Christian Liberal Arts as Cathedral-Building

On Friday I led our department’s welcome sessions for new majors. For a while now I’ve made sure to dedicate part of that time to preemptively addressing the concern, “What do I do with a History major?” We’ve got better at making what sound to us like effective arguments — ruthlessly pragmatic explanations of the “return on investment” of such a course of study: “It gives you an unbeatable skill set… It sets you apart from all the business majors… It teaches you how to learn, so that you can adjust to a changing economy… It prepares you to be a global citizen…”

Christina Paxson
Christina Paxson – Creative Commons (Brown University)

Well, that sounds good to us. And, it seemed, to the five young men who showed up Friday.

I do think it’s important that we of the humanities make such arguments, and it’s probably even better when an economist of the stature of Brown University president Christina Paxson makes them. But I also know that the highest purposes of the humanities in particular, the liberal arts in general, and the Christian liberal arts especially have very little to do with preparing workers for the economy, or even citizens for the state. Here are the two primary objectives that I proposed for a task force looking to the future of my own Christian liberal arts college:

We do not merely disseminate information or offer professional training; we transform students into whole and holy persons who will love God with their hearts, souls, bodies, and minds, and love others as themselves. Seeking God’s glory and neighbor’s good wherever they are called and with whatever gifts they possess, our graduates then join, with all the Body of Christ, in the transformative work of building the kingdom of God.

Convicted that such loves cannot be inherited, imitated, or coerced, we liberate students to respond to God’s grace and follow Christ. For this reason, education in CAS [Bethel’s College of Arts and Sciences] — no matter the major — is rooted in a Christian liberal arts curriculum that is well-rounded, integrative, and rigorous, preparing students to test everything and freely choose to hold fast to what is good.

But both because our “consumers” sometimes seem unable to comprehend or properly value those purposes, and because we’re so well drilled in them that they can come off as stock phrases, I find myself searching for metaphors, allusions, parables… Anything slightly off-center that will prompt a fresh look at what we do and perhaps refocus the discussion.

Hence my post last week on “Christian liberal arts as spiritual retreat.” But as classes begin this week and I really need to remind myself of the value of what we do, I’ll trot out two more metaphors. Starting today with the Christian liberal arts as cathedral-building.

* * * * *

Kevin BrownIn between the two department overviews I was leading last Friday, one of our deans e-mailed all of us about a piece in Inside Higher Ed by English professor Kevin Brown, who writes of taking students to Wells Cathedral, outside Bath, England:

First, as we were standing in front of this huge cathedral, [our guide] spoke about how long it took to construct (begun about 1175 and completed about 1348). He then talked about the craftsmen who worked on the building, how they would work their entire lives on the cathedral, knowing they would never see it finished. They devoted the lives to work they would not be able to enjoy the fruits of. They would not be able to stand inside of it, attend worship there, or see their children or grandchildren married there.

Teaching is much the same way…. for the most part, the students who come through our classes disappear from our lives, going on to live theirs. We do not know if the quadratic equation or Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Reasoning or The Scarlet Letter made a difference in their lives. We do not know if we taught them to think more critically about the world they live in, helped them to speak or write more clearly and more accurately. Essentially, our teaching is an act of faith in the same way that the craftsmen’s work once was.

Wells Cathedral
Wells Cathedral – licensed by GNU (Hisane)

Partly because I teach a Western civ course that spends a week in the High Middle Ages, and more because I’ve spent a fair amount of time visiting cathedrals in Europe, this metaphor resonates strongly for me. (Perhaps less so for 18-year olds, but Brown — on the faculty at Lee University, like Bethel a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities — explains it so beautifully that I think it teaches well.) If what we’re doing is transforming persons, then we shouldn’t expect to see quick results. There are habits to unlearn, tensions to leave unresolved, and external forces impeding us all the way. (Our own limitations as teachers not least of all.) Stonemasons work with a far more malleable medium.

So I also like how this image evokes the idea of the professor as an artisan. Brown tells of his group’s guide pointing out the statue of a knight; if you were to look through the slit in that soldier’s helmet, you would find his eyes were “a bright blue that had not been faded by the elements. The craftsman clearly knew that no one would ever see inside that slit, yet he worked on the eyes as diligently as he did the parts of the knight everyone would see.” Not every liberal arts college professor is so diligent with her students, but in my experience, such attention to craft is the rule, not the exception.

Indeed, I’d dare to say that it’s because so much of what we do is artisanal that I’m so leery of two perhaps related phenomena in higher education: the rise of assessment, and the rise of the massively open online course (MOOC).

Such associations came to mind because I’d also recently read Stanley Fish’s piece on the two “cultures of educational reform” described by former Harvard president Derek Bok in his new book, Higher Education in America:

Bok, Higher Education in AmericaThe first “is an evidence-based approach to education … rooted in the belief that one can best advance teaching and learning by measuring student progress and testing experimental efforts to increase it.” The second “rests on a conviction that effective teaching is an art which one can improve over time through personal experience and intuition without any need for data-driven reforms imposed from above.”

Bok is obviously a member of the data and experiment culture, which makes him cautiously sympathetic to developments in online teaching, including the recent explosion of MOOCs (massive open online courses). But at the same time, he is acutely aware of the limits of what can be tested, measured and assessed, and at crucial moments in his analysis that awareness pushes him in the direction of the other, “ineffable” culture.

I can see the value for an “evidence-based approach”; sometimes we need to be shaken out of ruts, and have our self-confirming delusions of effectiveness stripped away. But I wouldn’t hesitate to place myself in the first category: for me, teaching is by feel, shaped by experience, and checked primarily through conversations with fellow artisans in the guild (if you will). It is an art.

Back to the craftsmen who built the cathedrals for a second… Perhaps I’m overanalyzing things. Perhaps I should explain why I teach college students the way Tom explains why he wants to be a master builder in The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett’s novel about the construction of a cathedral modeled on Wells: “The prior would probably like him to say something pious. Recklessly, he decided to tell the real truth. ‘Because it will be beautiful,’ he said.” (p. 298 in the Signet edition)

Whether or not “art” is the right word for it, I’m not sure how you could do what we do without a healthy dose of intuition. Since if the goals of a Christian liberal arts education are anything like what I proposed for our college’s task force, then the most important outcomes are very likely to be the least measurable ones. Or as Fish puts it:

…we’re probably measuring the wrong things and the right things are not amenable to measurement. If this is true and it is also true that the culture of measurement is in the ascendancy, we might expect that things that resist measurement — quality, poetry, insight — would be dismissed and set aside, on the reasoning that if it can’t be measured, what good is it?

Fish follows this line of thought right into an analysis of the limitations and costs of online education — MOOCs in particular. I won’t belabor this point, but if we return to the level of metaphor… I can’t imagine anything less cathedral-like than a MOOC, anything less artisanal than an educational product meant for mass consumption (and rapid disposal), with its approximation of interpersonal relations largely dumped on teaching assistants and other less skilled labor.

I’m convinced that digital technologies can enrich what I do as a history professor, but the notion that the educational equivalent of prefab housing can replace the educational equivalent of a Gothic cathedral is enough to make me read up on the Luddites.

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