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In light of increasing challenges and pressures in higher education, small liberal arts colleges struggle to maintain their identity and sense of institutional vocation. In too many instances—and stemming from both external attack and internal loss of purpose—liberal arts institutions sometimes seem to have forgotten what it means to offer a broad-based, interdisciplinary, and transformative education. Yet no mode of higher education is better suited to students’ vocational discovery than the small liberal arts institution. Grounded in consideration of what it means to be an educated person, the essay first reframes the notion of “liberal” arts toward consideration of a “liberating” education; it then explores some of the central freedoms that a truly liberating education should provide. By freeing students from myopia, fear, and boredom and for curiosity, creativity, and community, a liberating education is uniquely positioned to facilitate transformation of students toward deeper calling and purpose.

Hence it is that education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching. This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students. (John Henry Newman)1

For years, and like many small institutions facing recruitment and enrollment challenges, my small liberal arts-based university2 has wrestled with its identity and its sense of its own vocation. In fits and starts, those of us who serve on the faculty at the University of Mount Union in northeast Ohio have found ourselves in discussion of these and related questions: Are we still a liberal arts university, or have we become a “comprehensive” institution? If the latter, to what extent are we working to ground the education we do offer in the values and goals of the liberal arts tradition? And what is the relationship between the so-called “professional” studies and the liberal arts? While both external (public) and internal (administrative) interpretations of these conversations are sometimes perceived as little more than faculty fights over territory and resources, we scholar-educators contend that discussions about identity and vocation at the institutional level are critical to our work as faculty members—even if those discussions go unresolved for decades. In our collective reflection on the questions listed here, a meta-concern emerges that connects these issues of identity: the need to determine what an education at our institution is, or should be, about. The critical question, for those of us teaching within a variety of liberal arts institutions, becomes: “What does it mean to be an educated person, especially one educated in the liberal arts tradition?”3

What I offer here is a small contribution to much broader conversations about the nature and task of higher education—more specifically a liberal arts education4 —and particularly at this political and cultural moment in the story of the United States and of the broader global community. It is a peculiar moment, what with our distinct forms of division, destruction, violence, and injustice. To complicate our collective vocation in higher education, conversations about the role and responsibility of higher education for addressing current and coming global problems are rife with all sorts of misunderstanding, including attacks from outside forces5 and a loss of focus on the purpose of the academy from within. It seems that much of American society has forgotten the critical importance and value of educating people in a broad-based and deeply interdisciplinary way—the very foundation of a healthy and robust democracy, and the form of education that a free citizenry needs to maintain it.6 We need not look far to see the increasing manner in which disagreement over politics or values is leading to destruction of the relationships constitutive of a functional public sphere, which is indicative of the erosion of democracy. In more cynical moments, one worries that we have abdicated or—worse yet—willfully neglected the responsibility to educate people in this way, since uneducated people are easier to influence and control.

Attending to the Big Questions

Given the challenges, how do we think about what it means to be educated in the liberal arts tradition? To what are students called when they have finished their formal university or college education, especially within the liberal arts? I have found these questions to be so compelling that, years ago, I developed a senior capstone course on that topic for my institution’s general education program. My thinking about the question is thus shaped largely by years of annual semester-long study and reflection with students as they prepare to embark on their post-graduate journeys. As much as I love every course I teach, this general education capstone seminar has been perhaps the most meaningful for me personally. It has led to much deeper understanding of my own vocation and purpose as a professional in higher education whose privilege it is to help young people, in turn, discover their own sense of vocation and purpose. It has also further grounded my belief that we must do better to help students see the unique value of a liberal education and of what it means to be educated in this particular way.

My approach to the question is also shaped significantly by my work within (and at the intersection of) the academic fields of religious studies and peace studies. Given my own sense of vocation and training in practical theology, I work to consider the meaning, outcomes, and impact of beliefs and worldviews in the public sphere and vice versa. On a certain level, this work parallels vocational exploration, especially as I ponder (and help young adults to ponder): Why are we here, and what is our purpose in life? What is the meaning of our faith for our sense of responsibility in the world? To what am I called in the political and social realms in light of my faith?

For me, this connects directly to my engagement in my secondary field of peace studies. In that field, scholars and teachers make no apology for their work to analyze how power structures and injustices lead to conflict and violence, and thus continuously study the meaning and implications of these and related issues. In this “activist” field, peace studies professionals yearn to dismantle those power structures and injustices and to work toward sustainable peace. In doing so, they also continually contemplate the vocation of peacemaking, pushing individuals and communities to consider how they might shape their lives and contexts toward greater justice and to an increased capacity for peace. And both fields—religious studies and peace studies—have at their very cores the “meta-questions” that humans have asked for thousands of years, and that the humanities fields, encompassed in and core to the liberal arts tradition, are particularly suited and poised to answer: Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is the good, the just? What makes for beauty? What is enough? How shall we be and act in the world? How am I called to relate to others?

My engagement with these two fields has translated over time into my teaching to the extent that it has become a habit in class to pause regularly, in order to step back and explore those meta-questions and ask “so what?” Those moments are too often missing for our students (and for us as educators) when we are deep in the weeds of our fields’ contents. Given an opportunity to delve even further into reflection, my senior capstone students report finally having a sense of the “why” of both the degree they are about to complete and the career journey they are about to begin. Pressed—and most definitely groaning as they begin—to reflect on the value of their liberal arts-based general education requirements, nearly all graduating seniors who have completed my capstone seminar have had positive things to say. They have relayed their own remarkable insights about the value of, connections within, and skills developed through their time in courses that they were, in their own words, “forced” to take outside of their major and minor fields of study.

