Editor’s Note: This article is based on the author’s fall convocation address at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., on August 29, 2006. The Scripture references include Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-18; 12:12; I Corinthians 13:9-12
“The compelling purpose of Presbyterian College, as a church-related college, is to develop within the framework of Christian faith the mental, physical, moral, and spiritual capacities of each student in preparation for a lifetime of personal and vocational fulfillment and responsible contribution to our democratic society and the world community.”
In case you’re in doubt, this is the mission statement of Presbyterian College. It is the simplest and most authoritative description of our common task as a college of the Presbyterian Church.
Without saying so directly, it places us in the long tradition of liberal education that goes back to fifth-century Athens. While this tradition has changed in many ways, there are still recognizable continuities.
Most basically, a liberal education seeks to develop foundational intellectual capacities. Of the seven classical liberal arts, four of them are what we would today call the skills of writing, speaking, doing mathematics, and thinking critically.
As the tradition of liberal learning developed, the liberal arts served to prepare the way for the higher learning the Greeks called philosophy. Philosophy in this sense was not a separate subject or discipline; it was virtually all of what we now call the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, connected by common principles and forming a unified whole. However, philosophy became so intertwined with the liberal arts that the two of them together have come to define liberal education in its modern form. So, a liberal education includes studying a broad range of subjects and disciplines and understanding their interconnections.
It is important for us to realize that, in its modern form, liberal education is an inherently secular enterprise.
First, there are no sacred questions and no sacred conclusions — no questions that are out of bounds, no beliefs that are not open to examination, no conclusions that we must necessarily arrive at. Whether as faculty members or as students, we are free to question and examine all things, no matter how important they are to us personally or how important they are to our families, our churches, and our communities. And we are free to arrive at any conclusion that seems to be best supported by the evidence.
Liberal education is secular in another sense: there are no sacred authorities. In expanding our knowledge and in examining established beliefs, we are required to appeal to reason and to our common human experience. I cannot claim that things are true simply because they are my beliefs, simply because they are what I was taught, simply because they are what my church teaches, or simply because they are what my parents believe. We are not free to appeal simply to the sacred authorities of our past.
Because of the inherently secular nature of liberal education, college communities enjoy a special freedom called academic freedom. Faculty and students alike may responsibly ask any question and advocate responsibly any conclusion to which their research and investigation lead them, without fear of repercussion from trustees, from the administration, from students, or from the faculty. This is a cornerstone of any community committed to free inquiry.
Thus a liberal education at a church-related college should have the effect of broadening students’ perspectives, expanding their worlds, helping them to see what is familiar in new and different ways, acquainting them with a range of experience and belief that surpasses what they have known so far.
While this is an exciting process, it is important to realize that it is also unsettling. An education at a church-related liberal arts college should make students uncomfortable from time to time. It should lead them to question what they have taken for granted. It should help them understand people and groups whom they may have simply written off. It should call into question things that have defined their worlds and brought them meaning and security. If at some point during a four-year education this does not happen, a church-related college has failed it students or its students have failed to engage their own education personally.
The paradox of liberal education, however, is that while it is inherently secular, it flourishes best in a community of faith. This is true for many reasons. I will explore three that draw us back to the mission of Presbyterian College and to the biblical texts.
The first is that, paradoxically, intellectual development cannot be the only goal of a liberal education; moral and spiritual development is also essential. To be sure, the heart of liberal education is intellectual. Because of this we are tempted to think that it is only intellectual. I can remember making this mistake as a young faculty member fresh out of graduate school. If students simply did their academic work well, how they spent the rest of their time mattered little to me as their teacher. Education was put in a tidy box called “academic.” What I came to realize, however, was that how students spent the rest of their time had a very direct bearing on how well they did their academic work. Did they plan ahead? Did they manage their time? Did they believe in doing their best? Did they conscientiously try to make up missed work? Did they come to class? Would they lie or cheat? Would they accept criticism? Students, I discovered, most often failed in their academic work not because they didn’t have the ability, but because they didn’t have the character necessary to succeed.
When I tried to engage students more deeply with the material we studied, I also discovered that the spiritual side of their lives mattered. How much had they thought about themselves and life? Had they suffered and what did they make of it? What did they love? Had they thought much about death? Had they struggled and failed? Were they conscious of guilt?
