What Is a Liberal Arts College? (Jim Beilby)

Last month I dedicated an issue of my new Substack newsletter to criticizing the decision by Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota to eliminate its majors in art, English, history, music, Spanish, theater, and theology. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” I wrote, “if you can’t sustain meaningful programs of study in history, languages, and fine arts, you’re no longer a liberal arts college.”

Today I’m happy to share what he calls a “conflicted response” to my argument from my friend and Bethel colleague, theologian Jim Beilby. Look for my follow-up next week.

A friend of mine and I occasionally play a little game where we ascribe numbers to various public figures. These numbers indicate the percentage of times we find ourselves agreeing with the opinions of that figure. For me, C. S. Lewis is a 99, David Brooks is a 93, and Alex Jones is a 1. I give Jones a 1 not because he has actually said anything that I have agreed with, but because I leave open the possibility that he will accidentally say something that isn’t entirely false. I’m willing to be surprised.

Similarly, I give Lewis a 99 only because I’m not quite ready to argue for his inerrancy. I consider it at least possible that he could be wrong on a few things. My friend Chris Gehrz isn’t quite in Lewis territory, but he’s at least a 90. As such, I was borderline flabbergasted to find myself in disagreement with his recent post, “It’s Not a Liberal Arts College If It Doesn’t Have Liberal Arts Majors.”

If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you do so. In this post he argues that having a general education curriculum that includes study of the liberal arts isn’t enough. If a college wishes to call itself a liberal arts college, it must have liberal arts majors.

I want Chris to be right. In fact, as a theology professor whose secondary loves are philosophy and history, it might even be said that I need Chris to be right. But I am, at least initially, reluctantly convinced that he is not right. And a disagreement of this rarity and magnitude deserves some serious thought.

Saint Mary’s, whose main campus is in Winona, MN, is one of six Lasallian Catholic colleges and universities in the United States – photo by Chris Gehrz

First, a clarification. I don’t think Chris is claiming only that a liberal arts college must have some majors in the liberal arts and I also don’t think that he is claiming that a liberal arts college ceases to be as soon as they abandon one of the majors that has been a part of the liberal arts. For example, it seems plausible that a college might still be considered a liberal arts institution if they chose not to offer a major in French literature. Rather, I think Chris is claiming that a liberal arts institution must have some appropriate range of liberal arts majors: Philosophy, History, English, Theology, etc.

This is a sensible claim, one with some intuitive merit, but I think there is a solid argument against it. The problem with Chris’s claim is best seen by comparing two hypothetical institutions.

Institution 1 has a stripped down, bare minimum gen ed with very few liberal arts classes. Moreover, many of the gen ed classes are taught not by professors in the liberal arts, but by Business professors or Nursing professors and often on topics at least tangentially related to those majors – “LIT311: Literature of Business CEOs.” But Institution 1 has all the necessary liberal arts majors. This allows a few students per year to graduate with a major in philosophy, a few more in English Literature, etc.

Jim’s long list of publications includes this 2021 book from InterVarsity Press, exploring the possibility of salvation after death

Institution 2 doesn’t have a few of those liberal arts majors (say, they eliminated their Religious Studies and English Literature majors), but they have a robust gen ed curriculum that requires students majoring in Business, Physics, Nursing, etc. to take classes in History, Philosophy, English, and Theology. And maybe not just a single class, but a couple. In these classes they would be taught by experts in these fields, not just adjuncts who “took a course on business ethics back in grad school.”

Truth be told, I want an institution that has both a robust liberal arts gen ed and the full range of majors in the liberal arts, but the salient point is that I’m not sure that I could make the case that Institution 1 is the “real” liberal arts college and clearly better than Institution 2. In fact, I’d make the case that Institution 2 was better in terms of the liberal arts than Institution 1. And the simple reason for this is that while Institution 1 allows a very few students to go deep in the liberal arts, the breadth of impact of the liberal arts in Institution 2 is greater. Of course, the details here really matter. How robust is the gen ed? How few English majors is too few? And answering these questions is genuinely difficult. But if what I have said is correct — if we are unlikely to keep both liberal arts majors and a robust gened and if there is a reason to prefer Institution 2 to Institution 1 — it seems reasonable for those of us teaching at liberal arts institutions to shift our attention away from trying to make the argument for keeping majors that graduate two students per year to defending the robustness of the liberal arts in our gen ed curriculum.

I think that this argument, as far as it goes, is correct. In terms of the liberal arts, a robust gen ed curriculum covers a multitude of sins, perhaps even the loss of some liberal arts majors. But, as I indicated, I’m conflicted about this response. I’m conflicted because I hate the fact that this argument might be correct, but there is another more important sense in which I am conflicted about this argument. I think that this argument works in the abstract, but not in the real world of 21st century higher ed. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Jim, I hasten to add, not only teaches theology courses at Bethel, but is part of the multidisciplinary liberal arts team that teaches Christianity and Western Culture, a cornerstone of our gen ed curriculum. Here he is last year taking part in a CWC review game, debating the significance of key figures from early modern history with his son, a History and Philosophy major who serves as a CWC teaching assistant — (not-great) photo by Chris Gehrz

My argument calls for a strategic retreat. Instead of doubling down on protecting liberal arts majors (and seeking to maintain Institution 1), we would seek to protect a robust gen ed (thereby maintaining Institution 2). This strategic retreat only makes sense if we feel confident that we will be able to hold the line at Institution 2. The problem is that in higher ed, the current trend isn’t merely toward either Institution 1 or 2, but toward Institution 3: a school that doesn’t have liberal arts majors, has a stripped-down gen ed, and has adjuncts teach many of the liberal arts classes that are offered. Even worse, for purely marketing reasons, some of these schools continue to call themselves liberal arts institutions.

Why is this? The reasons are complex, but here is one very important reason. Institutions that abandon liberal arts majors do so not because they have a deep-seated hatred for Philosophy or English, but because they want to save money. Eliminating these majors means that they can cut professors who teach under-enrolled upper-level classes in Philosophy or English. So, to state the obvious, fewer liberal arts majors means fewer liberal arts professors. In 2008 my department had 15 members. Today we have eight. Next year, we might have six or seven. And while I don’t have the exact numbers, I’m certain we have significantly increased the number of Engineering, Nursing, Biokinetics, and Business faculty.

Here’s the problem: the faculty control the curriculum. But over the last 15 years, the makeup of the faculty has changed radically. And if liberal arts majors continue to be cut and if other programs continue to grow, it will continue to change. While I’d like to believe that a majority of the faculty that remain after these cuts will continue to value a robust presence of the liberal arts in the gen ed curriculum, I’d be a fool to think that was true. I know a few Engineering and Business faculty who believe in the value of the liberal arts, but they are not common. And even fewer are willing to risk their relationships with departmental colleagues by speaking publicly in favor of maintaining an expensive emphasis on the liberal arts. In fact, in such a context one could find it hard to blame the few liberal arts professors that remain if they “keep their head down” and hope they make it to retirement.

So even if a case can be made for preferring Institution 2 to Institution 1, I think that in the real world the loss of liberal arts majors puts a college on a direct path to Institution 3. There is, I fear, no stopping at Institution 2. And while some administrators may still try to market Institution 3 as a liberal arts college, it is not a liberal arts college. It is a wildly over-priced technical college.

Dang, I guess Chris was right after all.