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How Well Can Christian Colleges Teach Liberal Arts?

Sep 15, 2011

In a recent 'Philanthropy Daily' editorial called 'Illiberal Education and the 'New College' Problem,' author Naomi Schaefer Riley wonders whether some newer, small Christian schools can truly deliver a liberal arts education, regardless of their purported mission. Can a school so enmeshed in the philosophy of the religious right really be considered a beacon of liberal arts?

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by Eric Garneau

christian college liberal arts

Liberal Schools, Conservative Leaders

When we think of liberal arts schools, we probably conjure up images of a small, tucked-away campus where students learn to embrace freedom of thought by studying a variety of disciplines. We likely imagine that these students are taught to take a critical look at the world, reject any easy analyses that come to mind and challenge preconceived notions of why things are the way they are. If the students in our hypothetical image are a little radical, we might be forgiven - liberal arts schools do tend to foster thinking on the left of the political spectrum, after all.

But then we've got to consider liberal schools with a religious focus. Surely this isn't always true, but often it would seem that religious schools occupy the opposite end of the political divide. If that's an unfortunate stereotype, it's bolstered by schools like Manhattan's King's College, the very school Riley singles out in her editorial. Last year King's College named as its president Dinesh D'Souza, a noted hyper-conservative author responsible for tracts like The Root of Obama's Rage and The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. No one will be accusing D'Souza of having liberal sympathies any time soon.

It's possible, of course, that D'Souza's own politics have little to no bearing on the day-to-day operations of King's College. But if we check the school's website, we can see what could reasonably be called traditional conservative values filtering in to every aspect of the school. Consider the school's statement of its process: 'the College teaches a compelling worldview rooted in the Bible and informed by close study of great works of philosophy, political theory and economics.' Or its mission: 'We pursue academic excellence for the sake of building God's kingdom as an unapologetically Christian college.' Or its view of one of the cores of a liberal education, rational thought: 'Reason is a valuable tool to affirm the truths of God and creation.' In light of their philosophies, some might find their motto almost terrifying: 'It's not about what to think but how to think.'

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A Major Christian Liberal Arts Presence

Of course, King's is far from the only liberal arts school with a deeply religious affiliation. The Princeton Review recently published a list of the ten most conservative U.S. colleges, those with the largest population of right-leaning students. Four of the ten were classified by U.S. News & World Report as liberal arts schools, including the institutions taking the top two spots. Of those schools, U.S. News stated that one had a Catholic affiliation (Thomas Aquinas College, #2), two Presbyterian (Grove City College and Hampden-Sydney College, #4 and #8), while only one - Hillsdale College in Michigan, taking the top spot - was reported to have no specific religious affiliation.

So clearly a fair amount of liberal arts schools make a Christian association work for them. But does that give us conservative liberal arts schools? Is that an oxymoron?

It seems to all be a matter of perspective. If we return to the concept of a liberal arts school as one that fosters free-thinking individuals looking to challenge society's preconceived notions, everyone's going to have a different idea of what that entails. For many liberal thinkers, that means looking towards the future, embracing change and, yes, perhaps casting off some religious traditions that have bunked with humankind for ages. But for political and religious conservatives, there's not really any less critical thought going on - they just approach things from the opposite viewpoint. Instead of applying themselves to looking forward, they attempt to restore more traditional ideas of greatness. It's not necessarily 'liberal,' but it involves the same skill set.

Regardless of what side of the political divide you fall on, it seems like a positive thing that schools exist to teach students to critically analyze the world around us. Consider this: even if you think your political opponent is some kind of lunatic, it's the logical discourse and rational argumentation fostered at liberal arts schools that, hopefully, will allow you to come to some common ground. Besides, even the most die-hard lefties would have to admit that if everyone was taught to think the same way, the world would become pretty boring.

Interested in helping to bridge the conservative/liberal divide? Perhaps a career in politics is right for you.

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