The Value of the Christian Liberal Arts: A Bethel Alum Speaks

My time at Bethel didn’t prepare me to do any specific job, but it prepared me to be the person that I am.

Fun as it is for a college professor like me to explore metaphors for the Christian liberal arts — spiritual retreat, cathedral construction, and a Lord of the Rings-like quest — it’s probably far more important, if we’re going to make the case for this model of education, that we listen to the voices of our current and former students.

Fortunately, I’ve had the chance to interview lots of Bethel University alumni since becoming department chair a few years ago. We’re trying to do a better job of communicating to prospective, current, and former students alike, and our alumni have been exceedingly gracious in sharing their time and stories. You can find a number of interviews at our department blog, and see also the alumni videos we’ve posted on YouTube.

Then this past August I got to interview four Bethel alumni from History, Philosophy, and English Literature for an event we’re doing at Homecoming to link students and alumni looking for non-teaching careers.

Listening to those interviews once again (we’re editing a short film from them to kick off the event), I was especially struck by the comments from Amy (Morris) Williams, an ’07 grad who’s now a major gifts officer for Ecumen, a Lutheran charity in town that provides housing and other services for thousands of older Minnesotans. Amy didn’t come from especially wealthy circumstances, financed her Bethel education in part by serving in the Air National Guard, and yet switched from a professional major (Education) to one (English Literature) that had no obvious connection to her current work. (She also shared some advice with our students on working in the nonprofit sector.)

Amy Williams
Amy Williams – Ecumen

Here’s how Amy summed up the value of her education: (permission granted to quote at length)

I was listening to a program [on NPR] a few weeks ago and there was a professor of literature… she was talking about the shortcomings of liberal arts education in that it doesn’t prepare students vocationally for life. And I felt so mad. If I hadn’t been driving I would have called. Because I don’t believe that that’s the point of education, unless you go to a vo-tech school.

My time at Bethel didn’t prepare me to do any specific job, but it prepared me to be the person that I am.

I am who I am because of my education at Bethel. And I never would have been able to achieve that without guidance from professors, time to process materials on my own, to dig deeply and ask questions. It made me the kind of person who can be curious enough, and to have the kind of skill set… where I can ask questions and drive myself on my own and in my work.

I truly believe it’s about creating the person that you are. And at Bethel… it did teach me to integrate my faith into my work: being able to pray for the work that I do, trying to have discernment about when I am asking people to invest their treasure… to pray for my donors and for my coworkers….

Who I became at Bethel has everything to do with how I got a job and how I stay in it, and who I am – having fidelity to who I am in Christ…

It’s worth every penny… It is so worth the money that it costs; you are constantly drawing on it all the time.

As in the original interview, hearing Amy’s words the other day made me tear up. At schools like Bethel, we say these things to each other to remind ourselves on bad days that what we do is important. But to hear it from a former student — and I’m just picking one particularly articulate example — meant even more. I hope any of my readers who teach in a Christian liberal arts college get to hear similar words regularly.

But also that the presidents, provosts, and other administrators who are making decisions that affect our ability to have this kind of transformative effect on students heed voices like Amy’s. Because she’s right: the purpose of an education at a school like Bethel is not vocational preparation in whatever fields happen to be temporarily popular. We exist to prepare students to be the people God means them to be, liberating them through integrative, rigorous studies in arts, humanities, and the natural and social sciences to freely respond to God’s grace and follow his Son wherever he leads.

One thought on “The Value of the Christian Liberal Arts: A Bethel Alum Speaks

  1. Thanks for posting this, Chris. It was a joy to have Amy in class, and seeing her pursue her vocation and life with such thoughtfulness is fulfilling beyond words.

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