Does Christian Liberal Arts Education Have a Future?

Does Christian Liberal Arts Education Have a Future? April 8, 2015

Sweet Briar House, Sweet Briar College (Jerrry & Roy Klotz via Wikimedia Commons)

A month ago, the board of Sweet Briar College announced that the school, which has educated women in a single-sex environment for over 100 years, would close after the 2014-15 academic year.  The announcement by the school’s board sent waves through national news cycle.  The Diane Rehm Show, which is always a good measure of hot topic news items, devoted a whole hour to “Worries About the Future of Liberal Arts Colleges,” and Mark Cuban proclaimed that “this is just the beginning of the college implosion,” implying that higher education equivalent of the financial crisis was right around the corner.  But why the hand-wringing?  Throughout the history of higher education in America, many colleges have closed and many more have been opened.  In fact, last year, Virginia Intermont College, another small liberal arts college located in Bristol, Virginia shuttered its doors with barely a ripple outside higher education news circles.  So, again, why all the fuss?

Those who follow the trends in higher education were particularly disturbed by Sweet Briar’s plans to close because they fear that Cuban may be right and that Sweet Briar’s closing portends the beginning of the end for many smaller liberal arts schools–even those with large endowments. (Sweet Briar has an $84 million endowment.) In recent years, college costs have skyrocketed increasing student (and parental) indebtedness.  All the while many employers and prognosticators insist that what is needed are schools that provide specific vocational skills.  To many, a liberal arts degree no longer fits that mold, whereas professional programs do.  Potential students (and their parents) have imbibed of such thinking and more and more of them are choosing schools with degrees that lead to training and/or certification for a particular job.  In such an environment, the current runs against the sort of education that a liberal arts college like Sweet Briar provides.  Enrollment is trending downward and thus the long-term future does not look good.

However, it seems to me that this thinking may be the sort of short-sighted reaction to current market demands that may or may  not represent wise choices for the future.  (Markets do a good job of signaling current needs but do not possess equally trustworthy predictive powers.)  It is true that in order to be situated to compete in a technology-driven global market economy, the United States needs more job-ready, STEM-major graduates.  It is also true that student indebtedness is a serious problem and that some liberal arts colleges have contributed to that by aggressively spending in order to offer a better “college experience” to potential students.  Further, a reasonable consideration of employment possibilities in light of one’s future debt load is in order for every college student and his/her family.

At the same time, we are already beginning to hear rumblings from employers that newly minted STEM graduates lack the “soft skills” that breed success in the workplace for the individual and the team.  Such soft skills are often learned both through teaching and osmosis in a liberal arts environment.  A liberal arts education also enhances creativity and innovation.  Chemistry Professor Loretta Jackson-Hayes of Rhodes college recently argued that grounding STEM majors in the liberal arts helps them become precisely the sort of “nimble thinkers” that will be needed in the twenty-first century.    Fareed Zakaria has more provocatively argued that abandoning the sort of liberal arts education that he received at Yale will lead to declension, not ascension in the global economy for similar reasons.

For Christian schools, this discussion takes on an added dimension.  Alongside the liberal arts, a Christian liberal arts school ought to intentionally train students in the Christian tradition, inculcating a manner of thinking and living in the world that views vocation–whether as engineers, educators, or health care workers–as service to God and their fellow human beings.  They should aim to graduate well-formed Christians, competent in their fields and committed to vocations that maximize the flourishing of other human beings–be they Christian or not.

Recently, Milligan College, a highly-ranked Christian liberal arts school in Tennessee, embraced just this sort of thinking as they plan to launch their new engineering program  in the fall of 2016.  This month (April 2015), their advertisement on the back cover of Christianity Today spells out their philosophy: “Engineers are best trained in a liberal arts setting, where they learn not only math and science, but an understanding of society, culture, politics, communications, and how they’re all interconnected.  This type of education produces not just good engineers but great world changers.”  If Milligan can pull it off, they will produce nimble-thinking, Christian with competencies in STEM.  Such a liberal arts education is just the sort of thing we need in the twenty-first century and I hope that other Christian Colleges will follow suit.


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