To illustrate: I ask students to complete a written reflection on the questions, “How have I been educated through Mount Union’s general education requirements? What have those courses added to my education that I would/could not have gotten from courses only in my major(s)/minor(s)?” Olivia, now pursuing her master’s in clinical mental health counseling at Kent State University, notes that she knew to an extent what it meant to attend a small liberal arts school when she enrolled at Mount Union, but was anxious to get into her major and focus on those requirements rather than take classes outside of psychology. She writes that it didn’t help that she always had her father “in her ear” lamenting that she’d be able to complete her degree in two years instead of four if we weren’t “making her” take all those “b. s. courses.” But she goes on to write beautifully about how a creative writing course taught her to write, and even to draw, about her therapeutic work. She also describes how a geology course taught her how to write a good scientific lab report and how to deal with difficult people through group projects. All these experiences helped her to develop persistent skills that are serving her well, both now and into the future. She ends her reflection by noting that those courses were a “blessing in disguise.”7

And then there is Maggie, a finance major who now works as an investment advisor for a major bank. Maggie reflects on a first-year creative writing course that exposed her to free-style writing, which in turn led to discovery of her “deep passion” for free-verse poetry by the likes of Morgan Harper Nichols, R. M. Drake, Rupi Kaur, and Yung Pueblo. In an upper-level ethics course in the liberal arts core, Maggie writes that she was challenged “intellectually and even emotionally” as the class wrestled with complex ethical problems, and that she gained a “greater appreciation” for the complex questions and how to “break down [her] own understanding of the question at hand in an effort to formulate a justifiable answer.”8

These short examples come from students who had the opportunity to spend a semester reflecting on their four years of education and considering its impact for their future work and lives. But I am deeply concerned for students who are never pressed to do the reflective work needed to come to new understanding of their liberal arts education. I fear that too many college students in institutions across the board never develop an answer to “why”—let alone the capacities for asking the question in the first place—and flounder toward mid-life without that grounding in vocation, purpose, and identity.9

Freedom From and For: Reframing a “Liberal” Education

So I return to the question I wish to center here, as I seek to do in my courses and in my own vocation as a college professor at a small liberal arts institution: What does it mean to be an educated person? More specifically, what does it mean to be educated in the liberal arts tradition, and furthermore, what is the vocation of an institution that claims to offer one?

At issue first, however, is a problem of semantics. The word “liberal” has become so fraught with misunderstanding and division that one wonders if the time has come finally to give it up. Decades of trying to explain to students and their parents what we mean by a “liberal education” or an education grounded in the “liberal arts” seems to have gotten us just about nowhere. Many institutions choose to avoid public or outward-facing use of the phrasing altogether, despite the fact that this is the education they offer. And while those of us who are involved in liberal arts teaching and learning know that we do not intend a political perspective in our use of the phrase, the anti-intellectual movement in American culture has gone to great lengths to convince the general public that the goal of higher education is to bend the next generation’s political views in a decidedly leftist direction. Perhaps the time has come to reframe or retool the word. If “liberal” is so unpalatable, one wonders why we should bother to engage in a steep uphill battle of trying to correct it. Perhaps it is time to change the phrasing just slightly—in a way that perhaps better captures the Latin root liber, meaning “free,” in any case. I would suggest that we might begin to talk more openly about the purpose and characteristics of a liberating education.

A liberating education: liberation implies freedom, but what do we mean by an education that makes one “free”—or that is designed for the person who presumes to be free? Of even greater interest given my purposes here is an understanding of freedom, not as a static state of being, but as freedom from something and for or toward something else. To be liberated implies that one has been previously hampered, shackled, or otherwise not free. From what are we working to free our students? And on the other side of the coin, what might we be attempting to free them for?

Freedom From

For some years I have kept a scrap of paper pinned to my office bulletin board right above my computer. This means that I see it often, which leads to fairly regular contemplation of its words. Unfortunately, I cannot recall its source—I may have read it somewhere or heard it spoken in a public space. In any case, in my most hasty handwriting, it reads: “A truly educated person must submit to the inevitable destruction of her categories.”

Perhaps the primary and most obvious shackle we attempt to break for our students, via a liberating education, is the mistaken notion that their perspectives and experiences up to the threshold of adulthood constitute the norm. The reader knows this, of course—but it’s so critical in a liberating education that it seems important to state it here, lest some of us have momentarily forgotten it amongst other and often competing demands of our vocation as teachers. A liberating education provides freedom from narrow perspectives on lifeperspectives that limit our understanding of one another, of the world around us, and thus of ourselves. The truly educated person is one who is open to learning new perspectives and different viewpoints, sometimes radically new perspectives that might fly in the face of beliefs and positions previously held by the individual.

