Friday, August 19, 2022
It's Friday, August 19th, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Power of the Liberal Arts: The Promise of Understanding the World Around Us and the World Within Us — And How Modern Higher Education Has Lost Its Mind and Soul
What is the purpose of education? What's the purpose of higher education? If you are going to college, why? What do you hope to obtain there? Why are you going to college or university? Why would you send someone you love to college or university? Why are so many untold billions upon billions of dollars spent in the enterprise of higher education? What does it mean? Why does it matter? Well, it's interesting that, that question is being asked out loud in many different circles. For one thing, the very high cost of higher education and it's not just a cost born by the student or the student's family, it's increasingly a cost born by the society. You go back to the period of the 1960s and '70s, a vast infusion of federal money by no coincidence led to a vast increase in the cost of higher education and in tuition costs, all that's related.
There's more to the story than that, but there is not less to the story than that. But it's also clear that the modern system of higher education has lost both its mind and its soul. It's lost its mind in the sense that if you look at the catalogs of many universities, there is a complexity of majors and minors and programs and areas of study that simply seems to have very little connection with reality. You have the rise of certain kinds of majors that all of a sudden become very sexy, so to speak, in marketing, very attractive. And yet you look at the number of jobs related to those majors and you realize this is really not going to add up much. And then you look at the fact that a few years after graduation, fewer people than you might think are actually working in the very field in which they may have earned an undergraduate degree.
Now, all that doesn't mean that education's not important, it is. There is a reason why societies put so much investment in, so much priority upon the education of the young. There's a reason why the college emerged and there's a reason why the university emerged in the medieval period of Western civilization. There is a reason why the rise of the university comes along with civilizational progress and not only that, a rise of economic activity. There's a reason why a college education is worth a great deal. Over the course of a lifetime, there's simply no question that those who earn an undergraduate degree, not to mention a graduate degree, but those who earn an undergraduate degree are generally in a much stronger economic position over basically every period of life that follows.
But still we're looking at a system that doesn't appear to be living up to its public investment and isn't living up, in many cases, to the incredibly high tuition bills and other costs the families are being asked to pay. And then I said, it's also losing its soul. That's the bigger issue. Higher education has lost its soul over the process of its secularization. If you look at many, indeed most, not all, you have to say, not all, but if you look at many, indeed most, of the major universities in the United States, if they're not state universities, then they were established largely by Christian people, often by Christian churches, Christian denominations, with a concern to teach Christian young people who will be good, productive Christian citizens in society. Harvard University was established most importantly for the training of Christian ministers. When many in New England feared that Harvard had already grown too liberal, Yale was established for the very same reason.
People think of Dartmouth College and they say, "Well, there's one of the interesting schools in the Ivy League, the most elite academic establishment." Fewer probably know that the originating purpose and the original charter of Dartmouth College was to train persons for the evangelization of Native Americans. Furthermore, the very heart of what was being taught in most colleges and universities until at least some point in the last decade was clearly within a basically Christian biblical frame. Now that's the very frame, that's the intellectual framework that gave birth to the university in the first place.
But what we have seen over the course of the last several decades, indeed, throughout much of the 20th century and now into the 21st century is a process known as the secularization of higher education. But from time to time, you see evidence of the fact that it wasn't always so. An article recently appeared at the New York Times entitled, "The Art of Choosing What to Do With Your Life."
And the two authors of this article, both of whom are senior fellows at the American Enterprise Institute and who teach at Furman University, they appear to be husband and wife as a matter of fact, then make the argument that one of the most important aspects of a liberal arts education is to help a young person to learn the art of choosing and to choose the better, rather than the worse alternative. It's not a stupid argument, it's an argument that deserves space in the New York Times, it's an argument that deserves our consideration.
The authors write, "We spent many years teaching on a college campus trying during office hours to help students struggling with their confusion. Eventually we sought to address this problem systematically by designing a course intended to introduce the young to the art of choosing." Later, these teachers tell us that they were trying to create a curriculum and a conversation in their classroom that would help the young whom they are teaching to be better at the art of choosing, to read classical literature in order to learn from the wisdom of the classics and the wisdom of the ancients and for that matter, the power of literature, how to be better at the art of choosing.
They talk about readings, not only from Plato, but by Thomas Aquinas and then they write, "Most students are grateful to discover this art of choosing, learning to reason about happiness awakens and indwelling power in the soul, as Socrates puts it, which is as delightful as discovering that one's voice can be made to sing. Why," they then asked, "do liberal arts institutions rarely teach it? In some cases, faculty members are incentivized to emphasize specialized research rather than thinking about the good life. In others, they share the conviction that reason is merely an extension of the quest for dominance or the Rousseauian belief that sentiment is a better guide to happiness than the mind." Now, all this may sound very abstract, but I speak both to students and to parents to say, this is a very important issue.
