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If you want to learn about the secular university’s pitiful justifications for general education, you simply need to read the recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Repairing General Education: Colleges Struggle to Answer the Question, ‘Why Am I Taking This Class?’” The author accurately writes, “Many students and more than a few professors see general education as something of an unwanted party guest: demanding, dull, and unavoidable.”

I myself have noted the extensive literature summarizing student dissatisfaction with general education in my recent Journal of General Education article, “General Education Sucks.” The sad part is that a compelling general education is vital for retention. As one scholar notes in the Chronicle article, “You want a retention strategy? Have gen ed not be the lemon in your curriculum.”

So what reasons are faculty providing to answer the question: “Why am I taking this class?” According to the article, they should use the tired old justifications that have not worked in the past. Supposedly, we can motivate students by telling them that general education supplies “lifelong skills” or helps one “become a good citizen.”

The problem with the lifelong skills answer is that the secular university has limited agreement about what comprises the flourishing life. Thus, claiming you know what lifelong skills to provide is like claiming you can provide builders with the proper tools for constructing a structure when you have no idea what they are trying to build. It is educational malpractice and does not work. If you hope to give someone the best tools for building something, you need to know what they plan to build. In truth, if the university is providing tools for building the self, it really does have some implicit idea of what a well-built self entails. After all, most universities pick what lifelong skills they think students should acquire.

Sadly, “lifelong skills” in the Chronicle article s really just code for “the skills that employers want” such as “quantitative reasoning, scientific inquiry, philosophical inquiry, and intercultural literacy—with an expanded group of communication skills, such as digital and multimedia expression, and an ‘intellectual tool kit’ that includes critical thinking, teamwork, research and information literacy, and creativity and innovation.” One finds neither a set of skills related to being an excellent spouse, friend, man/woman, or neighbor, nor those related to being a steward of one’s culture, one’s body, or the environment. In other words, “lifelong skills” are all about being an excellent professional, but we are more than simply professionals.

Second, we are much more than citizens. General education should help with our full humanity and not simply with our citizenship (although that is part of our humanity). Indeed, liberal democracies are supposed to recognize that we are more than just citizens. It is only in more totalitarian countries that the state totally defines who you are (e.g., communist China). If we are more than just citizens, who are we?  And how does general education relate to that more fundamental identity?

Christian education can provide a better answer to that question along with better a justification for general education. We know who students are and who they should become. They are first and foremost, image bearers of God but they are also fallen sinners who need to recover and restore what it means to bear God’s image fully. In other words, our first and primary vocation is bearing God’s image. As Hugh of St. Victor, one early architect of the medieval university, wrote, “This is our entire task—the restoration of our nature and the removal of our deficiency . . . to restore in us the likeness of the divine image.”1 This view has profound implications for the purpose of higher education and particularly the liberal arts that are usually required in general education. Again, as Hugh contended, “This, then, is what the arts are concerned with, this what they intend, namely, to restore within us the divine likeness, a likeness which to us is a form but to God is his nature.”2

Students thus need to learn four things in their general education to flourish as image bearers of God. First, entering students need to understand what it means to be made in God’s image and how that identity is and should be the key source of their intrinsic value and worth.

Second, students need to be taught that although they are always made in God’s image, they must still grow in it. Growing into that image involves learning how to be excellent in multiple identities in the same way that God is an excellent king, friend, shepherd, teacher, father, potter, etc. As image bearers of God, we should not reduce students to future professionals or citizens. That’s why the sub-title of my “General Education Sucks” article is “So Teach the Great Identities.” Students need to learn what it means to be an excellent neighbor, friend, family member, steward (of nature, culture, and their bodies), man/woman, etc., and not simply an excellent biologist (or whatever their major may be).

Third, students need to learn how to demonstrate God’s character in the context of seeking excellence in these identities. Since we are made in God’s image, we flourish by demonstrating God’s character/virtue. What does it mean to be loving and gentle as a husband and father? What does it mean to be courageous as a mother or neighbor? What does it mean to forgive my enemies, neighbors, family members, etc.? How can I be holy while being an excellent citizen?

