On Gratitude and the Christian Liberal Arts

On Gratitude and the Christian Liberal Arts March 16, 2018

If you didn’t read the post I wrote Tuesday, please start there. What follows won’t make much sense otherwise.

Anyone who knows me well knows that my last post was preceded by one set of emotions and followed by another. It emerged from a week of moody contemplation, as the news of the cuts proposed at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (coming as I await cuts at my own institution) awakened old agonies about the nature and purpose of higher education. Then, having thought in public about something that ultimately makes me angry, I felt better for a few moments… then that feeling quickly gave way to another, one wired deeply into my Swedish-Minnesotan-Pietist soul: the feeling that I owed an apology.

That’s how I feel every time I finally vent something that exasperates me. Frankly, it’s a problem, since it feeds my fundamental desire to avoid conflict, be nice, and let my aggression remain passive rather than active.

So know that this is not an apology. What I wrote on Tuesday needed saying, and I’m sure I’ll say it again in another form on another day.

The anger I feltfeel wasis an anger born of hope and love. Hope, which St. Augustine said has Anger as one of its daughters. “The Anger of Hope,” explains Allan Boesak, “means that one refuses to accept something that is wrong, to put up with what is driving one to despair.” (Though I hasten to add that he’s got genuine injustice in mind, and whatever injustice I perceive in the dying of the liberal arts is overshadowed by most every other injustice in society.) Love, for the God and neighbors whom we serve by participating in the educational dimension of the Church’s larger mission.

It’s anger at the potential loss of something deeply meaningful to me. I daresay it’s even a righteous anger.

But I know that it likely struck some readers as a self-righteous anger. As if I felt that I was somehow entitled to do the work I do as a history professor at a Christian liberal arts college. As I felt that only people like me were affected by what’s changing in institutions like mine.

As if the work I’ve been able to do for fifteen years isn’t an undeserved gift of God.

So let me write this post as a necessary supplement to Tuesday’s: for the proper response to grace is gratitude.

Gratitude for students

Like most of its peers, Bethel is utterly dependent on the tuition of students; I wouldn’t have a job if they didn’t choose to spend four (or three or two) years with us.

I’m especially grateful for the students who actually major or minor in programs like our History major. To make that choice in our present context is remarkable, so I’m grateful to however many or few students manage to overcome all the negative messages they hear about the humanities and discern a calling to engage in that kind of study. And then to persevere as they take twists and turns down the many unpredictable pathways that lead from our major to career success.

But I’m also grateful for the far larger number of my students who aren’t majoring or even minoring in History. For the most part, they’re in class with me because it’s a requirement of our general education curriculum. But as I wrote Tuesday, I love teaching such students. And I know that they didn’t have to choose a college that would require them to take such courses. If all they truly wanted was a professional pathway, there are cheaper options just down the road. No, they’re willing to pay our tuition because they want something more out of their education. I pray that people like me fulfill those expectations (even if it might take the distance of some years for students-turned-alumni to recognize the benefit of that difficult Western Civ course in which I gave them a C-).

Gratitude for parents

In most cases, the students wouldn’t be there without parents. First, because sending children to a private college of any sort almost always entails financial sacrifice for parents. And they, too, don’t have to make that sacrifice — if all they wanted for their kids was professional training, all those nearby, cheaper options are available. No, they’re willing to make sacrifices to give their kids something more out of education because they trust people like me to fulfill those expectations.

They trust the Christian liberal arts to do all the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and moral formation that we claim for that model of education, even though it’s not always clear how or why that happens. It strikes many of those parents as a risk, and it should: precisely because it involves their children coming to “make their faith their own,” such study often leads to uncomfortable questions about things of ultimate importance.

So their trust is not a trust that I take lightly.

Second, as I progress further in my own calling as a parent, I’ve come to realize more clearly that I tend to make far too much of my own role in the formation of young adults — and too little of the roles played by those influencers who have preceded me: parents especially, but also previous teachers, and coaches and pastors and mentors and siblings and friends.

For that matter, I’m grateful for all the people who have shaped me as a historian, writer, teacher, etc. My parents above all, whose sacrifices made it possible for me to be trained and shaped by wonderful teachers at expensive educational institutions like Mounds Park Academy, the College of William and Mary, and Yale University.

Gratitude for colleagues

What I do — what I would grieve no longer to do — does not belong to me alone. And so let me close by thanking my colleagues, at Bethel and beyond. If I regret anything about my previous post, it’s that I decided it was already far too long and cut out a version of what follows.

First, I’m grateful for all the non-faculty staff whose work makes possible my own. Whether they work in facilities management, IT, admissions, HR, the library, or anywhere else, those colleagues labor for far less recognition and compensation than me. And with less job security. They, much more than professors, have born the burden of budget cuts as Bethel has weathered the economic challenges of the last eight years.