These particular authors are writing about the power of the liberal arts, the power of reading literature, the power of entering into a conversation, sometimes a debate, sometimes a dialogue, sometimes just a text from the ancients or for that matter those who have come after the ancients, who raise basic issues and help us to understand what is at stake. A part of the promise of the liberal arts is real in the sense that the individual student who studies the liberal arts comes not only to a better understanding of the world around the student, but of the world inside the student. That's a part of the power of the liberal arts. But looking at this, there's something missing from this argument I just want to think about for a bit. When you think about the liberal arts, we need to understand that they originated with four.
The original liberal arts says defined as areas of study are not probably what you're thinking about. Not English, not literature, not history, but rather astronomy, mathematics, geometry and music. Those were the four from the quadrivium, as it was known in the Latin, the four liberal arts. To them were added three more so that you would have seven liberal arts. The quadrivium, again, was astronomy, mathematics, geometry and music, but the trivium was rhetoric, grammar and dialectic. Those were the seven liberal arts. Now you might be saying, "Well, I just don't see degrees in many of those areas in the modern college or university. Certainly you have astronomy and mathematics and geometry, you have music, but what about rhetoric, grammar and dialectic?" Well, one of the things we need to note is that even as the medieval university was established around these liberal arts, the reality is that in the modern age, the liberal arts came to include other areas of study. So when people do think of liberal arts today, they very commonly think of English, as I said, or literature or foreign languages or they think of something like history.
But as we think about the liberal arts, the point is that they are to liberate, that's the sense of liberal. It doesn't mean as in liberal versus conservative, it means liberal as in liberate. To liberate the thinking mind to think about big questions and to seek answers to those questions and to do so in a defined intellectual context. And you say, "Oh, that sounds very obtuse." Well, this is the purpose of higher education. The purpose of higher education and the emergence of the university, which came from within a Christian world, from within Christian churches and within a Christian culture. The reality is the university was based upon the uni, that is the one. There was the understanding that the existence of the one true living God. And that means the God confessed by Christians, the Trinitarian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We come to understand that the university was held together as one great comprehensive truth, not by some kind of accident or natural occurrence, but rather by a supernatural explanation and that is God.
As you think about the graduate purposes of the university, the emergence of the professions, it was law, medicine and theology that were the three originating professions. And it was theology that was the lead of all of them. And theology was also understood to be the queen of the sciences. The sciences being means of coming to know the most important knowledge for which human beings were created is the knowledge of God. Now, the problem is that once you try to take that kind of education out of that Christian context, that theological context, well, then you have to answer the question, what is education for? Who is to be educated? Why does it matter? How do we know what truth is? And that leads to many of the modern quandaries of the university. But one of the first things it leads to as most intellectual historians of the West understand was the fact that education became packaged as options rather than as the delivery of truth.
And you certainly see that even in this article. For example, we are told that exposing students to many of these liberal arts and to the questions and the texts of times of old, it, "Leaves them feeling empowered, like wanderers suddenly recognizing the orienting features of a landscape." That is the power of this kind of education. You do have the incredible opportunity to enter into a conversation with people long dead and to understand that and Christians understand there's a theological explanation for this. They're asking the same questions, they're struggling with the same issues, they're trying to figure out what love is, they're trying to understand what the meaning of life is. And they're also making choices, yes, but the point I want to make is that this article really begins and ends with the liberal arts about making choices. "Most students are grateful to discover this art of choosing, learning to reason about happiness awakens an indwelling power in the soul, as Socrates put it, which is as delightful as discovering that one's voice can be made to sing, choosing one option over another."
Now I'm not saying that's unimportant, it's certainly not unimportant. You look at society around it, you look at our cultural context, you look at the responsibilities that fall upon young people and it's very clear that making choices is very much a part of life. The Christian biblical worldview explains this. And we understand that making better choices is far better than making inferior choices. Choosing the good, the beautiful and the true is infinitely better than choosing the alternative. But it is really interesting that in today's highly fractured and secularized academy, there's no agreement upon what is the good, the beautiful and the true. And in some cases, the very use of those categories is being dismissed as hopelessly patriarchal and oppressive. And I recently confronted an argument in which bringing in the issues of the good, the beautiful, the true and the real were dismissed as just another way to import Christianity into what must be a secular curriculum or worldview.
