The Bible and the Liberal Arts

The Bible and the Liberal Arts July 24, 2007

Over the past year at Butler University the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has been working to make more explicit its role at the university including in professional education. Faculty have been adding a ‘liberal arts statement’ to their syllabi to this end. Although I customize it for each course/syllabus, I have a longer standard statement which I originally posted on my old blog site. Here it is:

The Bible, the Core Curriculum and the Liberal Arts

Butler’s one-semester course on The Bible (RL202) has for a long time met the Division 1 core curriculum humanities requirement, and will meet the Texts and Ideas requirement under the new core curriculum. What is the purpose of this course as relates to the liberal arts, that causes it (or other courses like it) to be required of students? This question is asked most frequently by students in the professional colleges, many of whom believe the role of a university should be to prepare students with specific skills that will enable them to get specific jobs upon graduation. A published example of this is an e-mail sent to student Abby Nye by her mother when Abby was a freshman pharmacy student at Butler. Abby’s mother begins by quoting the University Parent Guide, which advises parents to encourage their children to be students rather than apprentices for a job. Rather than asking about grade point averages, it said, parents should ask what ideas have caught their children’s attention, and encourage them to study the subjects which most engage their minds, rather than ones they think will make them most lucrative on the job market.

Abby’s mother categorically rejects this approach to learning. To quote her e-mail: “As you know, we do not have money trees growing in our backyard, so we are very interested in what you plan on doing after college. We fully anticipate that it will involve that four-letter word known as work.”[1] She also ridicules the idea that her daughter could afford to, or would back1from, giving free reign to her intellectual curiosity. Unfortunately, this view is extremely prevalent among students and their parents.

Listen, on the other hand, to what CEOs from America’s top six accounting firms had to say about what they are looking for in terms of the education of their future employees: “Passing the CPA Examination should not be the goal of accounting education. The focus should be on developing analytical and conceptual thinking – versus memorizing rapidly expanding professional standards.”[2] The education that universities offer is informed by our alumni and their experience of what is actually needed in the workplace, as well as a board of trustees consisting of people currently in, or with lengthy experience in, the world of business and careers. Memorized (and quickly forgotten) data and information are not that which is crucial. Having learned how to learn, and developing skills of critical thinking, cross-cultural communication, conflict resolution, evaluation of evidence – when one has made these skills one’s own, then one is well prepared for just about any profession. The truth of the matter is that it is this breadth of education – which is the focus and indeed the definition of the liberal arts – that makes a diploma valuable, as a university diploma and not merely one from a technical or vocational college.

You probably know the famous saying, “Give a person a fish and you have fed him or her for a day; teach a person how to fish and you have fed them for life.” A liberal arts education aims at teaching students not just facts and figures, but teaching them how to learn. The Bible provides a wonderful area in which to do precisely that. On the one hand, the Bible is of profound religious and existential importance to many students, and so if they can learn to think critically about it, then thinking critically about more mundane topics less central to their worldview will seem relatively easy and painless by comparison. The Bible is also a great place to learn to use a range of tools from various academic disciplines, since its contents can be approached via historical, archaeological, literary, social-scientific, and a vast range of other perspectives.

In any given religion classroom at Butler, there will be students representing a range of viewpoints and religious traditions. This provides a wonderful opportunity to develop critical realism, that approach to knowledge that assumes neither the ability to completely objectify that which is studied, nor a relativism claiming that any and all opinions are of equal value. Parker Palmer puts it wonderfully when he writes:

[T]he only “objective” knowledge we possess is the knowledge that comes from a community of people looking at a subject and debating their observations within a consensual framework of procedural rules. I know of no field, from science to religion, where what we regard as objective knowledge did not emerge from long and complex communal discourse that continues to this day?The firmest foundation of all our knowledge is the community of truth itself. This community can never offer us ultimate certainty – not because its process is flawed but because certainty is beyond the grasp of finite hearts and minds. Yet this community can do much to rescue us from ignorance, bias, and self-deception if we are willing to submit our assumptions, our observations, our theories – indeed, ourselves – to its scrutiny. [3]

The Bible (RL202) does not only provide an opportunity to learn the varied approaches to knowledge that are crucial to a liberal arts education, and to becoming a lifelong learner on a trajectory towards a successful future. It is also an opportunity to begin to develop the habit of respectful dialogue with others with whom we disagree. It is only such encounter with different viewpoints that can keep us honest. It has been said that one never truly believes something until one has listened to the arguments of the other side. The academic study of the Bible thus provides students with an opportunity to reflect on, and work out for themselves, what they truly believe.

[1] Abby Nye, Fish Out of Water (Green Forest: New Leaf Press, 2005) p.34.
[2] Jean C. Wyer, “Accounting Education: Change Where You Might Least Expect It,” Change Jan.-Feb. 1993, pp.15-17 [quoted in Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1998) p.177.

[3] Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1998) p.104.

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