Cynicism, not of the classical kind but the kind that regards all life a joke, characterizes too many of my college-teaching colleagues. Even as we welcome those folks whom the college chooses to be the next cohort of intellectuals trained for service, some among us sneer, assuming from the outset that our contribution to their lives is to provide a bit of amusement as they jump over us and into the money-making world. Because the college has lost its vocation as a place where free people become educated and has, as so much of late-capitalist culture’s institutions, become another site for consumerism, the liberal arts have, except in small pockets of resistance, become little more than a label for those classes not in a given student’s major.
From Augustine to Josephus Hopwood: What in Blazes are Liberal Arts?
As Augustine notes in De Doctrina Christiana, liberal arts, as the ancients conceived them, bring with them a couple significant problems. First of all, to be free in the ancient world meant to be a land-owner, one of the wealthy class, and to be liberally educated meant to take over one’s father’s position as a landholder and therefore candidate for public office. Since the Church assigns teaching and pastoral responsibilities based not on heredity but on Spiritual gifts, Augustine warns that although the skills are similar to those taught to the wealthy young at pagan schools, we Christians should keep in mind that we are developing gifts rather than perpetuating privilege. Second, he warns against the self-containment towards which educational disciplines tend. In other words, he asserts (rightly) that the Psalms are not Ciceronian speeches and Paul’s letters not rhetoric-according-to-Isocrates, yet in both cases a bit of examination (which he performs in book four of De Doctrina reveals intelligible rhetorical patterns.
In Augustine’s day, liberal arts, which he recast as Christian teaching arts, had as their aim some kind of oratorical career, whether as a statesman (Greek politico) or lawyer or pastor. In some ways, Christian colleges, with their ministry majors, stay more true to that ancient ideal than do German-style research universities. But before I go there, I should get to the German research universities and Christian responses.
In the nineteenth century the German university became the world’s intellectual powerhouse, exerting an influence greater than the Arab schools or the European universities of the middle ages. Central to their project was the idea that all of reality, those entities made of particles and those made of letters, were subject to human reason, that rigorous human study could make sense out of all realities, textual and material. (That the boundaries of their reality were textual and material is largely the legacy of Kant.) They quickly appropriated the studies of individual intellectuals like Newton, Darwin, and Spinoza, and teaching faded from its high position in the medieval university and became more or less something that subsidized research. Anybody who has taken a college class from a Teaching Assistant, hired so that the real professors would have more time for research, has felt the influence of the German model.
As a response to these schools’ new research focus and to the dangerous scholars emerging out of them (Wellhausen is the favorite bogeyman in biblical studies, Nietzsche in philosophy) and to English and American universities’ adoption of the research focus, many Christian traditions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries began to open their own colleges for the sake of training educated, traditionalist ministers and candidates for professions such as medicine and law.
The purpose of these schools had something to do with oratory (most of them had and some still have ministry majors), but more than that their goal seems to have been a latent or seminal Evangelical (note the big E) project, namely to engage the best ideas that the philosophers of the day could conceive and to capture every thought for Christ and to do so by allowing professors to spend their time teaching young Christians, those called to serve the Church in intellectual capacities, to do the same. Their hope was (and their successors’ is) that in the course of such studies, reading the best that human science and art has to offer and situating them inside a thoroughgoing Christian philosophy would make of them a generation of missionaries in a world whose knowledge was forever expanding. Those Christians neither retreated from nor sought to imitate uncritically the German university but to participate as intellectuals in God’s mission to the world they were shaping.
Among those Christians was Josephus Hopwood, a Disciples of Christ congregant and the founder of my own alma mater, Milligan College.
Against the Nations: Liberal Arts as Site of Resistance
Christian liberal arts schools stand to present resistance against the big research universities in a couple ways. First they call into question the deprived (not necessarily depraved) methodology that drives so much of academic work as it stands. Unsatisfied with “religious studies” that will not speak God, “hard science” that cuts off human knowledge at the level of common experience, and “social science” that assumes the ontological priority rather than the fallenness of human wretchedness, the Christian college pursues rigorous studies and remains open to divine Logos. A Christian college can explore the fullness of God’s world because a Christian college can acknowledge its status as part of creation.
Beyond that, the common life on a Christian campus stands to critique the grand research university. Because its professors will be teachers first and will worship together with their students, such a place will not only explore the material and textual shape of created reality but might even stand to live together in ways shaped by the best Christian ethical philosophy. None of this is to say that such places will know no hypocrisy or thoughtlessness, much less that they will present some kind of messianic “hope of the world” (one unfortunate slogan that Milligan once took on), but it is to say that such a place might present a new Benedictine way, a common life to oppose the rampant consumerism that is the character of the state college campus.
The next part of this series will focus on how such places might relate to the local congregation. Until then, please chime in–once more, I progress in this inquiry not as an expert but as one grooming myself for and seeking excellence in a career teaching in Christian colleges. Any help anyone could offer would yield my gratitude.