This is scary for many of our students. At an institution like mine, which still recruits and educates significant numbers of first-generation students, the threat posed by liberation from the confines of limited worldly experience or limited exposure to a wide array of knowledge is quite real—both for students and their parents. Students often interpret challenges to their current ideals and knowledge as an affront to what they interpret as “traditional” values; hence, it can be delicate work indeed to guide young people through their educational journey. I can still remember well-meaning adults in my own youth telling me to avoid taking religion classes in college because they might destroy my faith.10

Things have not changed much, if my experience as a religious studies professor is any indication—particularly my experience of talking with prospective and first-year students and their families. Within the context of a liberating education, how do we free our students from myopia without alienating or undoing them? I have found in my own teaching that I need to pause regularly in class to remind my students that the perspectives they have been taught (in school, by their families and communities, and through social media) are not wrong per se—but they are no doubt limited. If we make the offensive mistake of implying that students’ views are backward or wrong, we run the risk of inviting their defensiveness. This usually results in an inability to hear anything else we have to teach them—not to mention that this is just a mean and condescending way to go about our vocation as teachers. If we instead observe that something is simply limited, we allow for the possibility of growth. Examples of how my own views have changed—sometimes fairly radically (especially given the passage of time and the arrival of new life experiences)—can help them begin to see their own liberating education as a building process rather than as a mechanism to knock them down from their previous foundations.11 This models for students the nuance and complexities of our views, and how our most strongly-held convictions may be challenged by new knowledge and circumstances—as they should be, if we are open to continued intellectual and emotional growth.

This brings me to a second point: a liberating education offers freedom from fear of other perspectives or of learning new things. A liberating education should free students from the fear that if they engage with diversity and difference, or if they explore questions that challenge their worldviews, that they will lose something of who they are. Parker Palmer explains the “sequence of fears that begins in the fear of diversity”:12

As long as we inhabit a universe made homogeneous by our refusal to admit others, we can maintain the illusion that we possess the truth about ourselves and the world—after all, there is no “other” to challenge us! But as soon as we admit pluralism, we are forced to admit that ours is not the only standpoint, the only experience, the only way, and the truths we have built our lives on begin to feel fragile.
If we embrace diversity, we find ourselves on the doorstep of our next fear: fear of the conflict that will ensue when divergent truths meet. To evade public engagement over our dangerous differences, we privatize them, only to find them growing larger and more divisive.
If we peel back our fear of conflict, we find a third layer of fear, the fear of losing identity. Many of us are so deeply identified with our ideas that when we have a competitive encounter, we risk losing more than the debate: we risk losing our sense of self.13

Finally, writes Palmer, we must contend with one last fear—the fear that “otherness will challenge or even compel us to change our lives. Otherness, taken seriously, always invites transformation, calling us to new facts and the- ories and values but also to new ways of living our lives—and that is the most daunting threat of all.”14 Instead of fearing this transformation or change that Palmer references, we can help students see it as a wonderful and freeing thing. One key aspect of the vocation of the liberal arts institution, and of those who teach within that context, is to help students to think of transformation and change as building upon, rather than destroying, the ideas and values that they bring to college. A liberating education should develop within students the courage to speak their truth, to listen with deep compassion to others’ truths, and to challenge and interrogate the ideas they carry to college. When this happens, students find something bigger, more complex, and more interesting, emerging as engaged citizens and capable leaders.

This leads into something perhaps more concrete that a truly liberating education provides: freedom from the notion that only a few paths to career satisfaction exist for each person.15 As one of my colleagues noted recently, a liberating education that exposes people to different ways of knowing frees people from the “limitations of the life paths prescribed by current K-12 schools,” which “value only a handful of supposedly secure careers.”16 A broad-based, liberating education exposes students to fields and career ideas they have never had opportunity to consider; these fields might, practically speaking, offer many students from low-income backgrounds a way out of generations of economic struggle. And while vocation is about something far broader than one’s career, one’s work is often central to one’s sense of calling or purpose—and thus to one’s sense of fulfillment in life. The education I want students to experience at my institution should do more than simply prepare them for a career. It should offer them experiences that broaden their perspectives about what they are capable of, interested in, angry about, and desiring to fix—and it should develop within them the capacities to determine how best to respond to those desires, through their work and otherwise.

And this, in turn, brings me to a final category of “freedom from.” In pre-pandemic times, well before his was a household name—and unfortunately a polarizing one—I read Dr. Anthony Fauci’s short essay in the wonderful book This I Believe.17 In his essay, entitled “A Goal of Service to Humankind,” Fauci describes his “unquenchable thirst for knowledge” and connects the develop- ment of that thirst to his Jesuit-based liberal arts education both at the high school level and in college. When we have developed this desire to know and to be curious, we “seek and learn every day: from an experiment in the lab, from reading a scientific journal, from taking care of a patient. Because of this,” writes Fauci, “I rarely get bored.”18

In our increasingly “entertain me” society, the skill required to attain freedom from boredom—a freedom cultivated by genuine interest in the world around us— is among the most important things a liberating education can provide. Freedom from boredom is not simply an individual goal or achievement that improves one’s own quality of existence, but one that has ramifications for progress and development in society. Many years ago I had opportunity to hear Sister Helen Prejean, death penalty abolitionist and author of the book Dead Man Walking,19 speak about the importance of becoming educated and activated about injustice in the world. The most profound takeaway for me (and one that I repeat often, much to the chagrin of my own three school-aged children when any one of them complains to me of boredom) was hearing her say powerfully and bluntly: “If you’re bored, it means you’re boring.” A bored and boring individual is less capable of innovation, relationship-building, and the dynamism and creativity required to move the needle on the world’s greatest problems. For my part, as a means of encouraging students to build their capacities for and interests in lifelong learning, I talk about my engagement with my own field. I explain that I have spent around three decades in the formal study of religion, but that the only thing I know for certain—after all that time—is that I do not know (nor can I ever know) everything about religion, or the Divine, or about the rich diversity of human expressions of religiosity around the world. I describe that as a great and freeing gift: to walk through life feeling curious and comfortable knowing that there will always be more to know—as well as to recognize that it is good and right that continued learning may occasionally lead to the destruction of my categories.

