Religion and the Liberal Arts Education

By Carpenter, Lucas | The Humanist, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Religion and the Liberal Arts Education


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?