As a professor of English at a Christian liberal-arts university (Houston Baptist University), I have dedicated much time to identifying the critical and creative skills that a liberal-arts university should instill in its students. In this essay, I would like to speak directly, not to my colleagues, but to high school students who are preparing to be freshmen at a liberal arts university, particularly one founded on Christian beliefs and principles. By surveying four key skills that lie, or at least should lie, at the heart of a liberal arts education, I hope to alert future undergraduates to the kind of intellectual rigor that will be expected of them in college and to start them thinking about the kinds of skills they will be expected to have developed by the time they graduate. When I teach freshmen composition, it is my habit to forbid students from using the second person; however, to help increase the immediacy of this essay, I will break my own rule and address college-bound high school students as “you.”
Move beyond the Surface
During your college years, you will be encouraged again and again to analyze, to dig deeper, to explore. Your professors will not be satisfied—and, soon, you should not be satisfied—with simple answers that only scratch the surface of the subject at hand. In many high-school English classes, if you wrote a paper on Romeo and Juliet that offered a well-written, grammatically-correct synopsis of the plot, you would likely receive an “A.” Not so in college. If all you can manage to do is retell the play, if all you are capable of is a simple plot summary, that paper, no matter how effectively written and organized, will receive, at the very most, a “B-.” In college you will be expected to move beyond the surface.
Likewise, if you are asked in a freshman composition class to describe an incident that occurred in your past and the significance of that incident, don’t give your teacher a detailed, blow-by-blow description of the event and then conclude, in a single sentence, that after that incident you “took life more seriously.” When a teacher asks you to define and explore the significance of something, that is what you need to do. Most people, students or otherwise, cling to the surface, for it is hard work to explore: it is risky, it is time-consuming, and it calls for significantly higher brain functions. It is so safe and peaceful on the surface of the water; to dive down to the depths below would be uncomfortable and challenging. But down there, on the ocean bottom, are the real wonders. Knowledge “too” is like that; she hides her wisdom and her insight lest the lazy and the reckless should get a hold of it and treat it rudely and harshly like the swine who trample the pearls underfoot.
If you are at a Christian university, bring this same zest for adventure and discovery to your religious growth. On the surface of Christianity are rules and regulations, standards of behavior and moral expectations. These, of course, you must learn, but you must also go deeper: move to the heart of the spiritual life. Yes, you will ask such academic questions as “Does God exist?” and “What does He expect of us?” But you mustn’t stop there. God is more than a definition to be memorized. He is a living, active Being who desires to have a relationship with you. It is not enough to determine merely whether God is true or not; you must also decide if He is real.
We live in an age of sound bite knowledge. That is to say, much of our information comes to us in the form of discrete, pre-packaged capsules. The media, in all its forms, assaults us daily with a kaleidoscope of sounds and images that are meant to appeal to us not on a rational or logical level, but on a strictly emotional “knee-jerk” level. Thus, a politician will make a long speech that details his platform and the assumptions on which that platform stands, but the media will only provide us with a smattering of disjointed, ten-second fragments from the speech. Even worse, the fragments will never reveal or explore the assumptions, nor will they detail the position itself; they will confine themselves, instead, to a witty pun, an emotional illustration, or a slanderous attack.
Trained as we are in such knee-jerk responses, it has become increasingly difficult for young people (and adults!) to uncover the assumptions on which political, theological, ethical, and aesthetic statements rest. It has become so much easier to turn off the higher functions of our brains and just think in sound bites. Such behavior, however, is dangerous, especially in a democracy where the leaders are a reflection of the people.
One of the traditional functions of a liberal arts university has been to make good citizens, people who can analyze complex issues, who can break down arguments into their component parts and then examine the validity of each part. Most college students don’t realize that behind all of their majors are assumptions that are accepted without question. It is imperative at a liberal arts university that students learn and apply tools for critical thinking that will allow them to determine the assumptions on which the central claims of their disciplines rest.
And these tools are more, not less, important in a Christian university. Most of the differences that distinguish modern thought from traditional Christian thought can be traced back to the assumptions upon which these contrasting systems are built. Thus, whereas our modern world rests on an evolutionary paradigm (that emphasizes progress and that posits physical matter as the origin of all things), biblical Christianity rests on a creationist paradigm (that emphasizes fixed codes and unchanging essences and that posits the spiritual as the origin). The fight between Christian and modern lies far deeper than any squabble over whether the six days of creation are literal or figurative; what is at issue is a battle over the very nature of reality. When a Christian and a modern disagree over whether the parting of the Red Sea was a miracle, what is more often at issue is the underlying assumption of whether or not miracles are possible.
