A New Liberal Arts
Several years ago, Liz Coleman, the president of Bennington College, gave a talk at TED about “A New Liberal Arts.” At a conference usually reserved for technology whizzes or scientists, she gave a convincing argument for the worth of a liberal arts education in an age where hyper-specialization is seen as the apex of human endeavor. Yet what was most compelling to me was her central idea: the liberal arts must be intentionally focused on thinking about and solving the world’s biggest problems.
Here’s the idea: in today’s world, not only do we need people who can think in interdisciplinary ways, but we need people using the best tools of thought from history (literature, science, history, economics, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics) to be intentionally engaged in solving difficult problems. From climate change and education reform to international conflict and malnutrition, Coleman doesn’t believe the technician can solve these problems alone. They need broad thinkers, and they need a moral vision.
Now, I significantly disagree with several aspects of Coleman’s vision. For one, she’s staunchly secular and anti-religious. In her talk, she even spoke about their new research center at the center of campus as a kind of “secular church.” She sees no place for religion in the academy, and this, I believe, damages her argument in a religious world. Second, her form of education is avowedly political. Without God, she needs an ultimate purpose, and for her that is the state. Considering 20th century history, I’m not sure how she could be so adamantly political and unflinchingly believe in the virtues of even democracy, whom Churchill has even said is only “the least bad form of government we have.” As one who sets her heart on the state, Coleman would be wise to at least admit the truth: the secular academy is her church, and secularism is her religion.
But setting this aside for the moment, I’m more than fascinated by this model of education. Here’s why. First, Coleman believes that directly connecting a human need or real-world issue to a liberal arts curriculum super-charges thinking. For example, her freshman all have to sit in on “labs” focused on some issue, such as education or health care. In class, when they read Whitehead’s The Aims of Education, they apply it’s lessons to the national education reform debate. How many times have each of sat in class and wondered why we have to learn this? For students at Bennington, it’s clear: to change society. This means syllabi and pre-fabricated papers take second place to real critical thought on the toughest problems of our day.
Second, there is always a criticism that education is an ivory tower, disconnected from “the real world.” Not here. In this new liberal arts curriculum, the core ends are not only mastery of a subject, but instead the mastery of using that subject to benefit the common good. Conversations on literature and history take on new significance when you’re required to do a semester of “field work” dealing with real problems like poverty, governance, or disease.
Third, this new liberal arts curriculum, I believe, is deeply missional. Now, it’s obvious Coleman would never agree with me on this. I’d probably classify as a nutty fundamentalist in her eyes. But having this outward focus in a liberal arts curriculum I believe is resonant with God’s activity in the world. In contrast to most Christian liberal arts curriculums that only do mission trips and service projects, this re-centers the curriculum itself around the pressing issues at hand. For example, instead of going to Central America to build a school, they would analyze the issues of public education in Central America as well as the challenge of development education in their actual courses. God is in the business of bringing, in the words of the Lausanne Covenant, the whole gospel to the whole world. Solving problems like climate change or corporate corruption as a part of a liberal arts curriculum saves The Great Conversation from being stuffy and elitist. It focuses the liberal arts where Milton says it should always be focused, “on repairing the ruins of our first parents.”
[This article was originally posted on my education blog Redeeming Education.]