Freedom For

It is not quite enough to say that a good liberating education frees our students from various shackles of myopia, fear, and a bored existence. For what—and perhaps in the end, for whom—do we seek to free students through a liberating education?

If a good liberating education frees a person from boredom, it does so primarily by freeing a person for a lifetime of curiosity and inquisitiveness—or what many institutions refer to as cultivation of the desire for “lifelong learning.” The nineteenth century theologian John Henry Newman wrote that the truly educated person develops a love of learning and understands knowledge as “an end sufficient to rest in and to pursue for its own sake.”20 Knowledge is “capable of being its own end” and “its own reward.”21 And although Newman concedes that we may garner other rewards as a result of the pursuit of knowledge, such as “wealth or power or honour or the conveniences and comforts of life”—or a well-paid career—learning is not to be considered a means to those rewards, but rather its own satisfaction of our human nature: “That further advantages accrue to us and redound to others by its possession, over and above what it is in itself, I am very far indeed from denying; but, independent of these, we are satisfying a direct need of our nature in its very acquisition.” Knowledge is thus “valuable for what its very presence in us does for us after the manner of a habit, even though it be turned to no further account, nor subserve any direct end.”22

If those of us teaching in the fields that constitute the liberating arts can agree that Newman is right, then we will also see the truth of Dorothy Sayers’s arguments that higher education must free students for learning how to learn. In fact, learning how to learn and freedom are inextricably linked for Sayers, who delivered her lecture “The Lost Tools of Learning” at Oxford University in 1947: “if we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society,”23 then we must provide them with a broad-based education. This was, of course, the standard form of education before it became fashionable to silo students into programs primarily for career preparation or otherwise specialized and narrow educational pursuits. Sayers argues that it is “the great defect of our education today . . . that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.”24 A sample from Sayers’ litany of delightfully snark- infused rhetorical questions provides us with a snapshot of her critique of an overly narrow educational system, and of the sad state of society it produces:

Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected) but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves? Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things? Or who cannot handle a library catalogue? Or who, when faced with a book of reference, betray a curious inability to extract from it the passages relevant to the particular question which interests them?25

Sayers’s message about the need for students to “learn how to learn” is especially meaningful for our particular moment. The notion of an individual landing and remaining in one company or career for most or all of their working adulthood is long gone;26 we talk about this regularly in the liberating arts, explaining to students that transferable, persistent skills are going to be increasingly import- ant as they navigate changing career paths and prepare for work that is only on the verge of existence.27 Although Sayers might not wholly endorse the use of her work in this further application (given its focus on careers and jobs), this is actually something of a side-effect of a good liberating education. Its larger goal is to free our students to learn how to learn, rather than to acquiesce to the reigning but mistaken assumption that mastery of one field is the most important outcome of their time in college.

Those persistent skills and the cultivation of lifelong learning lead us to consideration of a liberating education that provides freedom for interdisciplinary thinking and the creative capacities that stem from it. Interdisciplinary thinking is needed for seeing beyond limited answers to complicated and inter-connected problems and issues in the world. In the field of peace studies, for example, interdisciplinary approaches are critical; the pursuit of peace necessarily calls upon the expertise not only of politicians and government officials but of economists, educators, community organizers, psychologists and mental health experts, business leaders, artists, health care providers, and social influencers.28

Interdisciplinary thinking is also necessary to vocational education and exploration. I am convinced that there is no mode of higher education that is better suited to vocational discovery than the small four-year liberating arts institution. Not only do such institutions offer an education that allows students to delve into the very fields beyond their majors that help them see themselves as more than simply job trainees; such institutions are also best equipped for cultivating the freedoms (both from and for) that I have discussed above, along with values of empathy, responsibility, and community. These are important tools for forming a vocational identity that reaches beyond one’s major and intended career field. This discovery occurs through smaller class sizes, more intentional mentoring-advising, closer relationships with faculty and staff, increased opportunities for leadership development in co- and extra-curricular activities, and of course through the interdisciplinary—and, to use a word, revelatory—curriculum that the liberal arts institution offers.

