The “Next Chapter” in Christian Liberal Arts Education

I’ve only been on the campus of Gordon College once — and given what that school announced yesterday, I’m not sure I’ll have much reason to come back. I visited the suburban Boston Christian college in 2012, when it hosted the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, the leading society of Christian historians. But yesterday, Gordon announced its “Next Chapter” — and the history major will no longer be part of that story.

Gordon Memorial Chapel
Gordon Memorial Chapel at Gordon College – Creative Commons (John Phelan)

(To get some recent historical context for the following summary of yesterday’s announcement, I’d suggest that you peruse a 2017 series in the college’s student newspaper. Entitled “Define: Gordon,” it started with a piece suggesting a vast difference between the liberal arts college presided over by Jud Carlberg — “Old Gordon” — and the “New Gordon” run by current president Michael Lindsay.)

With Gordon having already gone through a 6% budget cut a few years ago, a new prioritization process sought to trim a $58 million budget by 7% over two years. Eleven faculty positions were subject to “involuntary separation” (two of those professors were offered other jobs at Gordon) with two retirements not being replaced. The announcement understandably didn’t detail which jobs were cut, but it’s not hard to guess, based on the news about program eliminations and mergers. Among them:

• No more majors in History or Philosophy; instead, an integrated major that pairs those two disciplines with Political Science — while a straight Poli Sci major remains. (In a December 2018 post about “The History Major at Christian Colleges,” I noted that Gordon had 19 History majors graduate in 2016-17, down from 32 in 2006-07.)

• No more majors in Chemistry or Physics; the former will survive only as part of Biochemistry, while the latter shrinks to a track in a new “integrated science” major.

• No more stand-alone majors in Spanish, French, or Combined Languages, while a few faculty would remain to provide a gen ed language requirement.

It’s not just the arts, sciences, and humanities. Social Work and Education are also being trimmed. But it’s hard not to read this entire announcement as an outworking of something I warned about last year. Fortunately, someone else connected those dots on Twitter before I had to:

The language of “pathway” is all over the Gordon announcement:

Our hope is to provide a variety of educational pathways for students that go beyond the traditional limits of “major” or “minor” and are designed to ensure every student is better prepared for a greater purpose. All Gordon students will have a viable way forward toward their life and career aspirations.

Of course, majors and minors don’t seem to have been eliminated. Just some of them. But that’s not all. Students can now choose to experience Gordon as “a four-year, residential college with a core liberal arts foundation and campus experience” or as “a fast-track pathway [that] will allow for three-year completion, saving time and money and launching students into their careers or graduate programs sooner.”

(The former is “still the ‘gold standard’ by many counts… Gordon as you know it.” It’s the “Traditional,” while the “fast-track pathway” to jobs is “Essential.” I would love to know how much money Gordon spent on marketing this “Next Chapter”…)

How do we get students through college as quickly as possible and into jobs? By responding as nimbly as possible to the preferences of both employers and students — i.e., future employees. (Spanish might survive, but only as a minor “serving allied health and mission fields.”) That’s the decision that’s been made by any college leaning on “pathway” language in 2019…

…and it is a way to respond to genuine anxieties that middle-class families have about the affordability of private liberal arts colleges. Undeniably, such anxieties help explain not just the overall enrollment pattern at a school like Gordon,  Bethel, or any number of similar colleges and universities, but the decline-within-a-decline of humanities majors like History.

But the “pathway” response creates a trap for such institutions. As I warned in my Stevens Point piece:

Start with the assumption that funding should follow short-term enrollment trends. If a regional public university can’t resist this logic, a liberal arts college at least should be able to find ways to maintain a strong core of disciplines asking questions about permanent things. All the more so if it’s a Christian institution that believes that all truth is God’s truth, that education aims at the formation of the whole person, and that we should seek to restore a fallen world — not just serve at the beck and call of its often unjust political and economic institutions.

Now, just like Stevens Point (which ended up keeping a History major at the last minute), Gordon wants to insist that it can avoid this trap and remain a liberal arts college. “The next chapter,” it claims, “not only retains the core Christian liberal arts foundation, but makes it more accessible and relevant for what students and families want from college and what employers want from graduates.” But if the only way you can keep the “core Christian liberal arts foundation” is to make it “more accessible and relevant,” then I suspect you’re doomed to failure.

