Reforming the Liberal Arts

Ryan C. McIlhenny
Published by Falls City Press in 2017

In an age in which higher education options are increasingly commodified to match the hegemonic forces of today, it is encouraging to have voices like Ryan McIlhenny’s observing the higher education terrain. In his book Reforming the Liberal Arts, McIlhenny offers insightful perspectives and a timely diagnostic of the state of higher education. As the title implies, McIlhenny’s solution is a practical, pedagogical reform of higher education, specifically the liberal arts, centered in the reformational philosophy of John Calvin and the neo-reformational luminaries that followed in his footsteps.

McIlhenny’s reformational philosophy compiles several overarching themes that are consistent to the tradition. For instance, John Calvin’s belief that knowledge of self requires knowledge of God is a common reformational strand in McIlhenny’s commitment to holistic learning. He aptly sets the stage with considering the implications and importance of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses as a symbolic gesture to return to biblical theology and practices in education. He also does well by framing his philosophy within the structure of reformed catechesis that includes God’s sovereignty, special and general revelation distinctions, and the overarching creational narrative.

With a movement as vast and nuanced as the Reformation, McIlhenny does well in succinctly compiling and drawing from several reformational perspectives. These include theologian and educator Abraham Kuyper, who saw God’s sovereignty as a charge to defend the post of Christian higher education against the modernist Zeitgeist, as well as Herman Dooyeweerd, who bolstered Kuyper’s sentiment and advocated for the heart of learning to be a sanctifying journey toward the kingdom and knowledge of God. As the book develops, McIlhenny’s use of modern-day voices like his colleague at Geneva College, philosopher Esther Meek, whose insights on wisdom, knowledge, and embodied experience of learning, strengthen his platform, as well.

His reformational overview helps to contextualize what he defines as critical creative citizens. The critical creative citizen is the aim of his reformational foundation and evidence of his pedagogical realignment that fashions the whole person to better understand God. Framed in this way, liberal arts, rightly ordered, allows students of faith to explore, learn, and experience their studies in a way that “trace[s] out a path to explore God’s revelation in greater depth” (53).

Two areas of reconsideration that McIlhenny invites the reader to explore are the areas of technology and the integration of faith and learning. McIlhenny begins with a critique of one of the most significant disruptors in the higher education field: technology. Although McIlhenny’s reform spans several academic spheres, how liberal arts colleges interact with technology is at the forefront in Reforming the Liberal Arts. He argues that the paradox of togetherness and separation runs rampant in our age of incoherence, in which the guise of “global community” and the danger of siloed online communities and friendships have taken the place of traditional ones. For McIlhenny, liberal arts educators must combat the technology giant by adhering to pedagogy that will change and challenge both thought and habit in a world that has seemed to have abandoned both.

One way McIlhenny attempts to combat the incoherence of technology is through the lens of neuroscience. McIlhenny argues that “The brain, like the world it perceives, is an integrated system” (35) and that our brains are always working to make sense of the world. In classic liberal arts fashion, McIlhenny draws from another field to prove the point that we are wired to build a perspective of the world and make coherent what is confusing. Through neurological examples, McIlhenny is quick to note that such harmony is difficult and at times painful, but that commitment to coherence in and of God’s creation is challenging work worthy to be embraced. While neuroscience seems like an odd rebuttal to technology, McIlhenny’s critique of technology and solutions found in neuroscience are worth considering. McIlhenny explores and reconsiders phrases often used in religious liberal arts schools.

His revision of “integration of faith and learning” to “faith as integral to learning” is thoughtful and in line with his reformed preference toward holistic learning rather than a dualistic dichotomy. Although the distinction might strike the reader as mere semantics, McIlhenny skillfully explains what is at stake in distinguishing integration and integrality. Drawing from the work of higher education professional V. James Mannoia Jr., McIlhenny quotes that “integration presupposes that things not necessarily together are brought together: multiple disciplines, theory and practice, values and learning” (70). The reason McIlhenny favors integrality is that he believes faith cannot be mutually exclusive to learning. For him, they are not two autonomous concepts to be melded together but rather both pertain to a whole, in which faith is the heart from which learning springs.

McIlhenny continues his critique of Christian liberal arts jargon by also attempting to replace the often-used term worldview, which he defines as one’s “philosophy of life,” with life-situations. McIlhenny argues that the nascent development and formation of human experience can only be cognitively understood once they have words to describe their experiences. Considering his argument, worldview falls short in that it could be used to describe a set perspective rather than a perspective that is reflectively and continuously influenced, reinforced, challenged, and developed. The reason McIlhenny advocates for life-situations is that he believes it encapsulates the dynamic experiences that “yield” a philosophy rather than a static articulation of worldview (70). McIlhenny’s language reform is thoughtful and can be useful for educators considering vocabulary to express the importance of lifelong learning. Such language reconsideration can also be a helpful tool with students as they consider the way their dynamic and continuous life-situations are actively shaping their perspective of the world.