Interdisciplinary thinking can only be attained, of course, when one has had sufficient exposure to the disciplines—exposure that in turn can only come through the kind of broad-based regimen of courses offered by a liberating education. Elsewhere I have pointed to the work of Harvey Graff, author of Undisciplining Knowledge, which explores the history, benefits, and pitfalls of interdisciplinarity.29 In an InsideHigherEd interview about his book, Graff argues:

Interdisciplinarity—of any stripe or variety—depends on disciplines. Interdisciplinary efforts and disciplines are inseparable. Interdisciplinarity is founded and practiced in relationships among approaches and fields of knowledge. This is a fact of theory and practice, and of the history of higher education. We cannot have one without the other.30

Graff’s work confirms my own view: that it is preposterous to imagine that our work can be interdisciplinary, or that we can help students develop interdisciplinary capacities, without strong disciplines. The trend in small liberal arts institutions in recent years appears to be, first, to shrink departments and fields of study—and then to combine them into so-called “interdisciplinary” programs, as if the latter can exist without the former. Graff rails against this when asked about college administrators who co-opt the language of “interdisciplinarity” to “justify the elimination of separate disciplinary departments or programs.” Graff retorts that those moves “are ignorant, ill-founded, and anti-intellectual as well as an assault on the faculty. They seldom if ever have to do with interdisciplinarity or, for that matter, education. They have to do with cost cutting and failure to share governance. They are not intellectual moves. Eliminating departments and programs must be distinguished from alternatives in the social organization of teaching and research.” While the language is harsh, the logic is clear: we simply cannot develop interdisciplinary thinking in our students without exposure to the very disciplines that necessarily constitute interdisciplinarity. An institution’s liberating arts curriculum must reflect this fact if we are to succeed in teaching true interdisciplinary thinking.

Of course, those of us who teach in fields that constitute the liberating arts are aware of students’ attitudes toward their general education courses, and it can feel like an uphill battle to help students see the value of learning outside of more direct career preparation. But I would contend that this is largely about messaging at all levels. Faculty have to be able to articulate the value of their fields, certainly; but if that same articulation is not happening elsewhere on campus—on the front end (in the marketing office, in the materials and messages developed in enrollment services, in recruitment meetings with coaches and admissions staff), in the co-curriculum (in student affairs and athletics), and at the back end (through the advancement office, with graduates who can still be taught retrospectively about the value of the education they received)—then it will never become the ethos of the institution.

The Ultimate Freedom

All the ideas outlined in the previous section move our discussion to what I think is the most important vocation of the educated person, and therefore also the most important vocation of institutions that claim to produce such persons. We in the liberating arts must help students to begin to see their education as freeing them for others. While a liberating education is decidedly all about the individual student, it is also not at all about the student. There is much to unpack in relation to this paradox, as we begin to explore what it means to be educated for others: for relationship, for community, and for other-centered service.

In “Vocation and the Liberal Arts,” A. J. Conyers emphasizes the formation of the learner that occurs through liberal learning: “the classic understanding of liberal studies centers upon the work to be done in the learner, not by the learner.”31 While maintaining that there is of course a place for skill and for the “practical and professional,” Conyers insists that the liberating arts should not first and foremost “cause us to employ the objects of our study, but to love them, to be drawn by them, and thus to be changed ourselves.”32 Scott Gravlee makes a similar point, with respect to the intersection of philosophy and peace studies: although philosophy teaches skills and techniques of “rational argument and dialogue”—which are, of course, necessary for conflict resolution and other peace- building activities—the study of philosophy goes well beyond mere adherence to a technique. “Philosophy’s most significant contribution to peacebuilding will lie not in the process or technique of rational argument itself, conceived of as a method for conflict resolution, but in the deeper effects that philosophical dialogue can have on the character of those who engage in it.”33

Johann Neem agrees, noting that a liberating education “is not just about what one knows or the skills one learns. It is also about character.”34 But espe- cially compelling is Neem’s emphasis on the critical importance of engagement with the various disciplines for bringing about this result. Neem calls the insti- tution to provide a truly liberating education, which can only be found through broad—and presumably required—exposure to relevant disciplinary fields. He compares the telos of liberating arts institutions to the formation wrought by churches; given my vocation and training as a theologian, I find his analogy to be particularly powerful:

In a church, devotional practices are designed to help reinforce the right beliefs and to orient people to God. Belief is something that develops over time and is internalized through repeated participation in the church’s rituals. There is no way, from this perspective, for a church to sustain its ends if the rituals that give them daily life are obliterated.

The same is true for colleges. For them to achieve their telos, they need to be places where students and professors consistently practice the life of the mind. A college graduate should, by virtue of the liberal education he has received, emerge as someone different from who he was before. As in a church, the goal is not just to give all people what they want (as utilitarianism would have it) or to accommodate every worldly need (as some pragmatists suggest) but instead to help students and professors orient their lives around new purposes.35

If I may expand this analogy further, it is worth noting that the losses and negative effects that arise from the lack of such formation are being played out today, both in churches and in the university. One can imagine the impact on faith formation in ecclesial life (and perhaps on the long-term viability of the church itself) when pastors stop teaching and preaching, for example, about the doctrine of the Trinity or the meaning of Holy Communion, or about Paul’s letters, or about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments—simply because congregants don’t regularly ask about these matters. Or in terms of regular ecclesial practices and activities, what happens when churches decide that Sunday evening youth group meetings or long-familiar hymns are no longer serving a “practical” purpose? What if pastors, in an effort to remain “marketable,” offer a different form and order of worship each Sunday and employ every trendy, cutting-edge practice and gimmick available to get people in the door, turning worship into a consumer-driven event, and then decide to forgo teaching the most core tenets of the faith? It is through the regular experience of long-followed practices (prayers, hymns, rituals and rites of passage, Scriptural emphases, celebrations of religious holidays) that the faithful come to believe. This is what practical theologians refer to as praxis, which is the notion that formation is not linear. We do not typically first believe the doctrines and then start practicing the faith, but rather the very practices are what form our right belief. In a cyclical fashion, it is a continual back-and-forth: in the regularity of doing, we come to believe, and our deepened belief in turn enhances our continued doing, which deepens our belief even further.

