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Nancy Falciani White

 The role of information literacy in a Christian liberal arts education

Nancy Falciani-WhiteThe goals of a liberal arts education are commonly agreed to be the creation of a well-rounded individual and the preparation of that individual for a life of engagement and continual learning that will continue after graduation. If, as John Henry Newman proposes, well-rounded individuals are created through the development of the “habits of mind,” then it is understood that the liberal arts education is primarily focused on providing the foundation for the rest of a student’s life. Such an education, as Newman describes it, and as we commonly experience it, is an intellectual tradition within which scholars who are passionate about their disciplines guide students in a general introduction to those disciplines. Originally intended for the free and wealthy men of ancient Greece, the ideal purpose of a liberal arts education is to foster the love knowledge and to encourage students to seek truth for the pure joy that they gain from that pursuit.

A Christian liberal arts education augments this purpose by preparing students for a life of engagement and learning in order that they may further the kingdom of God on earth. The pursuit of knowledge and Truth, defined as reality as it exists in God, is not done for its own sake, but so that God can be glorified through an accurate understanding of the created world and its social, political, scientific, aesthetic, economic, and theological complexities. Ultimately, the Christian liberal arts education is preparation for a life of submission to Christ and His Truth, through which true freedom can be attained.

Because so much of a Christian liberal arts education is preparation for life following graduation, attention must be given to the world that students will face after they receive their diplomas. What will students find when they attempt to pursue knowledge and Truth outside of the guidance of their experienced professors? One of the challenges they will face is the tremendous amount of digital and physical information that is available. The world’s digital information more than doubles every two years.[1] This has serious ramifications for the average person: how much information in needed to adequately address a question? How can so much information be managed and stored? How can one identify Truth in the midst of so much distraction? The danger of having access to so much information is that one can easily succumb to information overload. This often manifests itself as frustration and even disengagement from certain topics or communities. Disengagement occurs when one despairs of ever finding the Truth, and comes to believe that he or she cannot learn enough to be able to contribute or engage in a meaningful way. The implications of these possibilities for Christians are severe, since we are called to be a light in the darkness and to spread His Truth throughout creation. A person overwhelmed by the possibilities and options that so much information represents is often paralyzed, unable to make a choice and unable to commit fully to movement in any single direction. Such an individual is not free to discern, let alone follow, the will of God. Developing the skills needed to interact with this plethora of information wisely and responsibly is essential for a thoughtful and engaged Christian life.

Interacting with all this information involves not only the identification of the many views, biases, and perspectives which can be found surrounding any topic, but also critical analysis to discern how those views, biases, and perspectives relate to one’s own worldview. The careful engagement that is required to identify and analyze useful information is something that must be learned—it is not inherently understood and practiced. If students are not given the skills necessary to thoughtfully interact with information-saturated world they will encounter after graduation, they will be limited in their ability to engage the world in a meaningful way. One of the ways in which this interaction with information can be taught in a liberal arts environment is through intentional instruction in information literacy.

Information literacy is the ability to articulate a problem, identify what information is needed to address that problem, and then locate, evaluate, and ethically use that information.[2] Unfortunately, these skills are often viewed as obvious, things that students can and should pick up on their own, or worse, seen as remedial. Many students enter college without these skills, and despite their own strong belief that they have these skills, research shows that many students leave college having written numerous papers, but unable to engage with information in a way that prepares them to independently and competently function in the information society they will face upon graduation. Students must be taught how to consider, use, and manage information if they hope to be informed and contributing members of a community, because these skills contribute, sometimes significantly, to an individual’s ability to learn and discern Truth.

Experience in applying these skills is especially essential to a Christian liberal arts education because within that context we recognize that having the freedom and opportunity to pursue a liberal arts education is a gift, a blessing that many take for granted. Yet like many blessings, it comes with a responsibility. Students who receive such an education have a responsibility to use that education to seek and use Truth to further the kingdom of God. Given the role it plays in preparing students to successfully navigate the vast amount of information that they will encounter following graduation, and because encountering tremendous amounts of information is an almost inevitable component of life in today’s society, information literacy is an important piece of any Christian liberal arts education that is intent on preparing students to attain freedom in Christ through submission to His Truth.               

[1] Gantz, J. and Reinsel, D. (2011). Extracting value from chaos. Retrieved from http://www.itu.dk/people/rkva/2011-Fall-SMA/readings/ExtractingValuefromChaos.pdf

[2] American Library Association. Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. Final Report. (Chicago: American Library Association, 1989.) Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/publications/whitepapers/presidential