Other things being equal, a college that takes moral and spiritual development seriously will educate the intellect more effectively and more profoundly.
Second, an educational community that enjoys great intellectual freedom must, paradoxically, hold some things in common if it is to educate well. Without a common frame of reference, a college becomes simply a multitude of disconnected voices that is unable to create for its students a coherent, interconnected education.
Without question, the most frequently discussed problem of modern American higher education has been and continues to be fragmentation. The explosion of knowledge in the past 100 years and the freedom of faculty to pursue any issue have fractured colleges and universities into a multitude of disciplines, specialties, and subspecialties. Increasingly, faculty and students pursuing different majors have little in common with one another and little to talk about. Clark Kerr, President of the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s and a keen observer of American higher education, once remarked that the modern university is a collection of people who have absolutely nothing in common except a common complaint about parking. A community of this nature simply cannot offer it students a good liberal education.
A similar kind of fragmentation has also afflicted liberal arts colleges. Nationally, the most common complaint about college curricula is that they fall woefully short of providing a coherent educational experience. What students are given is often the introductory course to a variety of different majors, largely disconnected from one another. And how can this be otherwise if faculty members are strangers to one another’s disciplines and if they share no common frame of reference?
A college that is also a community of faith has a unifying center. It is serious not only about liberal education and the moral and spiritual development of its students, but it also has a common frame of reference for its work, which, in the case of Presbyterian College, is the Christian faith.
This frame of reference can play a central role in a Christian collegiate community that includes some from other traditions of faith. What is important is not that all are believers, but that the texts of the Christian tradition are read and discussed, that its questions are taken seriously, that the distinctions it has found central are explored sympathetically, and that its basic values are affirmed and practiced. When this is done, what can result is respectful and productive dialogue that fosters intellectual and spiritual growth, that prepares students more effectively for the world in which we live, and that enriches the community.
Finally, those whose education is based on the authority of reason and our common human experience must come to see that the goal of our intellectual journey is a reasoned faith. And colleges that are also communities of faith can best exemplify the goals and the joys of the life of the mind.
The sad and perhaps surprising truth is that a liberal education often ends in disappointment and cynicism. As we are free to ask all questions and test all beliefs, we always find something lacking in everything. And the real fruit of free inquiry often turns out to be not truth but universal doubt — or worse, a truth that does not satisfy. You often see the seeds of this in some of the best and brightest college students. After four years, they have become good at raising questions, good at finding problems, and good at seeing all sides of an issue. They may once have thought that this process would lead them to new and enriching insights, but in fact it has left them tired, cynical, and doubtful that there is a truth to be known.
This same result is often seen throughout history in those who have drunk most deeply at the well of education — and yes, even within a community of faith. It was something like this that beset the writer of Ecclesiastes. While we know little of his life and background, he had most likely studied not only the Hebrew Scriptures, but also the writings of some of the Greek philosophers. And what did he conclude? Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. … For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. … Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Whatever the exact nature of his intellectual journey, it shows few signs of reaching a satisfying destination.
By comparison, consider an intellectual journey that is more satisfying –one that recognizes clearly the limitations of our knowledge and understanding, and yet does not succumb to skepticism, cynicism, and a sense of futility. Its author, like the author of Ecclesiastes, also studied the Hebrew Scriptures and the classical writings of Rome. However, he writes in a very different spirit: For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect, but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall fully understand, even as I have been fully understood.
Though he was never known as the patron saint of liberal education, the Apostle Paul exemplifies to me the right combination of things. His education and his own thinking both led to a deep sense of the limited nature of our knowledge and understanding–even of our religious experience. But this did not result in a spirit of vexation and futility, but in a deep and reasoned faith–a faith that comported well with the world as he experienced it, that had faced doubt honestly, that had grown and been refined by rational discussion and controversy, that oriented him productively in the world, that led him to a life of sacrifice and service, that left him, not disillusioned, but longing to know and understand more.
The hope and expectation we should have for all students who attend a church-related liberal arts college is that each of them finds in their collegiate experience the beginning of a rich moral, intellectual, and spiritual life that ends in a reasoned and satisfying faith of their own. If they do, church-related higher education is well worth the effort, well worth the expense, and well worth being a high priority of the church.
Robert Holyer is provost of Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.