To return to the telos of the liberating arts, then: Neem argues that students are not formed in the tenets and foundations of a liberating education unless colleges stop giving students what they (think that they) want and start giving students what they need.36 Obviously this is not an argument for doing away with the professional programs that reside alongside the more traditional liberating arts fields. It is instead a call to ensure that, even as we promote and encourage students into professional programs, we are grounding those studies in an intentionally integrative exploration of the fields that constitute the foundation of a liberating education.

Each of the perspectives outlined above rightly points to the potential for transformation of a student’s character when the student is engaged in true liberative learning. In this sense, liberating education really is all about freeing the student from the confines and shackles discussed in earlier paragraphs. One could certainly argue that freedom for personal transformation is an end in itself; but it all feels a little unfinished if we are left with the question: transformation for what? And so we return to the last assertion I have made about what a liberating education frees us for, which is freedom for others. As far back as Plato, writing in the “Allegory of the Cave,” we are to understand that the truly educated person has a responsibility to and for others. As Socrates explains to Glaucon, it will not do for those who have made their way out of the proverbial darkness toward truth and enlightenment to “remain there . . . and not be willing to go down again among the prisoners or share their labors and honors.”37 The ultimate goal, for Plato, is to create the best possible community (polis); for us, this means that the educated—the free—are called to share our experience of freedom with all those who remain shackled by myriad forms of confinement.

In a similar vein, Conyers suggests that a liberating education is necessary not for how we can use it, but rather for how it can “make us useful in that we are fitted for that ‘final’ cause which has called us forth.”38 That calling of people transformed by a liberating education is, for Conyers, a call to the community of love and belonging, characterized by a rich diversity of gifts. Writing from the perspective of theology, Conyers ends by stating that the fields that constitute the liberating arts “are a constant reminder of the true nature of ties that bind a people together and that call them along with the world itself to their God.”39

In other words, a liberating education should free students for others—for empathy, for service, for authentic community, for consideration of calling that goes far beyond their own lives, material needs and wants, and self-interested achievements. Borrowing heavily from Martha Nussbaum’s work in Cultivating Humanity, I have argued elsewhere that the humanities, as core to a liberating education, “are particularly conducive to the development of three capacities in human beings: critical consideration of self and inherited traditions, a more cosmopolitan worldview that transcends other forms of belonging and identity, and empathetic (yet not uncritical) understanding of people who are different from oneself.”40 The humanities, along with other liberal arts disciplines, free us for empathy by immersing us in the cultures, religions, politics, values—or, more broadly, in the stories—of others. It is thus the vocation of the liberating arts to draw out and develop the sense of other-centered vocation with which students should emerge, and that they carry into the world, when they have completed a college degree.

In her compelling book, The Power and Promise of Humane Education, Zoe Weil urges teachers at all levels to commit to providing a “humane” education, which she defines as one that “draws connections between all forms of social justice” and that “examines what is happening on our planet, from human oppression to animal exploitation to ecological degradation.”41 In pursuit of developing our own humanity and that of our students, Weil argues that we must cultivate the “best qualities”42 in humans, which necessarily include val- ues of compassion, generosity, honesty, and wisdom. Importantly, Weil argues that humane education differs from “values” education in that it goes beyond relationships between people and extends to our relationships to non-human animals and the earth itself. Humane education includes values and character education, but rightly extends these approaches to consider how we can and should use our free will—in large and small ways—to make “daily choices [that] can have far-reaching consequences” for all.43

Vocation and Liberating Education

When students choose to attend a liberal arts institution, they are choosing—albeit too often unknowingly, since most institutions fail to communicate clearly what it means—to be educated in this liberating tradition, which necessarily goes beyond themselves. A liberating education should teach students that their larger purpose in life, beyond the job or career, is to make the world better—better as in more compassionate, more inclusive, more just, more peaceful, more beautiful. Their liberating education should lead them to desire to work for the liberation of others, especially those who suffer at the margins of our society. Our world desperately needs people who can think from multiple perspectives toward resolving the biggest problems of our time, people who can argue intelligently with others and work alongside them without devolving into violence or aggression, people who are sufficiently liberated to have the character and confidence required to live in a complex and constantly-changing world.

The American theologian Frederick Buechner defined vocation as the place “where [one’s] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”44 By freeing students from myopia, fear, and boredom and for curiosity, creativity, and community—all in service to the greater good of others—a liberating education is uniquely situated to transform students toward a deeper sense of calling and purpose. That means, in turn, that this must also be the vocation of the institution that claims to offer such an education. And, finally, it is the vocation of those of us who find our callings within institutions focused on the liberating arts—and who are privileged to walk alongside our students throughout this process of transformation—to live into these callings and to engage in this essential work.