Students who attend a Christian university must test the assumptions on which modernism rests. Now, after close study, you may decide that you agree with modernist assumptions. That is all right. What must be avoided at a liberal arts university, especially a Christian one, is not the informed acceptance of modernism—human beings are, after all, free agents—but the uncritical embracing
of systems of thought that claim to be “objective” and based solely on facts but which rest on unstated (and often unproven) assumptions.
To my mind, the greatest joy of a liberal-arts education comes in those dazzling moments when a connection suddenly, almost magically forms between areas of thought that might at first seem wholly unrelated: English and biology, psychology and physics, history and economics, and so forth. It’s that “aha” moment when the light bulb flashes and you glimpse a previously invisible thread that weaves its way through the academic tapestry. I hope you will experience many such moments in your college career and that they will encourage you to avoid isolating and compartmentalizing your knowledge.
Many today believe that wide-spread access to the vast stores of information available on the web is producing more intelligent students. I do not agree. The internet alone cannot make a student wise. That students now have access to more facts, figures, and statistics is not bad in itself, but the possession of discrete information is not equivalent to wisdom. Wisdom, understanding, and discernment only come when knowledge is synthesized into a greater whole, when connections are made that render the knowledge knowable, meaningful, and human.
If you attend a Christian liberal arts university, then the call to connect and integrate knowledge becomes even more vital. If you attend such a school, you will spend at least one semester studying works that were written by pre-Christian pagan writers. If you want to benefit from your education while remaining a serious Christian, then you must learn to draw together the lights of Athens and Jerusalem, the great accomplishments of humanism with the timeless truths of Christianity. You must not compartmentalize your faith, cutting it off from your humanistic studies or professional goals. You must know the maxim that “all truth is God’s truth” and seek to profit from all the wisdom that has been learned through the centuries. You must not reject the teachings of Plato or the symbols of classical mythology as pagan deceptions, but must learn to discern within them a seed of truth whose final source is the Triune God.
Enter into the Dialogue
At the core of any true liberal arts education lie the Great Books of Western Civilization, those timeless classics that contain, to quote Matthew Arnold, “the best that has been thought and known in the world.” They include the works of such thinkers as Homer, Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Nietzsche, Herodotus, Machiavelli and Mill, Euclid, Ptolemy, Newton and Einstein, Marx, Darwin, and Freud, and, of course, the writers of the Old and New Testaments. Some of these writers you will have read in high school, but at a liberal arts university you will be expected to do more than read passively the works of these mighty thinkers. You will be expected, quite literally, to enter into the dialogue, to become an active participant in a three-thousand-year-old conversation.
The reading of Great Books is not a one-way activity. The dialogue is real and energizing and calls for intense effort. In high school, perhaps, you thought it sufficient to do your homework assignments while lounging on your bed. Such passive, lazy reading will no longer do on the college level. You will be expected to read actively with pen in hand, marking key passages and underlining recurring themes and images. The business you are about is serious and life-changing; it is not to be trifled with.
That, however, is not to say that you should slavishly accept everything that is in the book merely because it is a classic or that you should reject it out of hand as being out of date. To enter into the dialogue means neither to kowtow to the status quo nor to close off your mind to the voice of the past. It means treating your mind as a raw piece of wood and the Great Book as a lathe. Use the work not as a substitute for original thought but as a tool for shaping and honing your ideas. Be like Jacob, who wrestled all night with the angel, and don’t let the book go till it bestows its blessing on you. And yes, if you are at a Christian liberal arts university, then don’t be afraid to carry that wrestling match into the precincts of the Early Church Fathers and even the Bible itself. Remember that the wisest man who ever lived, Solomon, wrote a book of the Bible (Ecclesiastes) whose theme lies far afield from the cheerful optimism generally expected of the Christian.
So gird up your loins, and prepare yourself for an adventure! An exciting world of ideas lies in wait. But remember this: the point of a liberal arts education is not just to prepare you to do something, but to be someone: someone who is unafraid to think, to explore, to question, and to grow. May God speed you on your way!