I just offer this and hope that it might help Christian families, Christian churches, Christian leaders, and most importantly, Christian young people in thinking about education. Yes, you want an education, you want a college experience, you want a university experience that will assist you in the art of choosing. But I strongly want to argue, you want to be in a context in which that is not set forth is a value-free, open to all views, groundless, truth denying reality in which what you're really being asked to study is yourself. One of the most important things to recognize is that even among the ancients, before the rise of Christianity, even among the ancients there was an understanding that there had to be some ultimate reality behind the good, the beautiful, the true and the real, there has to be something or some grounding that reality. Central to biblical Christianity is that it's not a something, it's a someone. It's the one true and living God who created all that exists and rules over the entire universe by the power of his word.
And thus for Christians, yes, we want to help young people to learn the art of choosing as educators, but just like parents, it's not just the art of choosing, it is the art of choosing the right, the good. It's the art of choosing the better, rather than the worse. It is the art of choosing excellence as an act of Christian obedience, not just as a flexing of the powers of the mind or just as even an act of self-expression. There's another aspect to all of this and that is with the commodification of all of higher education and with the spiraling cost of higher education.
In many institutions, you see the liberal arts, you see the humanities, you see disciplines like history and for that matter, English literature or world literature or philosophy, you see these in decline, you see the faculties being reduced, you see numbers of majors decreasing. You see the rise of the so-called practical disciplines and you see the rise of many forms of science and technology. And you have many parents who are saying, "You don't need to study philosophy. You don't need to study the classics, you don't need to study history. What you need to do is get a degree in computer engineering so that you can support a family." I'm not saying that supporting a family is not important, emphatically I believe it is. But I believe the Christian Church will actually harm ourselves and our witness and the ability to sustain the Christian biblical life of the mind over time if we abandon the subjects of classical education, if we abandon the liberal arts, if we decide that philosophy and humanities and English and history are simply too expensive for young people to invest their lives in.
But I also want to say that those issues are simply too important to be left to the pagans. They are far too important to be left to the radical ideologies that are now increasingly raining in elite higher education or for that matter, probably in the college or university close to you. That's why we need alternative institutions, that's why we need an alternative intellectual system, that's why we need the Christian church, Christian parents and Christian young people supporting institutions that hold out for both academic excellence and biblical fidelity.
What Should I Study to Prepare for Service to Christ for the Rest of My Life? — Dr. Mohler Responds to a Letter from a High School Student Listener of The Briefing
But next we turn to questions, and everything I've just said gets us ready for some of the questions coming, especially from young people that I want to think about today.
For instance, a question came from Madeline and she's asking about what to do if she's thinking about college as a high school senior and it's a really mature way of framing the question.
She says that she enjoys school, she wants to work for a Christian nonprofit or a ministry and maybe be a missionary, but she goes on to say, "What should I study in order to prepare?" Should she study healthcare or more business focused path or something else entirely? She also speaks in a way that's very God-honoring about wanting to be married and to have a family. And that's in the context so she says, "I don't want to do a lot of education beyond college." And then she goes on to say basically, "Does it matter what I study? And how do I decide this?" And I'll just say this in a paraphrase fast. I really love the question and I'm going to speak to this as a theologian, as a churchman, as a minister, I'm going to speak to this as a seminary president and as a college president.
I want to take some pressure off of Christian young people as you think about this, your major is not the major issue of your life. And I think a major's important.... And by the way, the average student changes a major at least once in the course of the undergraduate experience. There are some majors that are so focused on a specialized program, like nursing or engineering, that you're going to have to figure out whether that's really what you're called to do or want to do or not. But to be honest, in most spheres of life, what you major in is less important than it may feel pressing on you as a question right now. So I hope to relieve a bit of anxiety there.
And I also want to say something from a Christian theological perspective. And this is one of the things that I just wish, if I could go back to when I was 17 or 18 and I say, "I wish someone had told me this explicitly as a Christian," this is one of the things I wish I had been told. In his sovereignty, our infinitely perfect and loving God designs us and shapes our lives in such a way that increasingly he makes us want what he wants us to want. And what I mean by that is that if you have a real passion to study history or botany or just about anything else, that's God honoring you.
If you have that real interest, assume that God is telling you something by that interest. If it's God honoring, then just assume that God is gifting you with a particular kind of stewardship of that interest, of that passion. It might turn out, it doesn't work out all the way through a major, I just want to say as a college president, that's fine. It may be that it gets you to something else you find is even more interesting, more compelling and you can see and you could employ in your life in a way that's even more directly aligned with what you see as God's purpose for your life.
