Liberal Arts - Geneva College, a Christian College in Pennsylvania (PA)

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President's Desk
September 4, 2015

Liberal Arts

Professors at Geneva do research and publish the results, but Geneva is not a research university. All students take Bible classes, but Geneva is not a Bible college. Geneva offers certain professional fields of study, but Geneva is not a technical school. In the tradition of Christian humanism, Geneva is a Christian liberal arts school.

The liberal arts ideal came from ancient Greece. The goal was to equip free men to participate in civic affairs—public debate, serving on juries, and commanding armies. Paul had a liberal education. He could speak freely to a crowd in several languages, defend himself in court, quote Jewish and Greek authors, organize churches, manage associates, write letters, and raise money. He also had a craft: making tents.

The Charter establishing Geneva College states that the college will teach the liberal arts, naming some, alongside certain “professional fields,” which always include liberal arts’ elements. The main point of the liberal arts is not about earning a living, or critical thinking, or even love of learning. It is about preparing people to understand human nature and society, so that they can participate wisely and lead when necessary.

The liberal arts of the ancient world had a pagan origin. Augustine nevertheless urges Christians, in moderation, to embrace the liberal arts: they are necessary to the right reading of Scripture and help in their defense. Christians, however, should study the liberal arts with care. They are not the last word in truth or wisdom, which is why Geneva teaches them “in the context of a Biblical view of the world expressed in the Westminster Standards (Charter, B (a)….)”

For centuries in the West, the Church preserved ancient pagan learning, alongside Scripture. At the time of the Renaissance and Reformation, the synthesis of ancient learning, now including Greek as well as Latin, and Christian theology produced Christian humanism, the common possession for centuries of the learned classes in the West.

What subjects constitute the Liberal Arts today? There was no universal agreement in antiquity, and there is none today. Some subjects once central, such as the Greek and Roman classics and Geometry, have lost favor. Others, such as various social sciences and modern literatures, have gained favor.

Any decision as to what constitutes a liberal education, and more specifically which ones should be in a college core or offered as college majors, must be somewhat arbitrary. Here is my list.

1. The Bible – It alone reveals the thoughts and intents of the heart and tells us of the Lord’s reign over the nations. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and His Word tells us how to think and live. Without a full knowledge of the Bible, we are vulnerable to lies. Some lies are simple, as in fortunetelling and astrology, but many are sophisticated, as in certain social science theories.

2. Philosophy – Christians need the precise thinking required to do philosophy, not to answer basic questions like God’s existence, or ethics, but to evaluate accurately claims coming from the sciences, advertisers, politicians, business leaders, and entertainment.

3. Political philosophy – There is a long intellectual tradition of Christian thinking about government and politics that should inform wise governing.

4. Literature – The best writers, like Shakespeare and Homer, grasp human motivation and what levers move society. One factor in the conversion of G.K. Chesterton was his discovery that the writers who best grasped reality usually turned out to be Christian.

5. Western and American history – Leaders must know their own civilization if they are to lead well, especially the examples of past leaders and how countries have risen and fallen. The older Christian humanist education gave future leaders the long arc of two civilizations over a thousand years, that of ancient Israel and of Rome. Besides their own culture, future leaders today must also be aware of other civilizations. (Geneva combines Western history, literature, music, art, and architecture in its Humanities courses.)

6. Natural science – The scientific method is the presumed reliable source of knowledge today. Not just experimentation, but also mathematical models dominate our discourse. And knowledge discovered by scientists enables officials to make good public health, agricultural, and industrial decisions.

7. Mathematics – Without mathematics one does not understand modern science or many public policy debates. The K-12 schools teach a lot of mathematics, which Geneva’s natural science courses and many of its professional fields constantly use.

8. Communication, Both spoken and written. There should be ample opportunity in every course to develop confident and clear writing and public speaking.      

Liberal arts professors, naturally, love their fields, and they should convey that love to their students. But literature professors, for example, should not expect all students to love literature so as to major in it. English majors delve into literary technique and an author’s biography, perhaps into hidden purposes. When they do that, they become specialists, leaving behind the liberal arts’ purpose of preparation for living and leading. Nevertheless, the recent sharp drop across the country in literature and history majors is a disturbing development for Church and society, and rightly alarms professors.

We live in a time that puts intense scrutiny on Christians and Christian teaching. Liberal arts prepare Christian students for the constant challenges to faith and knowledge that will inevitably come, while preparing them to live and lead as free and wise servants of Christ. Students come to Geneva with different expectations, aptitudes, hopes, and life experiences (age). Many of them, quite reasonably, regularly ask: will this course help me get a job? Liberal arts courses may not help them get entry-level jobs; they will prepare them for later promotions, and recent survey data indicate that some employers are gaining new appreciation for what liberally educated people can do. Geneva does all of its students a great service by requiring a liberal arts core and encouraging some to major in one of them.

Appendix

“But in another way, undergraduate degrees do matter. A lot. Peter Crist, of the Hinsdale (Ill.) executive search firm Crist Kolder Associates, notes that individuals with a liberal arts background have one big advantage over those with undergraduate degrees in business, engineering, or the sciences: an expansive and inquiring mind. Without it, he says, making the leap from middle management to C-suite is impossible. "I don't believe leaders are born," Crist says. "I believe over a long period of time, leadership traits are imbued in an individual." Studying literature, history, and big ideas is one way that happens.

Perhaps the best formula for creating a CEO, Crist says, is one part generalist, one part specialist—a dash of liberal arts with a soupçon of business or engineering, ideally as an advanced degree.”

(Bloomberg Business, “Accidental Moguls,” by Louis Lavelle, May 17, 2010)

 

Dr. William Edgar, Interim President


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