Fourth, students need to learn from mentors and models the practices necessary to acquire excellence in these identities and the wisdom necessary to achieve it. We should pass along the practices and wisdom needed to be excellent image bearers of God—which includes the wisdom and practices necessary for being an excellent spouse, friend, parent, neighbor, man/woman, steward, citizen, etc. We can find this wisdom through academic study from multiple disciplines.

However, the reality is that Christian educators have not provided a better and more redemptive structure for general education. Christian general education by and large takes what I call the Christ-added approach to general education. In structure, it imitates secular universities that simply attempt to supply a random set of intellectual tools and skills. Christian institutions then add 1–10 Christian courses that supply Bible knowledge and Christian thinking. Granted, some of the other required courses also likely try to address faith-learning questions with various degrees of success, but they try to do so in a system that has not been transformed to match Christian purposes, Christian theological anthropology, or Christian moral ends.

Christians should transform their whole system of general education. The fact that I do not know of a Christian university that requires a course that teaches students how to have an excellent marriage or be an excellent single person is astounding. I know of no required Christian course that requires students to learn how to be good stewards of their body that also includes a Christian vision for sex or the stewardship of alcohol. I know of only one Christian general education course that does not simply teach personal finance as one would find at a secular school but that teaches stewardship of one’s money. I know of no required Christian general education course that exposes students to various theological, sociological, and psychological views about what it means to be an excellent friend, neighbor, or man or woman. Yet, these are the life-long pursuits in which we will engage all of our lives.

Instead, Christian students are bored with taking various intro courses to various disciplines and they continue to ask, “Why am I taking this class?” We can and should offer a better answer that relates to our fundamental understanding of who a person is. Better yet, we should restructure our general education to help students recover the multiple ways we seek to bear God’s image in our different identities. For more on this vision, see my recent book, Identity Excellence: A Theory of Moral Expertise for Higher Education.


  1. Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 52, 54.
  2. Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor, 61.

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.


  • John Hunt says:

    I think the time may be right for teaching Christian Identity. The students we get are quite unimpressed with the idea that the “American Dream” means working yourself to death so that business can be more profitable. Unfortunately, their ways of dealing with this are rather counter productive. Remaining problem: Colleges “sell” through multiple decision makers, at a minimum both parents and perspective students are usually involved and they often have different concerns.

  • Nick Boone says:

    I am in agreement with what the major aims of a Christian education should be. However, focusing on Christian identities comes with its own problems. For instance, at Harding University we had a required Bible class (I think it was called “Christian Home,” but I can’t recall for sure) that featured the aspects you mention regarding how to become a “Christian husband and wife, father and mother.” The class became increasingly unpopular over time. I attribute its unpopularity to the rising feminist ideology amongst young people. The whole notion of distinguishing between men and women in the household just became a minefield for instructors.

    • pglanzer says:

      Yes, I think your point is a good one. The popularity of such a course will also depend upon on how such courses are taught. Do they academicize the key issues and expose students to a variety of Christian views (which there are)m as well as social science research on marital flourishing? It sounds like that course ran into some cultural issues that could be avoided by a well-structured course that drew upon a variety of theological and social scientific perspectives. That being said, everyone needs to think about what it means to be excellent in marriage and singleness. I find it amazing that my students simply do not know the basics about thinking theologically about marriage/singleness or basic social science research about things such as the effects of cohabitation, premarital sex, etc. Nor do they even think theologically about children.

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    With respect to identity, why not view higher education as a means of continuing identity formation and to frame that identity at a core level even more basic than social identity (e.g. husband or wife). Christ has called all to serve, and reminded the disciples (John 13:35) that we are recognized as His disciples by our love for one another regardless of vocation and marital status. That love is expressed through meeting one another’s needs, as well as the needs of those around us, in our workplaces and neighborhoods, i.e., through service. Paul, James, Peter, and Jude began their epistles by stating their (core) identities as bondservants of Jesus Christ. Their work was an expression of that identity. If we consider Daniel, he served multiple kings, and their kingdoms, through his work, but only after three years of education. That education was assigned because of his given identity, as one who would serve Babylon and its king. Paul challenges us through his epistle to the Colossians to likewise view whatever work we’re doing as service to our Lord Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:23-24). “Servant of Jesus Christ” is an identity that Christian institutions of higher education can, and ought to, nurture in their students, regardless of their major, and one that we cannot expect secular institutions to supply.