I recently found myself explaining again the value of a liberal arts education. I fell into using the same language I have used for hundreds of other students over the years. I was offering the same sorts of justifications that were used on me as a biochemistry major in the 1990s when I was told the value of taking “Political Science 114: National, State, and Local Government” and “Humanities 255: Arts and Ideas.” I was told then, and now I was again telling visiting students, that these classes make you “well-rounded.”
But as the words left my lips, I heard them in a new light. Well-rounded? It has an air of the British aristocracy to it. It conjures images of a finishing school producing gentlemen and ladies. Well-rounded sounds like an attempt to produce Franklins or De Vincis, masters of all trades who would be able to engage in conversations in literature, philosophy, science, and mathematics with equal ease. But that is not the goal of my foundations (or general education) course. I don’t have any illusions that by taking my “Biology 100: Introduction to Biological Sciences” course, my future social workers and teachers will be able to discuss the relative moral ethics of preimplantation genetic screening versus germ line genome modification using Crispr-Cas9 with nuance and insight.
If we tell students, even before they choose our institutions, that there are some courses they take for their careers and others they take to become well-rounded, we are telling our hyper-career-focused students exactly which classes they need to “get out of the way.” Either our students have bought into the fairly explicit classism of this framing and are therefore eager to secure these markers of the elite class (which was my experience), or they haven’t, and these courses that are offered in order to round our students are instead received as pointless hurdles in the way of real purpose of a college education.
Surely, we can justify our curriculum on a basis more worthy than classism.
If non-science majors don’t take my biology class to become well-rounded, why do they take it? Why do my science majors take courses in history and literature? What justification for the liberal arts can we offer students that is richer than the rounding of edges?
I think the reason that I will use from now on for why we value liberal arts, the motivation I will share with current and incoming students, is summarized nicely in my institution’s Commitment to Campus Unity, first endorsed in 2012. Students need to take liberal arts courses to be responsive to God, to be formed, to learn to be hospitable, and to see the connections across God’s creation.
The statement says, “We seek to respond to God’s gracious act of redemption by striving to see our teaching, learning, and scholarship as acts of worship and obedience.” First, my science majors need to take “Philosophy 101: Perspectives on Worldview” in order to see the beauty that God has bestowed upon the world through philosophy. Our social work majors need to take “Introduction to Biological Sciences” to see the beauty God has hidden away in every cell. By taking general education courses students are better able to respond to God and offer worship to the One who is sovereign over every aspect of creation.
Second, our students need liberal arts courses because they are formational. When nursing majors take “History 105: Historical Consciousness,” they learn to see the world as historians. Learning to see the world as a vast network of cause and effect, recognizing that historical figures were people in communities making impossible decisions, is formational. Once students see the world this way, they can’t unsee it. They are formed, and our prayer is that they are formed more and more into whom God is shaping them to be. During a recent advising meeting, one of my advisees announced a rather dramatic change in career goals. She, reluctantly, attributed a general education course with helping her to see a new future for her life. By taking general education courses students are formed and shaped with more tools than any one discipline can offer.
Third, our students need the breadth of courses available in a liberal arts education in order to learn to speak, think, and live hospitably. As our Commitment to Campus Unity says, “We seek engagement by welcoming meaningful interaction with the broad range of voices found in our contexts, whether local or global, past or present.” Liberal arts courses are the necessary antidote that comes with gaining mastery in one discipline. In order for budding engineers to recognize that not all problems can be engineered away, in order for business majors to learn that market forces cannot solve all problems, in order for science majors to appreciate that some true things are not accessible to the scientific method, our students need liberal arts courses. General education courses teach students to receive other ways of understanding the world with humility and hospitality.
Finally, students should pursue liberal arts education because in doing so they will find connections. I have had students who were surprised to find connections between philosophy and biology, but both disciplines study the same creation, made and sustained by the same Creator. Structure and direction really is a useful framing for understanding opportunistic pathogens. As a colleague of mine says, “The connections are real.” When students find connections between their theology course and sociology course, they are finding real connections in creation. As our Commitment says, “We acknowledge that every academic discipline and each co-curricular activity is an arena for God’s glory.” By learning more broadly, students are able to see more clearly all the works of God in creation.
Together, this motivation for liberal arts education and general education courses allows our students to respond to God, be formed, learn hospitality, and see connections between disciplines. This result is what I want for my students, and this result is what I hope they take from my Biology 100 course. This list is a far more worthy goal than simply becoming more well-rounded.
This basis for general education could even help clarify what topics should be addressed in a core curriculum. If the goal is to produce students who are well-rounded then we are destined to compare our graduates to some classist ideal, but if the goal is to be responsive to God, then we are free to follow the Spirit and require formative courses that reveal the connections throughout creation. Freed from the need to be well-rounded, we can shape curriculum that invites hospitality. My hope is that by setting down familiar language that I have now used for two decades, I and my students can find the true value of studying God’s world broadly.