Why Christian Institutions Need the Liberal Arts

Jessica Hooten Wilson earned a PhD in English from Baylor University in 2009. She is the Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas and is the author of several books, including “Giving the Devil His Due,” which won the Christianity Today 2018 Book of the Year in Arts and Culture. In this First Person essay, she speaks to the need for Christian institutions such as Baylor to cherish and protect the liberal arts.

Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson

Let us take the time to stop for a minute and imagine what it is that Christian colleges do, why we do it, and what we hope to see being born from our efforts. For me, I see that college-bound high schooler visiting campus with her parent, listening to my lecture on Dante. How she raised her hand in front of 30 intimidating juniors and seniors and asked, “Why must a sinner ascend Mount Purgatory before entering Paradise? Why can he not go straight to God?” 

Over her four years in college, we became friends, in the Aristotelian sense. We were both walking in the same direction, sharing our love for things worth loving. With her, I shared my love of Countee Cullen and Emily Dickinson. When I arrived in class early, I didn’t chitchat about the dramas of her love life or the gossip of campus politics, but together we dined on real questions about why power corrupts the heart of Willie Stark, how it might tempt us away from our ideals, and what a good life should look like. And, when I watch her graduate, sitting in my uncomfortable oversized velvet robe, listening to the monotonous call of names, I look up when hers is called, and I say a quiet prayer over her future. 

What do I want for her — to make money? To be famous and bring notoriety to my institution? No. I want her to make beautiful things — art, books, gardens, children. I want her to give her talents to the needs of this world. To fight ugliness and lies with bravery and truth. I want her to stand up against dishonest politics and devious advertising. I hope she loves her work and flourishes in it.  As she crosses that stage and holds that diploma, I only hope I didn’t waste the time I was given. That I didn’t treat her like a number or like an attendance-check. That I shared with her my passion for poetry, the truth about history and the tradition, the largeness of God’s story, and that I helped her find her place in it. 

Often we have failed to see well what it is that we’re doing as professors and why it matters. “General education” requirements are not boxes to be checked, but they are the inculcation of tradition, what the Greeks called paideia. In “The Lord of the Rings” film, Galadriel opens by saying, “Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.” Our jobs are to ensure that those truths, beauties and goodness of culture that should never be forgotten will never be lost. The Romans called it studia humanitas — the study of what it means to be human. We sometimes call these disciplines the “liberal arts,” the study of how to act free. In a world that is bound by its habits on social media, enslavement to consumption, the presentism that traps the mind in the ever-changing headline; liberal arts educate these souls into freedom. 

The study of literature reveals to students that God is the Author of their story. Because God speaks poetically and figuratively through most of Scripture, the study of literature teaches students how to hear God’s voice.

I worry that we focus too much on competencies and not on the content. Yes, it matters that students can think and express themselves. But they need the thickening of the soul that Plato provides, knowledge of Newtonian physics, diversity of perspective and aesthetic beauty provided by Phyllis Wheatley. We accomplish little if we focus only on skills, which can be taught by anyone. What is it in particular that Christian institutions offer that is different than the world? It is that we are people of the book, who prize tradition and the past, who believe in the incarnation of virtuous living, who see a telos of a life that stands apart from contemporary culture? Even when we teach skills, they are within a certain context: reading as a humble practice, writing as communion, thinking as a renewing of the mind. 

If we are to compete against secular institutions, we have to know what it is that makes Christian education distinct. The study of history counters the fallacy of presentism; it fights the sin of individualism, autonomy and pride. The study of literature reveals to students that God is the Author of their story. Because God speaks poetically and figuratively through most of Scripture, the study of literature teaches students how to hear God’s voice. I could walk through all the disciplines in our general education requirement and profess similar truths: philosophy teaches students to love wisdom; politics teaches them what power is for and how to steward power for the powerless; mathematics and sciences teach them the patterns through which God speaks in His creation, the order of His majesty, and the beauty of His making. Christian education tells a cohesive story, and we need to know what this story is and how our curriculum can pass it on.

What matters is the life we want our students to embody. Who do we want them to be like when they graduate? C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers and J.R.R. Tolkien all received a liberal arts education. If we are not to keep looking around in wonder, 'where is the next generation of Christian intellectuals such as those?’ we must fight back against the shrinking of the liberal arts education. 

Perhaps more frightening to us should be the number of students who come with problems of anxiety or depression caused by lost senses of self or an overconsumption of social media. Victor Frankl posits that he survived the concentration camps because of the spiritual resources at his disposal — his imagination, recollection of Scripture and poetry, knowledge of his discipline, psychology. It might be that we cannot do without the liberal arts if we are to save some of these weak, thin souls who are desperate to know more about who they are, what they are here for, and how to endure the pain and suffering of a chaotic, broken world. 

To this world, we in Christian higher education will look weird and impractical as we hold on to these goods in our requirements. But we must trust our calling. We must follow Jesus, who never asked us to be sensible and worldly, but to be outrageous, to commit beautifully good acts, as did the woman who wasted all that perfume at His feet. As T.S. Eliot says, “Following Him will cost us not less than everything.” At the end of the day, do we believe that removing the liberal arts from our requirements will contribute or detract from the flourishing of God’s kingdom? Because we know the liberal arts encourage the faithful in their desire to love Him well, we must be willing to suffer the cost and lavish in our devotion to those goods. May we all continue to be faithful to the work to which He has called us, and may He establish the work of our hands.