Religion, Liberal Learning and the Professions

In our continuing series on the Valparaiso seminar on liberal learning (scroll down for previous posts) we turn to Mark Schwehn’s interview with Bruce Kimball, Director of the School of Educational Policy and Leadership at Ohio State University and the author of Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (Columbia, 1986) and The “True Professional Ideal” in America: A History (Ohio State, 1992).

The interview is worth reading for understanding Kimball’s distinction between the “oratorical” tradition of liberal learning and the “philosophical” tradition of liberal learning. The oratorical tradition (think Cicero) celebrates liberal learning for the sake of forming citizens and building character. I am no classicist, but it sounds a lot to me like the republican/civic humanist tradition that was embraced by many of America’s Founding Fathers. Liberal education was essential to the cultivation of a virtuous citizenry. On the other hand, the “philosophical” tradition (think Socrates) celebrated liberal learning for the purpose of developing skills in critical thinking and self-reflection.

But what I found most interesting about this interview was Schwehn’s line of questioning about how Kimball’s divinity school training shaped his views of liberal and professional education.

Schwehn queries:

Let me return once more…to this question about your formation at the divinity school. Just to lay some of my cards on the table here, one of the worries I have in my own honors college…is the whole relation between religion and liberal education…I wonder whether or not some habits of reflection and some virtues like humility that were originally understood as parts of religious practice remain crucial for a complete understanding of texts like those that have been honored by the oratorical tradition. It seems to me that for a religious tradition that has a whole set of sacred scriptures (where some texts are thought to be presumed wise before you, so to speak, deconstruct them), if you don’t understand the text, the problem is with you, not with the text. I think so much of modernity has reversed that. The problem is primarily with the text; therefore, our task is to deconstruct it. Many of our basic habits of interpretation would have been unthinkable within a religious tradition. So I guess my question is how essential do you think those collections of habits and a certain kind of piety and a certain kind of tradition of reading are as background for liberal education, particularly within the oratorical tradition?

Kimball responds: That’s a very interesting question, Mark…I think your observation is very insightful that the study of divinity is related to liberal education or strengthens it because divinity does preserve the text. You can’t take the text away. You can’t totally deconstruct the text. That’s just counter to the basis of the tradition. My dean at Rochester was a critical sociological theorist, and I remember him summing up Derrida’s view as, when you take the text away, you have readers, and then you see what is really going one. I always have that picture in my mind of four people in the room discussing a text, and the text is removed, and then you see what they’re bringing to it. That’s insightful, but you can’t take the text away in the traditions of reading in divinity and law. Within those professions, you’re going to criticize the text, you’re going to interpret it, but you can’t take it away.As long as you have a religious tradition ancillary to or forming, or strengthening a liberal education tradition, it keeps the text on the table. It keeps the text in the room. In that sense, a religious tradition or teachers informed by that tradition, respecting that tradition, would keep the text on the table and in the room.

I think that this approach to interpreting texts is important because it is so countercultural. To illustrate I will once again bring up the Messiah College CORE curriculum, a course required of all freshman in their second semester of college and a course that is largely disliked by students. I am often baffled by the negative reaction that students have to a course that requires them to read texts rooted in the religious heritage of the college, especially since these students have chosen to attend a Christian college in the first place. It is clear that many students have no interest in thinking seriously about what a Christian education really means. To them “Christian college” means secular education plus chapel and a safe residential environment defined by Christian values.

Why the negative reaction to such a foundational course? Let me suggest a couple of reasons. First, the CORE is the only general education requirement in the Messiah College curriculum that cannot be fulfilled by more than one course. As products of a consumer-driven democratic society that glorifies individual autonomy our students prefer to have options when it comes to selecting their courses. They do not get this with the CORE.

But more pertinent to the conversation between Schwehn and Kimball are the student complaints about some of the CORE readings. The CORE requires our students to read texts that do not fit easily into their understanding of the world. As a result, they are prone to argue with them before they try to fully understand them.

When our students complain about texts, we faculty members listen. If students don’t like a particular reading, we remove it from the common syllabus. Moreover, students (and probably some faculty) are prone to mistake a “discussion” of a text with a survey of student response to the text. (“How do you feel about this text?”) If students do not like the text or if it does not fit comfortably into their world view then the text is not worth considering seriously in class. Schwehn, however, challenges us to exercise the virtue of humility when we approach texts that we are not familiar with. If we can’t understand a text, the problem is probably with us, not the text.

I think we need to do a better job of teaching our students that the interpretation of texts requires virtue. It requires putting aside our preconceived opinions of the text or its author and entering into a conversation with it. This is certainly an unnatural act, but it is absolutely essential to the process of liberal learning.

I am with Schwehn and Kimball here. By approaching a text in the context of a religious college or university where students are at least open to exemplifying virtues such as humility, it makes the work of teaching and interpretation a bit easier.