I also just want to say this and please hear me. I want to dignify young people, I want to give a special respect to teenagers. I believe you are capable of making massive decisions that honor God. I would just say to Christian young people, that faithfulness is lived out in the present, aimed toward the future. And that future is very long and the near future is easier to see than the far future. But commitment to faithfulness, just understand this, anything you study to the glory of God will be used by God in some way you may not even be able to see right now. So I just want to say, I want to take a bit of pressure off, what you major in is not the most important question about your life.
I really love the question coming from this Christian young person saying that she wants to be involved in a ministry that honors Christ, it might be a pro-life ministry or another area of Christian service. And she says, "Decisions are coming at me and all high school seniors very quickly, I just want to make a wise choice." Well, Madeline, I think by the way you frame this question, I'm really confident you're going to make a wise choice. I also want to say, the choice of what college or university to attend is actually, I think, more important than deciding right now, what exactly you may study or what major you may choose. Because deciding who will teach is more important than deciding what areas or subjects will be taught. Understanding the theological or lack of theological commitments of the institution, that's actually more important than figuring out what particular job vocation you think you might fulfill in some time in the future.
Then Madeline, I just want to say you're speaking for many, I hear this question, at one point in my life I lived this question.
And faithfulness is often just following God one step at a time, one interest at a time.
How Should I Manage My Time So That I Don’t Waste It? By the Way, Where Do I Find the Time to Sleep? — Dr. Mohler Responds to a Letter from a High School Student Listener of The Briefing
Another high school student wrote in, Alexander, also beginning his senior year. Congratulations to both of you.
And Alexander's thinking about college and future career opportunities. He goes on to ask for wisdom "on how I should be managing my time and what things to keep in mind." He says, "My desire is to fight as hard as I can on this earth for as long as I can and to do as much for the kingdom as is in my ability." But he goes on to say, he desires to be doing all this for God's glory. He says, "My only real fear in life is looking back and seeing things I should have been doing with my time. I guess I'm afraid of time and more specifically of wasting it." Forgot to mention that he says that, "I'm also having a harder and harder time finding time to sleep."
Alexander, I know your predicament. I lived that predicament. To some extent, I still live that predicament. One of the most glorious realizations that can come to a Christian young person is, I want to know more in a godly sense. I want to know more about God, about God's work, about God's word, about God's creation. I want to know more about God's purpose for me and my faithfulness to God, I want to know more and there isn't enough time in my lifetime to know all I need to know. Alexander, let me give you the bad news. There is not enough time in this lifetime to learn all that you will need to know.
That is why we look forward to that day when we're with the Lord, seeing no longer through a glass darkly, but seeing him face to face, we know what we could not know and cannot know in this world, in this age, but at the same time we can know a great deal. And one of the things I love is knowing about a young person who wants to know more. By the way, Alexander, I will tell you, there is a point in life in which not getting enough sleep will come back to exact a cost. But there's another part of me that simply wants to say, I think your experience is probably common to many Christians, especially healthy, faithful, young Christians who say, "I just want to know more, I want to learn more, I want to study more right now." By the way, Alexander also starts out telling me how busy he is right now, all good things an very impressively busy.
But I simply want to tell Alexander, I think you're very faithfully deployed in all those ways that I see there. And I don't know exactly how to find balance at any point in life, I think I'm better looking backwards at seeing how something might have been out of balance in time management, as they say, or emphasis and investment in stewardship of time. But I do know this, God did not mean you to worry about this to the point at which you do not enjoy the world in which he has placed you, the relationships that he has given you. And simply sometimes the joy of reflecting upon what you've read, what you've heard, what you've learned or sharing it with a friend. Alexander, I think just about everyone who knew me when I was young would say, I'm a young man in a hurry.
I want to tell you as a man, I guess I can describe myself as considerably older, in my seventh decade of life, I simply want to say, I don't regret being a young man in a hurry. But I also simply want to relieve some pressure by saying to faithful Christian young people you really don't know and can't presume whether your life will be long or short, but if your life by human terms is long, it still won't be long enough to learn all that you want to learn. And if it's short, then don't worry about it because eternity is endless and only then in the kingdom of Christ, will we come to learn face to face from the savior who has redeemed us. But Alexander here's a practical thing, keep reading, just keep making progress, keep studying, as you're building relationships, as you're enjoying life in a Christian frame, God would intend you in the deepest biblical sense to enjoy life.
Just keep reading, just keep thinking, just keep putting it in the bank because whether your life be long or short, and I pray it is long, you'll simply be adding more and more to the bank for your faithfulness and for the glory of God.
I'm always thankful for faithful listeners asking really fine questions. And I think for all of us, there's probably a particular thrill and a particular stewardship in getting questions like this from Christian young people.
Sometimes, just questions like this are a source of hope.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at Albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by go to Twitter.com/Albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to Boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.