Second, I’m grateful for our president, provost, deans, and other administrators. I have had serious reservations about some of the choices our leadership has made, but I’ve never questioned their intentions. They are doing jobs that seem almost impossible to me, and doing them to the best of their ability to preserve a vision of the Christian liberal arts that I think is mostly similar to my own. As much as I’m sure my post irked them, I also have little doubt that they would protect my freedom to ask hard questions of our institution, Christian higher ed in general, and the Church itself.

Finally, I’m grateful for my fellow professors. That includes all the scholars on whose shoulders I stand when I teach or conduct research. It includes my colleagues at The Anxious Bench, and others who labor at Christian colleges facing challenges far more pressing than Bethel’s.

But most of all, I’m grateful for my colleagues at Bethel:

• For those who built the institution’s culture and curriculum in past generations. At least to some extent, I was moved to speak on Tuesday on behalf of two particular colleagues who would surely have said all those things, if death hadn’t silenced them far too early.

• For my fellow historians and other members of the division that accounts for humanities, arts, and most social science programs, who inspire whatever eloquence I could muster on behalf of our share of the liberal arts.

• But also for our science and math professors, whose essential contribution to the liberal arts I neglected to acknowledge Tuesday. As I once wrote at my own blog,

I’m not interested in making the case for the humanities by making one against the sciences. And not just because the seven classical liberal arts included arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. But because however we define the purpose of that model of education… it cannot neglect the insights of math and science and pretend to be “well-rounded” or “liberating.”

I’m afraid they get caught in the crossfire because their disciplines are bound up in the STEM mania that is currently drawing so much energy, attention, funding, and enrollment away from disciplines like mine. But the concern I feel for history, English, and philosophy right now is akin to the concern I feel for physics, biochemistry, and computer science in the years to come — should college leaders come to conclude that they can eliminate costly major fields of study in the sciences and mathematics and simply offer enough prerequisite courses to facilitate the STEM “pathways” that employers (temporarily) demand.

• Finally, for my colleagues in our professional programs (and in the professionally-oriented programs in our seminary, adult, and graduate programs), who are stuck in the thankless position of bearing more and more of the pressure to enroll the students on whom our existence depends while enduring the apparent resentment of people like me who can seem to question why such programs even are a part of a liberal arts college.

And here’s where my anger at the Stevens Point solution probably did most to cloud my meaning. If an institution decides that it really isn’t a liberal arts college, but a training ground for the professions, that’s fine. Not everything needs to be a liberal arts college.

But if I’m being honest with myself, I need to acknowledge that my institution has never been a “pure” liberal arts college. (If such a thing exists.) Bethel originated as a seminary (training professionals for Christian ministry) and secondary school-turned-junior college (equipping Swedish immigrants for the American workforce). It added education programs when it became a four-year college after World War II, and its first graduates in business and nursing are now retired or nearing retirement. Those programs have long accounted for more enrollment than programs like mine, and I’m not so naive as to expect that we’ll somehow wake up and decide to eliminate our professional division or post-traditional units.

What I meant on Tuesday is that institutions like mine need to strike a healthier balance — and that the news from Stevens Point should help us understand the need for that balance. For several years now, we have been stressing relatively narrow professional pathways so heavily — in budgeting, program development, recruitment, and marketing/communication — that we have undercut our larger message about the value of the liberal arts.

As a result, I think it’s obvious that we have too many students choosing professional and pre-professional programs that don’t actually match their aptitudes or interests — but seem to offer straighter paths to employment than, say, the sociology or theatre — or math or chemistry — majors that would actually connect more deeply with their passions and abilities. (For that matter… Back in the not-so-distant past when my department had 2-3 times as many majors as it does now, I’m sure we had students who really should have been doing something other than taking history courses in preparation for practicing law or teaching high school social studies.) Such choices are detrimental both to student success and — as they add up to create trends that affect program revenue and cost — to the future of the liberal arts in budget-conscious institutions like mine.

So in gratitude to all these colleagues, let me close by wishing them Augustine’s second daughter of Hope: Courage.

May we all have the courage to persevere through seemingly insurmountable challenges.

May we all have the courage to participate in these difficult conversations, and to support each other in times when scarcity tempts us to selfishness.

Most of all, may we all have the courage of our conviction that the Christian liberal arts prepare students for work… and for so much more. May we have the courage to accept that not every student ought to enroll at our institution, and then to help each student who does join our community to explore her passion and discern her purpose.

May we all have the courage to believe that we do all these things to God’s glory, and for our neighbors’ good.

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