The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education

The Liberating Arts: Why We Need Liberal Arts Education

Jeffrey Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson, and David Henreckson, eds.

Published by Plough Publishing House in 2023

222pp / $19.95 / 9781636080673

Geoffrey Galt Harpham has argued that conversation about crisis is fundamental to the humanities in the United States, an insight I extend to the liberal arts more generally. Certainly, crisis-talk has spanned my own career. From internal academic anxiety over the wrecking ball of poststructuralism, to the cognate cultural wars of the eighties and nineties, to their present echoes with book bans, cancel culture, and semi-authoritarian interventions in higher education; from depression over the depressed state of hiring in the liberal arts, to hand- wringing over the elimination of liberal arts majors as students vote with their feet for other disciplines; and, not least, the serious concerns about the financial sustainability of liberal arts colleges: crises have been the norm, as have been arguments about them.

The Liberating Arts is a new entry in this always earnest, often angsty conversation defending the liberal arts. The book joins this conversation, it seems to me, with a view toward providing accessible responses to popular perceptions of the liberal arts. This outward-facing plain speaking is the strength of the collection. The book is organized around a number of questions that one either regularly hears or can imagine hearing from those who think the liberal arts are not worth the investment or perhaps should be actively resisted: Arent the Liberal Arts Racist?, Arent the Liberal Arts Outdated?, Arent the Liberal Arts Liberal?, Arent Liberal Arts Degrees Unmarketable?, and others. reading, I imagined the books usefulness to a generally educated citizen unsure of what to say to a friend who decries her daughters choice of a French major. I could also imagine a dean passing this book out to liberal arts faculty, not to give them new perspectives on what they dothough some essays wouldbut to provide accessible language for conversations with fretful parents of prospective students. More ambitiously, I can imagine the book launching discussion groups with colleagues in professional areas, given that most of our institutions have rapidly become dominated by applied fields.

However, I do make this last recommendation cautiously. The danger of writing for those less informed about the liberal arts is to assume they are unequal partners in the ongoing conversation about what higher education should entail and even what the liberal arts ought to be. Throughout the book, the questions posed by each section are accompanied by a short, devils-advocate style paragraph questioning the liberal arts. However, these fictive interlocutors are mostly pasteboard caricatures of arguments rather than equal partners in a conversation. As a result, these sections, perhaps unintentionally, signal our tendency to preach to the choir of the converted when we advocate for the liberal arts.

Against this tendency, in one of the best essays, Rachel Griffis explores the often-difficult relationship between the liberal arts and professional fields. She rightly points to the fact that tensions spring from the assumptions, prejudices, and approaches of both parties:

One of the unfortunate results of the tension between professional programs and traditional liberal arts classes is that study in the latter realm is assumed to be unprofitable. Defenders of the liberal arts dont help their case when their arguments for the preservation of the liberal arts exclusively emphasize the intangible goods of this approach to education while downplaying, or even vilifying, students concerns about financial security. Many advocates of liberal arts majors try to convince students of the superiority of their field through the suggestion that monetary motivation for study is shallow or inferior (143-44).

Indeed, as Griffis goes on to point out, professors in a Christian context are sometimes guilty of wielding rather shallow theological justifications to bludgeon students for concern with careers.

I should say, though, that I dont find the writers in this collection vilify others; there is marked generosity of spirit throughout. Nonetheless, more than a few allude to the old saw that a college education is decidedly NOT about how a student will earn a living upon graduation. Defenses of the liberal arts, including many gathered here, evince too little theoretical or theological reflection on the role that work necessarily plays in human flourishing. Consequently, we often have little to say about how the liberal arts relate to work, other than being superior to it.

Having noted this limitation, I will say that the characteristic generosity of this book is exemplified in the extensive representation of liberal arts practiced beyond the college campus. In each section, longer essays are accompanied by shorter vignettes demonstrating this extra-academic learning. David Henreckson provides a heartwarming anecdote about taking students to a conference on Marilynne robinson. The event became a keystone moment for his students, a reminder that transformative moments in learning regularly occur in hallways or dorm rooms, or on the road in conversation with students. Other entries are similarly inspiring and encouraging. Emily Auerbach discusses her role in the Odyssey project out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which brings liberal arts learning to lower-income adults. She affirms that the liberal arts are for everyone, even while she notes that too often the liberal arts are elitist because we deny equal access to them (41). The essay is a useful reminder that a primary impediment to the liberal arts for students is the difficulty of even attaining an adequate and affordable education in the first place, this being more important than pecuniary self-interest. Similarly, Zena Hitz discusses the Catherine Project, an online effort to extend our educational mission by bringing lifelong learning in the Great Books to non-traditional audiences. John Mark Reynolds takes up the importance of liberal arts learning in high school, a striking essay since secondary education is almost entirely absent from discussions of the liberal arts among academics. In a similar vein, Angel Adams Parham discusses the founding of the Nyansa Classical Community, originally an after-school program designed to engage young, primarily African American students with the classics. Along with her second, longer essay, Parhams work provides a fruitful discussion of ways classics can engage students with the necessary work of multicultural awareness and insight.

Other examples abound, and there are many others not explored: bookstores, libraries, museums, national and state park systems, and so forth. The books framework suggests that to understand, support, and be engaged with the liberal arts in our culture, we need to think well beyond their manifestation within higher education alone.

One important absence in this plethora of examples locating the liberal arts is the Church general, or even a specific church. Indeed, there is relatively little direct and extended reflection on the relationship between the liberal arts and Christian faith, though throughout there are references to Christian writers or anecdotes about personal and collective faith experiences. Joseph Clair, discussing how Christian higher education could provide a necessary corrective to dominant practices in higher education, is an important exception to the generally sotto voce connections made to Christian faith and practice. No separate section begins with its own question, Are the liberal arts Christian?

It may be that we think this question is a settled matter, determined by Christians like Jerome, Augustine, or Newman in other times and places. However, the spirit of Tertullian lives. More than one Christian parent or pastor asks in their own way, What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? This is a concern of not only Christian pastors and parents. Fundamentally, we all might reasonably ask how the liberal arts ethos of freedom and human flourishing relates to theological affirmations of freedom, deliverance, and abundance found in Christ and embodied in Christs church. Is the Church a site of liberal learning alongside the bookstore and the university? If so, how is this learning characterized and how can it be nurtured? If not, why not? Neither the liberal arts, nor the Church, nor society exist in the present as they did for Jerome or Augustine or Newman. Nor do institutions of higher education, their curricula, or their students. While we may learn from and draw upon these great discourses about the liberal arts and Christian faith, the task of forging the ties between the church and the liberal arts remains new for each generation. This remains a task for other worthy volumes, perhaps.