Religion and the Liberal Arts Education

By Carpenter, Lucas | The Humanist, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview
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Religion and the Liberal Arts Education


Carpenter, Lucas, The Humanist


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;

* cultivating democratic and global knowledge and engagement; and

* preparing for work in a dynamic and rapidly evolving economy.

This definition is obviously generic enough to apply to virtually every liberal arts college in the country, including the very religious ones, and that's part of the problem. With an ever-increasing number of Americans identifying themselves as evangelical Christians (not to mention the roughly 50 percent who don't believe in evolution for religious reasons) and with much more competition for tuition-paying students, most schools don't want to risk alienating any of the students they are so desperately recruiting by saying anything that could possibly be construed as antireligious.

Indeed, many schools are going out of their way to stress the "spiritual" dimension of the education they offer. For example my own institution, Emory University's Oxford College, recently approved a statement defining the liberal arts intensive education that we hope to make our signature. That statement contains the following: "There must be places in the students' experiences to address affective and spiritual knowledge as well as cognitive knowledge."

Certainly Martha Nussbaum, in Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, and others have made a strong case for affective cognition, but spiritual knowledge must refer to "revealed" knowledge conveyed by supernatural agency. I don't believe the modern university gives credence to such revelations, although we certainly do study them as they have found expression in the sacred texts of the world's religions, as well as in art and literature.

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