NOT TOO LONG AGO one of my better students revealed to me that she was a born-again Christian who believed the Bible literally. Such a disclosure is not uncommon in my teaching experience, and I have heard many students both in and out of the classroom preface their beliefs on a particular issue with "I'm a Christian, so ..." I've had similar encounters with Jewish students who claim it is "God's will" that Israel exists and Islamic students who adamantly maintain that Israel is an affront to "the will of Allah." But since I also knew that this student was majoring in biology and wanted to be a doctor, I was curious as to how she reconciled her religious beliefs with scientific fact, particularly evolution and the scientific view of creation. "It's easy," she said. "I just give my professors what they want without believing any of it myself." When I tried to point out the schizophrenic nature of her rationale, I could sense her dogmatic defenses clicking into place. "My ministers told me that you professors would try to undermine my religion, but my faith is too strong." She refused further discussion and left my office.
Something's wrong here. A "liberal" education, by definition, should be a liberating experience, but when a student graduates from a liberal arts college with the same fundamentalist beliefs she had when she entered, her education has failed her. Granted there are now religion-affiliated colleges, especially those sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, that tout a "Christian liberal arts education," but I maintain that the phrase is oxymoronic, and would be if we substituted the name of any of the world's religions.
The term "liberal arts," encompassing the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences, has come to indicate study that develops knowledge and intellectual skills as opposed to vocational skills. I therefore use the term "liberal arts education" synonymously with "liberal education." As stated by the American Association of Colleges and Universities:
The approach to higher learning that best serves individuals, our globally engaged democracy, and an innovating economy is liberal education. Liberal education comes in many shapes and forms in the contemporary academy, but in every one of those forms, its aims include:
* developing intellectual and ethical judgment;
* expanding cultural, societal, and scientific horizons;…