Because at its heart, the Christian liberal arts can not be purely “accessible and relevant.” At least, not if you’re saying those words and thinking primarily of immediate economic, political, and cultural circumstances.

I’m obviously most annoyed about the fate of Gordon’s History major, but let me set that aside for a second… I actually think the people who need to pay most attention to this story — those who might tend to flip past it thinking it’s only about the crisis of the humanities — are Christian scholars in the sciences, our partners in the liberal arts. Just read this line about the elimination of the Chemistry major:

Science programs have always been an important facet of a Gordon education. They can also be expensive for smaller colleges to maintain at a premier level, particularly with investments in lab space and equipment in majors that do not have a large number of students.

True. The sciences are inherently more expensive and complicated to deliver to students than a discipline like mine, which makes them even more sensitive to student demand, not less. So I hope that all sciences professors who work at liberal arts colleges understand what it means that we (over)use the acronym “STEM”: sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics. It’s T/E that gives the clearest pathway to the jobs students seek, not S/M.

So by that logic, you could do like Gordon and reduce Physics to an “integrated science” track that “will prepare students to apply physics in related fields, including life and health sciences, computer science and some areas of engineering.” For by this logic, there’s no need — apart from student demand — to have students study physics for the sake of studying physics; the overriding concern is whether they can apply a reduced course of such studies to more popular fields with more obvious pathways.

That, of course, is not the logic of the liberal arts.

Gordon’s announcement quotes rather selectively from the liberal arts statement in its faculty handbook, in such a way as to emphasize the practical benefits of such study. Anyone who read the book I edited on Pietism and higher education knows that I would agree that “Liberal education… was intended, above all, for preparation for service to God both in the Church and in society.” (In fact, Gordon’s provost was kind enough to write a preface for that book.) But we can only render that service — “for God’s glory and neighbors’ good,” we’d put it — if the liberal arts liberate us (to quote the Gordon handbook) “from ignorance, parochialism, prejudice and fear.” (Including fear of uncertain future employment in a fast-changing economy!) Its animating impulse is Christian commitment “to the pursuit of God’s truth in its entirety,” for our faith “motivates, sustains and illuminates our understanding of God, ourselves and our natural and social environments.”

Maybe young Christians can continue to pursue “God’s truth in its entirety” without majors in physics, chemistry, history, and philosophy. I’m enough of a historian of education to know that the college major itself is not much more than a century old, and less than that at most colleges and universities. So if nothing else, I think people like me are going to have to do a better job explaining not just why students should study history, but why at least some of them need to be able to major in it — as part of the integrative, multi-disciplinary work of the liberal arts.

(And it might be that not every institution can afford to keep a full array of majors in core arts, humanities, and sciences disciplines. Perhaps my future is to work as part of a consortium, where students from all participating colleges might take a common gen ed history course from me, but only those at one institution would be able to pursue a history major.)

But even if we find that the notion of a major field within the Christian liberal arts is a temporal construction, we need (again) to understand our spiritual foundations — and how they’re being threatened by economic crisis.

The Gordon faculty handbook statement — which is really an interesting work of intellectual history, presumably written with the help of Gordon historians who taught courses in a History major — starts by observing that Christian colleges like Gordon

appear to have evolved as the Church sought to respond to the succession of crises with which it has been confronted. Characteristically, the rationale seems to have come after the experience…. the Church is only now developing its rationale for what it had earlier established on the basis of pragmatics and its best instincts.

While it admits that the “American liberal arts college has seldom been free from the cross-currents of professional, pre-professional and vocational education,” the statement draws on centuries of history to articulate rationale far older than such crisis experiences. It seeks to provide the Christian liberal arts with “a well-developed conceptual framework” having deep “historical roots.”

I’d like to think that that same spirit animated the decisions announced yesterday. I’ve been on a prioritization committee myself; I understand how impossible that work is and want to be charitable about the intentions behind it. But the outcomes — and prevalence of language imported from the business world — leave me feeling like Gordon, in responding to a “succession of crises,” has provided rationale after the experience.

And if we’re not careful and courageous, other flagship institutions in Christian higher education are going to join Gordon in moving further down a path(way) in which disciplined study of the truth from a multitude of perspectives is not regarded as essential or permanent, but contingent on the caprices of late capitalism.