McIlhenny’s unabashed critique of technology and emphasis on reconnecting with reformational thinkers sets a platform from which his reform springs. Once the groundwork is laid and the pedagogical bearings are marked, McIlhenny illustrates what reforming the liberal arts can and should look like through the remainder of the book. Using philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s vision of shalom, an indwelling of living rightly with oneself and others, McIlhenny offers a powerful call for Christian educators to lead students in heart formation aimed at reconciliation in their respective fields. Wisdom, for McIlhenny, is “a combination of both critical reasoning and emotional investment” (105) and should be a pursuit supported by humility. As he elaborates on humility and wisdom, McIlhenny successfully provides a profound vision for what the liberal arts is capable of when wisdom is the pursuit: “it exposes our hearts (and the hearts of others), shatters our foolish pride, and forces us, with the power of the Holy Spirit, to move outside the self to our transcendentimmanent Creator” (112).

McIlhenny elaborates on the importance of the Christian liberal arts college and its formative power of community. With broad brushstrokes, McIlhenny touches on the false idea of the self-made person and the modern mind’s divorce between self and environment, and also revisits his critique of technology by looking specifically at how online learning reinforces both. Identifying the foes of communal learning allows McIlhenny to explore the robustness of what a liberal arts college can offer. He does this best in his section on “mirroring” others, where he argues “the habits of others provide models for our own selfcreation, becoming who we are by actively pursuing who we are not” (123). To that end, he concludes that the most fertile soil students can be placed in is a community that learns, grows, and lives together. The “mirroring” section is McIlhenny’s most applicable, as he provides tangible ways liberal arts schools can strengthen community and frame the desired telos of their students. He elaborates on what it means to put humans before technology, to demonstrate the joy of teaching, to model the process of learning, to focus on the students, to be flexible in teaching styles, and to employ habits of retention. Each of the examples is broad enough for many types of colleges to apply, yet potent enough to improve or reinforce institutional pedagogy. One tangible suggestion he includes is for faculty and staff to memorize the institution’s mission statement; another is to be communally involved (137). McIlhenny’s lexicon is akin to philosopher James K. A. Smith and his Augustinian perspective on matters of the heart, wherein the spiritual component to learning shapes and directs a person’s highest loves. Smith’s work on cultural liturgies and his insights on the constant formative experiences humans encounter would be an appropriate and rich resource to draw from in many areas of the book, especially with regard to teleological formation. But in his chapter on spiritual formation, McIlhenny seems to diverge from these central influences. Surprisingly, a good portion of the chapter examines spiritual formation through the lens of mysticism. Though an unexpected medium for a book framed by reformational perspectives, his insights work in conjunction with a notion of students as “worshippers,” where the pursuit of worthy things, through rhythm and repetition, help to contextualize the transcendent in our everyday lives. Toward the end of the chapter, McIlhenny nicely ties several of his ideas of formation, mystical longing, and purposeful practice with the concept of wonder. He concludes that the liberal arts, rightly reformed, can help recapture a sense of wonder for learning and realignment towards the knowledge of God to which we aim. McIlhenny’s attempt to reform the liberal arts is timely, especially in an age in which many lament an increasing incoherence. His ability to weave in several sources from different fields, backgrounds, and perspectives is both an argument for and testament to a liberal arts education. But while this approach provides accessible modes of reforming liberal arts pedagogy, the same technique also takes away from the vital component of framing it within a reformational worldview. McIlhenny would have done well to specify his camp within the reformed tradition and form an argument from there. Instead, the reader gets brief snippets and a cursory review of several reformed perspectives. The argument of the reformed perspective would be strengthened by honing a specific direction and ethos within the tradition. For instance, McIlhenny’s theological anchor, as it were, is “sovereignty.” Instead of drawing connections to sovereignty with brief reviews of “reformed” buzzwords, he would have done better to more specifically on Abraham Kuyper (which he features already) and sphere sovereignty or Evan Runner and the Holy Word’s connection to learning. Identifying a particular reformed persuasion would help readers pinpoint more clearly what McIlhenny means by “reformed” and provide himself an opportunity to display the richness of the reformed tradition by distinctly showing, rather than quickly telling. And while many readers with a reformational background will still nod in agreement with McIlhenny’s content, the book’s argumentative brevity may dissuade readers that may benefit most from “reforming.”

Additionally, I was surprised that McIlhenny’s reformational philosophy did not feature more of an emphasis on Augustine’s rightly order loves or the wealth of reformed knowledge that James K. A. Smith speaks to on matters and formation of the heart that is deeply rooted in Augustine. To be sure, McIlhenny cites both of these sources throughout his text and alludes to matters of the heart especially in his chapter “The Heart of Learning,” though not as much as I had expected. And while defining and describing general and special revelation and common grace can be helpful in arguing for reforming the liberal arts, the philosophical argument could have been strengthened by building more on matters of the heart, its telos, and the strong reformational conviction that to be human is to worship. Doing so would have held more reformational weight, while also making it more accessible for educators who would benefit most by considering McIlhenny’s call of reform.

Still, Reforming the Liberal Arts is a helpful resource as educators consider what the liberal arts are to be in an age of educational incoherence. Through it, those from a reformed persuasion will be encouraged and those curious will be intrigued by both his philosophical framework and the helpful, practical wisdom McIlhenny offers. Books like this will only strengthen the pursuit of a more robust and diverse education that will, as McIlhenny concludes, “yield a picture of the world that reflects God’s own being—a unity in plurality” (161).

Cite this article
Sam Guthrie, “Reforming the Liberal Arts”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:4 , 469-472

Sam Guthrie

Penn State University
Sam Guthrie, Education Policy Studies, Penn State University