theological resources for this point is rich with possibilities, but at the risk of seeming only thinly supported, it is worth pointing out Philippians 2 even if that’s all we point to for now.
  • Also, if this is a legitimate articulation of what it means to be truly and fully human, then Christian liberal education should cultivate the character, dispositions, practices, and capabilities that equip students to be for God, for others, and for creation in the world we live in.
  • Note: 1) As tempting as it is (for many reasons, including financial reasons) to say that liberal education is unique in doing this, we must not say that or even leave open that interpretation. To do so would be to renew an unacceptable exclusivity by saying that only those who participate in Christian liberal education can be truly and fully human. The statement would be false. The broader implications for how we think about ourselves and others would be wrong. 2) An alternative is also tempting—knowing that this first claim to uniqueness (in #1 right above) is specious, we may be tempted to articulate some less noble goal for which we might credibly claim a unique relationship to Christian liberal education. This is also unwise.

Second, if we buy this model of Christian liberal education, then what we (sometimes clunkily) describe as “integration of faith and learning” is a sine qua non of this model. Without it, we might as well close up shop. I’m quite serious about this. I’m not okay with “liberal education at a high end Christian camp” or “liberal eduction plus chapel.” Don’t hear the wrong thing here: I believe in a lot of different models of higher education and hope that many models thrive. A Christian liberal arts institution is not the only good environment for students or faculty. So I am not saying that Christian liberal education is the only worthy sort of education or that other institutions should be engaged in the integration of faith and learning. But I am saying that any institution that purports to be about the project of Christian liberal education should make the integration of faith and learning a hallmark of its community or seriously consider closing up shop.

Intentional, serious, rigorous, sophisticated, systematic, subtle, and nuanced “integration of faith and learning” should be our goal. Note that this is articulated in aspirational terms. That’s because in most cases, it’s not something we achieve, but something we work toward little by little, getting better at it all the time (even if sometimes in a “two steps forward, one step back fashion”). Working toward it should be the signature of our community.

But what is integration of faith and learning? I take it that integration of faith and learning is developing and articulating an informed (i.e., rigorous, sophisticated, well resourced, learned) and committed (i.e., in our own voices, not purely a descriptive account) Christian perspective on our studies by putting the Christian tradition into conversation with enduring questions, contemporary issues, disciplinary problems (I should not need to say it, but by “disciplinary” I mean the “disciplines” or fields that we teach in), and vocational challenges.

Of course, this has implications across any Christian liberal arts institution. For example, these basics should be among the drivers of hiring, faculty development (the goals and resources), promotion, and tenure. But they should also be central to discussions of curriculum, including—no, especially—general education.

Now even if everyone agreed on this, we wouldn’t immediately have a new general education curriculum. These norms and issues of identity would have to be operationalized in specific ways in any new program. (And again there are a plurality of potentially legitimate ways to do that, but that doesn’t mean there are no bad ways to do it.) But we need to start with who we are. This is not to suggest that any institution has unanimity on this point. Practically speaking, the diversity of opinions on the matter may limit some of what can be done, may be a reason that some flexibility must be built into the system, and may require us to find and publicize resonances between new program proposals and multiple visions of who we are. But if we don’t start general education revision by articulating it to who we are, we will articulate a weak program with little vision for students to catch and little faculty buy-in.

So I’m hoping that we start with Christian liberal education and integration of faith and learning. Luckily, the groups that have come before ours have provided us with some foundation in that work.

More broadly, though, I think we could use more lively and energetic articulation and defense of Christian liberal education in general. So here’s my placeholder.

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