Cite this article
Nicole L. Johnson, “Liberation From and For: The Vocation of the Educated Person”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 52:4 , 9-27


  1. John Henry Newman, “Discourse V: Knowledge Its Own End,” in The Idea of a University, ed. Martin J. Svaglic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 76.
  2. The very fact that I do not even know whether to refer to my institution here as a “liberal arts” university or as a “liberal arts-based” university is indicative of the tensions around identity that we at the University of Mount Union (and I suspect in similar institutions across the United States) feel.
  3. From the outset, I want to be clear in my disdain for any notion of elitism with regard to discussions of what it means to be “educated.” By no means do I intend that formal schooling is required for one to be or become educated; likewise, there are many people who spend years in formal education yet remain among the seemingly most uneducated of persons. In my efforts here, I simply want to argue that if a college or university, in particular one claiming to be grounded in the liberal arts, says its institutional vocation is to educate people, there should be some common understanding of what that entails and of what the fruit of that labor looks like.
  4. My small contribution rests on a much larger collection of far more sophisticated and thorough treatises about the nature and task of higher education, and more specifically the value of the liberal arts. The works of some of those scholars are noted in various places in the text and footnotes here, but there is far more scholarship to be found and read in this area.
  5. See Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of a Liberal Education (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2015), 18–20; see also Johann N. Neem, What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 2019), xiii–xv. Zakaria notes increasing anti-liberal arts sentiments from the right but also calls former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, to account for statements that question the value of a liberal arts degree. Neem goes further in decrying the Obama administration’s College Scorecard, released in 2015, which pushes the view that the most important thing is getting through college as efficiently as possible, with the implication that the end goal is little more than job training. More recently, Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has pledged to police public liberal arts education in his state for being too “liberal” and “woke.” See Ana Ceballos and Jeffrey S. Solochek, “DeSantis Seeks Conservative Overhaul at Florida Liberal Arts College,” Tampa Bay Times, January 6, 2023; also Josh Moody, “DeSantis Aims to Turn Public College into ‘Hillsdale of the South,’” InsideHigherEd, January 11, 2023,
  6. See Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), especially pages 28–31, where he discusses the preservation of democracy as a key argument for the importance of “an educated citizenry.”
  7. Importantly, Olivia notes in the reflection that until her senior year, she didn’t have enough experience to be able to understand the value of the liberal arts; she needed the experience of being “forced” to take those courses to be able to reflect back on that experience, which in turn allowed her to see the value of that liberal arts education. This is important for educators to note when we are responding to what eighteen-year-olds tell us they need and want to study in college.
  8. While writing this article, I contacted Maggie to secure permission to use her reflec- tion from the capstone course. After responding with a resounding “yes” to my request, she wrote (unsolicited) that she still constantly references her general education work in interviews and work-related conversations. Maggie considers herself an advocate for the liberal arts; when she returns to campus on occasion to speak to students in the university’s program in finance, she notes: “I tell the students the best way to ‘set them apart’ is to talk about the [general education and] liberal arts aspect of their education. It’s paid off big time for me. Employers don’t care if you know how to code or run fancy models out of college. They care more about your ability to speak well, write properly, and think differently” (personal communication, March 31, 2023).
  9. As a small university historically affiliated with the United Methodist Church, our intentional engagement with vocational work across campus constituencies has been instrumental in creating space for public discussion of faith and spirituality. We have relied heavily on grant-funded guidance from the Network for Vocation in Undergrad- uate Education (NetVUE), a program of the Council of Independent Colleges. This has helped us sustain conversations about religion, even as the institution seems to be losing its capacity for such discussion. This phenomenon is occurring at many small, historically church-related institutions, as they gut mission statements of religious language, do away with the religious studies or theology major, and make religion courses a curricular option rather than a requirement (if religion courses continue to be offered at all). While these trends are indeed lamentable and should be resisted, it is noteworthy that vocational reflection does invite space for both theistic and atheistic perspectives for thinking about purpose and identity; in that sense it is arguably a more inclusive approach. As faculty and staff engage these questions with colleagues, we become more capable of guiding students from all religious perspectives (including those espousing “none”) in vocational reflection—perhaps a promising development for the small, private, church-affiliated lib- eral arts institution of the twenty-first century.
  10. It seems important to note here that those adults in my life were absolutely right. My religion classes did destroy my faith—or at least one in particular did, albeit temporarily. In my sophomore year, I took a religion course that made me question everything I had ever believed up to that point in my life, and this in the semester before I was supposed to spend the summer months at a ministry leadership program for college students. It was only because of the incredibly loving, forward-thinking, and well-trained campus ministry staff that I eventually came to re-embrace Christianity on my own terms. They helped me to see how the professor had actually contradicted himself by spending the first half of the semester teaching us that everything we’d ever learned was human-made (and thus made-up) and therefore entirely unreliable, and then spending the second half of the semester inculcating his own system of belief into our newly-freed minds. Had it not been for luck of having good Christian mentors in my life at that time, I would still likely believe that all religion, but especially Christianity, was so much drivel.
