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Brian Howell

Why Christians Have the Best Reasons to Support the Liberal Arts

Brian M. Howell

Brian HowellThe liberal arts have never been very popular. Sure, there was a time when Western formal education was pretty much dominated by the liberal arts ideals – the trivium and the quadrivium – but this was a time when very few people got formal education at all. With the growth of schools in the Western tradition, the sort of people with the economic freedom and social leisure to be educated beyond basic literacy remained a very small population, though most of them were likely to pursue something rather liberal artsy. Fast-forward to the present and a far greater percentage of the world’s population gets formally educated, even well into the late teen years, but the percentage receiving a liberal arts education, let alone attending a liberal arts college, remains fractionally minute.[1]

The Best Argument for Liberal Arts Study Is Theological

Partly this is a marketing problem. It’s hard to explain what a liberal arts education will do for someone’s life. Majoring in philosophy is a harder sell than your degree in Computer Game Design or Lawn and Turf Management. “What in the world will you do with a major in Computer Game Desig…oh, never mind.” Consequently, there is a lot of well-written stuff out there – much of it from the presidents of liberal arts colleges – defining, defending, and explaining the genius of a liberal arts curriculum.[2] And while I agree with most of it, the strongest arguments are not pragmatic ones about how liberal arts majors fare better in the marketplace (though they do), nor philosophical ones about how a liberal arts education will enrich a person’s life (though it does), nor sociological ones about how liberal arts graduates make better citizens (though they do). The best argument supporting a liberal arts education is a theological one that takes the point of education out of the pragmatic, sociological, or psychological roles, into the Kingdom of God. It is specifically the Christian liberal arts that can make the strongest argument for why we, in the church, should be promoting and pursuing the development of liberal arts education.[3]

Definitions of a liberal arts education abound, from strictly historical to contemporary lists.  I won’t take time to detail the conversation, but simply refer to the report from the Carnegie Foundation listing “liberal arts disciplines” as including:

  • English language and literature
  • Foreign languages
  • Letters (e.g., biblical studies/hermeneutics)
  • Life sciences (e.g., biology, environmental studies/ecology)
  • Mathematics
  • Physical and life sciences (e.g., geology, biology, chemistry)
  • Social sciences (e.g., psychology, anthropology, political science, sociology)
  • Visual and performing arts
  • Area and ethnic studies (e.g., Gender studies, Black/African-American studies, American studies)
  • Multi- and interdisciplinary studies
  • Philosophy and religion[4]

Beyond "A Little Bit About Everything"

Of course a strong liberal arts education would not include only one or two of these disciplines, but exposure to and training in many of them. But unlike a popular critique of the liberal arts that people learn, “A little bit about everything” (or “A lot about nothing”), the purpose of this diverse (if not diffuse) education is not to learn a little bit about a lot of things. Consider: ten years from graduation, it is unreasonable to expect that the liberally educated student will remember details from her Continental Philosophy since 1800 class unless she remains immersed in the field. Give her the exam in Introduction to Sociology in which she got an “A” in college, and she’s likely to earn a less impressive score. What she should retain are the habits of mind, the postures of learning, the nature of inquiry, and the social formation gained by interacting in a particular kind of learning community.  What she “learns” is not a body of knowledge, but a way of being in the world; she will be formed into a particular kind of person.

This, of course, is something about which Christians should be passionately concerned. The Apostle Paul enjoins the church to “be not conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” (Rom. 12:2).  This transformation of mind calls for an education in which the entire being, and all realms of knowledge – scientific, social, psychological, artistic – are placed under the authority of Scripture and into the context of the Christian community.

A Reorientation of Values

This is not an argument for a Bible education. Bible Colleges, like technical institutes, work on the premise that if people know the right things (or enough things) then they will do those things well. A number of prominent Christian thinkers have recently addressed what they view as the overemphasis on cognition and so-called worldview among Christians.  From Andy Crouch, to James Davidson Hunter, to James K.A. Smith, these many voices are calling Christians to focus on the ways we inhabit social context, interact with others, and engage in life together.[5]  This is, they argue, the true calling of the Christian, to find ways of best orienting our hearts and lives towards the calling of faithful Christian life.  Our commitment to Christ and His Church demands a reorientation of values from those of the marketplace, nation state, or personal fulfillment, towards transcendent values of the Kingdom. It is for this reason that Christians should be the most enthusiastic supporters of the liberal arts.

Shaping Students' View of the World

In the Christian milieu, the liberal arts are entirely about engendering in the believer habits of mind and heart that produce curiosity, humility, and conviction in our commitment to the Cross of Christ and our desire to share this with an unbelieving world. As part of the Christian liberal arts, the anthropology class teaching comparative economic systems must include the question of how these various systems contribute to shalom.  Students learn to ask of themselves and others how our lives together create wholeness and peace.  The student studying chemistry at a Christian liberal arts school may not continue in the discipline nor even have an interest in retaining the facts of chemical processes, but he will learn to order his thinking and reflect on how the material world, and the values infusing scientific thought and inquiry, simultaneously reflect both God’s good design and the fallen-ness of our world.  In other words, the work students undertake shapes them to view the world in the holistic, interconnected, and spiritually-infused terms as directed by scripture.

There are many essays – Christian and secular - giving a rationale for the liberal arts in more general terms; how they are economically, socially, and psychologically fulfilling in ways that applied fields generally are not.  For the Christian, however, our first commitments should not be to these pragmatic considerations, but to Christ and His Body. Valuing whole persons over technicians, and affirming a call beyond those with evident economic or social payoff, should be the hallmark of Christians thinking about everything we do, not the least of which is our education.

[1] See Farrell, Victor. Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA. 2011), p. 41-44

[2] See, for example, Michael Roth, “Why Liberal Education Matters – A Lecture in Beijing” []; also Robert Skotheim, “Using Liberal Arts to Reverse the Decline of Public Universities.”

[3] I realize that some of what I’ll say could be said generally, as opposed to Christianity in particular. However, the particular theological commitments of Christianity are important here and, while they may have parallels in Islam or Hinduism, I do not have nearly the space nor expertise to flesh that out. I’ll leave that for a liberally educated Muslim or Hindu to take up.

[4] It’s important to note the presence of sciences on this list. This is not about the humanities versus sciences and social sciences, but about studying within disciplines and processes of inquiry versus applied knowledge and vocational training.

[5] Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling (Intervarsity Press, 2007); Hunter, James D. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010); Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009)


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