What is a Liberal Arts Education?: Risk and Wisdom

One of the books on my shelf that I return to regularly is Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. Since I first read it during preparation for my interview with the Schwehn-led “Lilly Fellows Program at Valparaiso, it has become an indispensable guide for thinking about what I am supposed to be doing as an academic in the context of the liberal arts college.

There is a lot I could say about this book, but the most inspiring part of it is Schwehn’s discussion of the role of risk and wisdom in the educational process, especially as it relates to teaching texts. We devoted class today to a discussion of Frederick Douglass’s slave Narrative. Douglass’s quest for learning in the midst of antebellum slavery speaks to the transformative power of a liberal-arts education. I used the opportunity presented by the text to go off on a bit of a tangent about the way ideas can change our lives.

Education, Schwehn argues, requires risk. Real education only occurs when we are prepared to “abandon some of our most cherished beliefs.” Notice that Schwehn is not saying a liberal-arts education requires us to abandon cherished beliefs, but it does require us to be prepared to do so.

As Schwehn puts it:

The quest for knowledge of the truth, if it takes place in a context of communal conversation, involved the testing of our own opinions. And we must, of course, be willing to give up what we think we know for what is true, if genuine learning is to take place. At times, this will be easy, as when we learn that we were mistaken about some geographical detail or another. But much of our self-knowledge as well as our beliefs about what is truly good for us are not simply matters of what we know but matters of who we are. We thus often risk ourselves when we test our ideas.

Unfortunately, too many students today are unwilling to engage in the kind of risk-taking that is essential to education. Many of the students I teach at Messiah, and especially their parents, do not understand what education at a liberal arts institution is all about. They think that college is a place where “cherished beliefs” should be not be challenged, but affirmed. They want to have a four year experience in which they are told that everything they have ever believed about life, God, society, etc… is true. If this is what college is about, then what is the point? Students can participate on championship sports teams, make friends, have meaningful social experiences, find a spouse, play in the band, or learn certain specialized and technical skills, but I wonder: will they really be educated? Why not just send students to vocational schools so they can gain the necessary knowledge needed to do this or that job and live a comfortable middle-class life.

Having said that, I think it is essential that this kind of education–the kind of learning that truly transforms–happen in a safe environment where students can work through this transformative time in their life with caring professors who love them and want to walk alongside of them. This, it seems to me, is the genius of a small, residential, liberal arts college. For the students who come to Messiah College, it is what makes their college experience “Christian.”

Please don’t misread me. The kind of transformative liberal arts education I am talking about here does not mean that students must always abandon their most cherished beliefs in order to be truly educated. This is why wisdom is so important to the process. While education certainly requires a willingness to “surrender ourselves for the sake of a better opinion,” wisdom, as Schwehn puts it “is the discernment of when it is reasonable to do so.”

In other words, and I hope I am being true to Schwehn here, real education happens when students are so engaged with a new idea that they lose sleep over it. They lose sleep because they take the idea seriously. They wrestle with whether or not they can incorporate it into their own way of viewing the world. They discuss it with others in Junto-like communities of friends. In the end, sometimes wisdom leads them to embrace this new idea because they conclude that it is true. Sometimes wisdom leads them to reject the idea, because they conclude that it is not true. They should be warned that such a process can, at times, be painful.

Many may think this is a very impractical or even “pie-in-the-sky” approach to college education. And I agree– year by year this kind of education seems more and more difficult. But if I did not believe it was possible I would probably stop teaching.

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