  11. One of the examples I have provided for years in my upper-level Christian social ethics course is an explanation of how my views about the death penalty have shifted over time. I explain that, growing up socially and religiously conservative in the 80s and 90s, I learned that capital punishment was a just penalty for the most heinous of crimes and would have considered myself a staunch supporter of the practice. In college, my deepening Christian journey led to consideration of profound forgiveness and mercy, which challenged my views and ultimately led to my vehement rejection of capital punishment and even some activism against it, which was my position for years. Students usually think I’m done with the narrative at this point, but their eyes widen a bit when I explain that on the day I held my firstborn in my arms after giving birth to her, I became uncomfortably aware of my own capacity for violence against someone who might hurt this precious little human, which led to questioning whether I could remain opposed to the death penalty should I find myself on some mother-of-the-victim side of a horrific situation. Again, students think the narrative is complete, until I add the question: “And where would I stand if it were my own child who victimized someone else, and I found myself to be the mother of the perpetrator?”
  12. Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco, CA: Jossey–Bass, 1998), 38.
  13. Palmer, The Courage to Teach, 38.
  14. Palmer, The Courage to Teach, 38.
  15. Those of us who teach in the liberating education context, and especially in the fields that constitute the liberal arts, are obviously part of the choir to which I am here preaching. Still, as immersed as I myself am in these conversations and ideas with my liberal arts colleagues, I still know how easy it is to forget my footing when administrators, trustees, and faculty colleagues in the so-called “professional” programs (with myriad stu- dents majoring in their programs) engage in comparison of numbers of minors and majors and assume that if your department or program has few of those, then it must not be a valuable offering in the curriculum. Our calling in the liberal arts fields must turn toward leadership on college campuses in helping others to understand the value of a liberating education for all students, regardless of their major fields of study and career goals. It is my hope that this article may encourage such leadership among those who recognize the deep and unique value of a liberating education.
  16. Tammy Daily, personal communication, January 21, 2023.
  17. Jay Ellison and Dan Gediman, This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (New York, NY: Picador, 2006). I use this text in a two-credit course I teach entitled “Quest for a Purposeful Life.” The course is designed for first- and second-year students who are struggling with issues of identity, purpose, and vocation, which usually translates into questions about career goals and aspirations. “Quest” is now a permanent offering at Mount Union, but it was originally taught as part of a grant from NetVUE. Colleagues and administrators saw the value of a course like this not only for individual student development but also for issues of student retention. The course is taught at least once annually.
  18. Anthony Fauci, “A Goal of Service to Humankind,” in Ellison and Gediman, This I Believe, 65–66; emphasis added.
  19. Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty that Sparked a National Debate (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1993).
  20. Newman, “Discourse V,” The Idea of a University, 77.
  21. Newman, “Discourse V,” The Idea of a University, 77.
  22. Newman, “Discourse V,” The Idea of a University, 78.
  23. Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Person, ed. Richard M. Gamble (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012), 602. Sayers was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University when she earned her degree in medieval literature in 1915.
  24. Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” 604.
  25. Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” 603.
  26. There are many articles and resources to support this. For a quick look at re- cent statistics, see Elsie Boskamp, “21 Crucial Career Change Statistics [2023]: How Often Do People Change Jobs?” Zippia, accessed January 31, 2023, advice/career-change-statistics/.
  27. See Jeffrey J. Seligno’s work in College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), especially chapter nine, “The Skills of the Future,” 142–59.
  28. One of the best pictorial representations of the interdisciplinarity required for peace studies is the “Strategic Peacebuilding Pathways” Wheel, developed by John Paul Lederach and Katie Mansfield at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, I use the Wheel regularly in my classes to help students to see that each of us, with our particular vocational expertise and interests, is needed at the table if we wish to resolve complex and multi-layered conflicts in the long-term.
  29. Harvey J. Graff, Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).
  30. See Scott Jaschik, “Undisciplining Knowledge,” interview with Harvey J. Graff, InsideHigherEd, September 10, 2015, author-discusses-new-book-interdisciplinarity. See also my introductory chapter, “Peace Education in the Humanities,” in Humanities Perspectives in Peace Education: Re-Engaging the Heart of Peace Studies, ed. Nicole L. Johnson (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2021), 1–12.
  31. A. J. Conyers, “Vocation and the Liberal Arts,” Modern Age 45, no. 2 (2003): 123.
  32. Conyers, “Vocation and the Liberal Arts,” 124.
  33. G. Scott Gravlee, “Philosophy in the Pursuit of Peace,” in Johnson, ed., Humanities Perspectives in Peace Education, 13–34; here, 27, emphasis added.
  34. Neem, What’s the Point of College?, 9.
  35. Neem, What’s the Point of College?, 9. Emphasis added.
  36. In light of Neem’s compelling analogy, I find it a little absurd when an institution chooses to over-focus on “market needs” as if that is what should drive an institution’s course and program offerings. A small liberal arts-based institution must be able to explain to its constituents, including prospective students and their parents, how the education it offers transcends the education offered by, say, a large state institution, a community college, or any of a number of other forms of higher education. The long-term relevance of small colleges that offer a liberating education—the cornerstone of functional, healthy democracy—depends on our ability to resist the increasing capitulation to “market” language and solely market-based decision-making.
  37. Plato, The Republic, Book VII, 519d, The Republic of Plato, trans. and ed. Allan Bloom (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1968), 198.
  38. Conyers, “Vocation and the Liberal Arts,” 124.
  39. Conyers, “Vocation and the Liberal Arts,” 130.
  40. Johnson, “Peace Education in the Humanities,” 2. I use Nussbaum’s three capacities in developing a defense of the critical role of the humanities in comprehensive peace education. For further explanation of these three capacities, see Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 9–11.
  41. Zoe Weil, The Power & Promise of Humane Education (Gabriola, BC: New Society Publishers, 2004), 4.
  42. Weil, The Power and Promise of Humane Education, 5.
  43. Weil, The Power and Promise of Humane Education, 55.
  44. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1973), 95.

Nicole L. Johnson

Nicole L. Johnson is professor of religious studies and chair of the department of justice, diversity and interdisciplinary humanities at the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio.