The Liberal Arts—Present, Past, and Future

by Will Katerberg.

word cloud 2The liberal arts and their fate are a central issue in higher education today.

Pundits and politicians, and some parents, students, and graduates, are questioning the value of a university degree, some of them saying that students and taxpayers should not waste money on “useless” areas of study. Students seem to be voting with their feet and tuition dollars, with the arts and humanities and some social sciences losing students and professional programs and STEM fields gaining them.

Defenders emphasize the intrinsic worth of the liberal arts—of both specific disciplines and a general “liberal” approach to education. Students should study what they love, valuing what they study for its own sake. Defenders also argue that the “soft” skills associated with things like art history or French language and literature allow graduates to adapt over decades to new kinds of work and new cultural settings and make wise decisions about social and political issues. The technical skills that students learn in “practical” fields become out-of-date soon after students graduate, some advocates of the liberal arts say, or irrelevant when graduates move on to other careers.

Scientist and dinosaur with the caption "Science can tell you how to clone a tyrannosaurus rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea."A small chorus of voices are beginning to bridge this liberal arts “culture war.” They observe that students and society need more than “STEM” education (science, technology, engineering, and math). They need “STEAM” or “STREAM” education, which incorporates the arts and humanities, the “A” standing for arts, the “R” for reading (or in some discussions, religion and values). One might add that technical skills, in digital tools for example, are good things for graduates in the humanities, social sciences, and arts to have.

Critics of the liberal arts often display an ignorance of the history about that tradition, which perhaps is not a surprise.  Much the same is true of many defenders, however, for whom the liberal arts seem almost a timeless ideal, not a messy, contingent, and evolving set of human practices.

There is much to learn from the history of the liberal arts, for its own sake and for pragmatic reasons. Specifically, the liberal arts tradition is a diverse, even discontinuous one. What people mean by “liberal arts” today is not the same thing as in the past.

The liberal arts go back to ancient Greece (400s BC) and migrated to the Rome. Already in ancient times there were two distinct streams, according to Bruce Kimball, the historian who has written the most about this history (in the English language). The older stream, he argues, emphasized rhetoric, grammar, and composing and delivering speeches in the democratic public life of city-states in Greece and in the Roman republic. A practical stream. The other stream, associated with Plato and Aristotle, emphasized reason and rational methods of pursuing truth and knowledge. A more purist stream.


The seven liberal arts – Image from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century)

Christians adopted and adapted the liberal arts, especially the rhetorical tradition, in late antiquity and the medieval era. Universities emerged in the high middle ages as a new kind of institution to pursue knowledge and truth. The purist stream grew in influence in Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with the infusion of Aristotle’s texts, commentaries on his writings, and math from the Islamic world. Kimball quotes Pier Paolo Vergerio, who said in 1370, “There are two kinds of liberal ways of life: one which is totally composed of leisure and contemplation, and a second which consists in activity and affairs.”

This evolution continued during the Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment and in colonial colleges in North America and the new American republic. The liberals arts were transformed most dramatically in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with the emergence of modern universities, where new disciplinary fields and methods familiar to us—such as chemistry, psychology, sociology, history, literature, religion, etc.—transformed or displaced traditional areas of study such as Greek and Latin. Ideals of multiculturalism and global perspectives transformed the liberal arts again in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the twentieth century, colleges and universities tried to balance major concentrations in modern disciplines (or a profession such as nursing, engineering or business), electives (mostly in modern disciplines), and “core,” “great books,” or “general education” requirements (mostly in modern disciplines). In recent decades, interdisciplinary fields such as international development and gender, African American, and environmental studies became part of the mix, with a motives that lean toward the practical as much as the purist. The point was not just to study the world but to change it.

Cartoon showing 2 men at a job interview with the caption "We're a very conservative company, we don't hire anyone with a liberal arts degree."Most contemporary approaches to liberal arts education would seem anything but familiar to intellectuals before the mid-nineteenth century. We have folded disciplinary methods associated with the modern university into the “liberal arts” ideal, both where those disciplines are recent in origin and conception and where they have ancient roots. But, if what is studied or how it is studied has changed dramatically, the ancient contested ideals of “liberal education” continue to shape contemporary variations of this diverse, even fragmented tradition. We still tend to pit research and contemplation for their own sake against practical service “in activity and affairs.”

In our current crisis, then, we are playing out age-old, recurring questions. What should students study? Is the purpose of education contemplation or activity?

What lessons does this history—a complex one here boiled down into a few hundred words—offer us today?

Conflicts over STEM vs. “liberal arts,” and proposed hybrids such as “STEAM” or “STREAM,” suggest that the “disruptive” changes in American higher education today involve an evolution, perhaps a revolution, in the liberal arts. Not necessarily their end, however painful the process.

Political cartoon with a map of America, one side that says "brrr" labeled as "Polar Vortex" and the other side pointing to Washington DC with "Polarizing Vortex"Conflicts over climate change suggest how much this revolution matters. We need good science to understand how and why our climate is rapidly changing and to find practical technologies that can help slow (if not reverse) such changes and deal with their consequences. But the most complex problems associated with climate change are human factors. How do we live? Is consumer capitalism sustainable? What do we value? How do we envision the “good life”? Is it about toys and tools like the iPad I’m writing on? Is it about preserving wild forests and rivers and farmland fisheries? How do we decide, as individuals, and as nations and a global species? What price are we willing to pay to address climate change, or what ecology debts are we willing to dump on our progeny?

There’s more than enough need here for contemplation and activity, classical forms of training, modern disciplines and professions, STEM, STREAM, and STEAM, digital arts and traditional ones. So the question is what should liberal arts education look like in the twenty-first century?

William Katerberg’s areas of focus are the history of ideas, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College and an Associate Dean.

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Let Us Now Quote Famous Men

by Jim Bratt.

This post originally appeared in The Twelve: Reformed Done Daily on January 15, 2016.

Martin Luther King Jr speakingAlthough Martin Luther King’s birthday was actually yesterday, the United States will mark the occasion next Monday. Once more we’ll hear the familiar quotations rehearsed in respectful tones. We’ll see footage from the “I have a dream!” speech on the evening news, and we’ll be subjected to pious carping from opponents of affirmative action and Black Lives Matter that King himself scotched such initiatives in his vision of a color-blind society, the one where “people will be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.”

I’ve had quotations on the brain all week from a presentation I had to make on Abraham Kuyper to some new faculty and staff at my college. Fairly quickly the conversation got around to what has become Kuyper’s most famous saying among American evangelicals, namely, that “every square inch” belongs to Christ. I’ve used this space before to rehearse my objections to how this dictum is naïvely invoked by all and sundry. To recapitulate briefly: “every square inch” can be taken as our claim of possession—worse, of entitlement—as if all the earth belongs to us good Christians. In fact, Kuyper said, it belongs to Christ, a different proposition altogether. Plus, the philosophically informed physicist in the room this week pointed out that Kuyper’s original statement exercises a double negative which springs from a particular stream of continental thought and which is essential to its meaning: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

My own pet peeve is that this quotation typically comes without a hint of Kuyper’s strategic thinking, or—far worse—of Jesus’ own directives on the matter. In the first instance, “every square inch” can be taken to rubber-stamp whatever I want to do; after all, it’s all God’s work, and if it fits my ambition and salary demands, all the better. As to the second, here’s how Jesus dispatched his disciples into square-inch land: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Finally, from Kuyper’s own angle, we should rehearse another word he uttered in the same speech in which the square-inch statement appears, so as to take due recognition of who occupies our brave new world: “It cannot be said often enough: money creates power for the one who gives over the one who receives.” American politics anyone?

In short, we cannot capture Kuyper in just one quotation, even if it’s his most famous. Same thing with King. Which leads me to wonder what statements might most aptly be rehearsed this MLK Day in addition to “I have a dream” and “color of their skin/content of their character”? Here are some for your consideration. Each and every one of them would get him pilloried today on hate radio. But that would be a bracing reminder of how King was reviled before assassination turned him into a nice safe saint on the American shelf of exemplary characters. These statements would get his picture back up on the billboard I used to see south of town in the mid-60s: “Martin Luther Communist,” illustrated with an air-brushed photo of King in a circle of known members of that Party. Probably an honorable place to be.

Try these on:

Image of Martin Luther King Jr with the text "I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed, without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today - my own government."“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” Given the fifty years that have passed since he uttered this one, and looking at the current politico-religious scene, I think it’s safe to say that we’re no longer “approaching” but have arrived.

Upset about all those angry voices protesting cops killing black kids—and the rioting that sometimes ensued? “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed, without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”

How’s that golden free-market economy working for you? “One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”

Or take the American war of your choice. It’s been pretty non-stop action since MLK came out against the Vietnam War in 1967: “I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world.… It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.” More precisely about the cost of militarism back home: “This way of settling differences is not just. This business of burning human beings with napalm [drones], of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.”

Then there’s this little foreshadowing about all the denunciations of Obamacare: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

But King was nothing if not relentlessly hopeful, even in the face of the direst prospects. Think a little about the hatemongers of fear and fascism working their lungs on the Republican electorate today. Then listen to King’s last words the night before he was gunned down: “I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.” God send us a leader who’s not fearing any man. Oh, I think we have one. Black too.

“I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”Quotations. We need to cite more than the one or two that allow us to box a leader up for safekeeping and our own assurance. Just one more to conclude with, one that Kuyper said in just so many words as did King: “The end of life is not to be happy, nor to achieve pleasure and avoid pain, but to do the will of God, come what may.” Happy MLK Day.

This post originally appeared on The Twelve: Reformed Done Dailythe blog for Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought. 

Jim Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College, where he teaches courses in world and American history. The focus of his current research is American religion before the Civil War. He recently published a biography of the Dutch theologian and political leader, Abraham Kuyper, who has had an enormous influence on the history of Calvin College. Jim also blogs regularly for The Twelve: Reformed Done Daily.

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ISIS, Terrorism and Refugees: A Teach In

In the days after the terrible news of attacks in Paris and Beirut, members of the history department looked at each other and asked “What can we do?” As we are inundated with stories of terror, violence, and hatred around the world, we struggle as individuals and as communities with how to respond. As historians, we also seek to understand what is happening and how we got here. In response to these recent events, the Calvin history department hosted an old-fashioned “teach in” on December 3, 2015. The idea was to provide a time for Calvin faculty to share their expertise in response to the recent terrorist attacks, the threat of ISIS, and the refugee crisis. We then opened the panel to questions and discussion with an audience of Calvin students, faculty, staff, and community members. The event is now available to watch on YouTube. See below for an excellent summary in the Calvin student newspaper.

ISIS, Terrorism and Refugees: history, medieval studies and middle east club host teach-in

By Juliana Ludema (Chimes Staff Writer)

(This article originally appeared in print in the Calvin Chimes on December 11, 2015)

With the increase in terrorist attacks in recent weeks, the Calvin history department hosted a teach-in titled “ISIS, Terrorism, and Refugees” last week. Professors overviewed the context and strategy of terrorism, described how this relates to Syrian refugees and offered advice for Christians in reacting to this crisis.

Professor Howard of the history department explained the ISIS situation, analyzing the Syrian war and how the lack and breakdown of Syria’s political structure allowed the Islamic state to gain political traction.

He explained that, for most parties involved in the Syrian conflict, ISIS isn’t the top of their agenda; the focus is on the Assad regime and its opponents. Partly because no one was paying attention, ISIS was able to gain so much traction.

Bert de Vries, professor of history and archeology, who had recently returned from his archeological dig site in Umm el-Jimal, Jordan, spoke on the refugee crisis. De Vries spends five months a year at the site, living in the same house as three refugee families and near a refugee camp.

In his talk, he showed pictures of his neighboring refugee children and emphasized how important it is for Christians to help refugees, explaining how many U.S. governors have refused to let in even 10,000 refugees.

Refugees, he argued, are the “irreversible damage of war.” He explained in a separate interview that “these refugees are fleeing from the violence and terrorism that they’re suffering from. … The victims are being blamed for the behavior of those who victimize them.”

This approach, he said, “is not only ignorant but very unjust and, from the point of view of Calvin College, very unchristian.”

He explained, “Refugees have rights as humans, and, as Christians, we have an obligation to help the people who are fleeing for their lives and for their beliefs and principals.”

Jason VanHorn, professor of geography, explained that it’s difficult to define terrorism, showing graphic visualizations of the incidence of terrorist acts as the global terrorism database defines it. With conservative estimates, he said, over 15,000 areas have been affected by terrorism since 9/11 and that there have been over 100,000 people killed and over 200,000 wounded.

In order to help, he said, we must pray and beseech the Lord for peace, learn — perhaps by taking his course on terrorism — and, he said, through learning, “be a person of action who brings renewal to thinking about real problems.”

Professor Joel Westra of political science offered explanation of the strategy of terrorism. Terrorism is not simply senseless violence, he said, but is an “asymmetric strategy” — a strategy used by weak actors to make strong actors vulnerable.

He said one of these strategies is compellence. By committing a violent act against society, the weaker actor compels the state to respond and, in doing so, shows the terrorists’ capability and resolve.

Although terrorist groups use this strategy primarily against democratic states, Westra explained, they also use it to intimidate citizens in the Middle East into siding with them.

Westra explained, “An event like Paris galvanizes attention, but it shouldn’t be the only thing that does. There is far more pervasive widespread suffering through terrorism locally and the effects it’s creating through migration.”

Because foreign policy involves many difficult decisions and often leaves people without clear answers, Westra said, we must “pray for these people who have to make these hard choices.”

Lastly, history professor Frans van Liere described Islam’s part in this, but emphasized that “religion can incite people to violence just as it can inspire them to acts of good.”

Both Christianity and Islam, according to him, have “been marked by periods of military conquest and peaceful periods.” He said, “You can’t compare peaceful times of Christianity to violent times of Islam.”

He questioned why we don’t often hear of the Muslim protests against terrorism. And, he said, “Millions of Muslims are protesting terrorism with their feet; we call them refugees.”

He explained, “Terrorism is a political tactic adopted by many different ideological groups,” not just Islam.

“We stand not as Christians against Muslims,” he said, “but as Christians and Muslims against terrorism.”

He then described factors such as the disillusionment of youth which have encouraged the growth of terrorist groups in the Middle East.

Between the speakers and following the teach-in, there were brief times of questions. Though this brought “a lively discussion,” according to van Liere, some in the audience felt respondents were there to get their points across instead of to listen.

Sophomore Maggie Fayes felt disheartened by how some audience members “had their own papers that they were reading off of that they brought in, so they weren’t even here to listen to what the teach-in was saying, they were just here to bring their point across.”

Hannah Mattson, co-president of the Middle East club, echoed this sentiment:

“I thought [the speakers] pointed out a lot of good things that don’t always get heard in the news and in the media but I wonder how many people actually heard anything that they said.”

Van Liere agreed: “I think some people in the audience came clearly with an agenda and wanted to draw attention to their view of the matter which is, of course good, as long as they don’t monopolize the event.”

Bill and Judy Parr, from Holland, learned about this event through the Grand Valley State Interfaith group. Bill said, “We didn’t want to miss this and we came running right over.”

Judy also felt there were some in the audience who had an agenda, but, she said, “It’s nevertheless a good thing to have this dialogue to increase understanding among ourselves.”

Fayes said she applauded how de Vries focused on the humanity of Arabs, demonstrating they are human through showing pictures. “They’re not just terrorists who are coming to invade the country, like a lot of the respondents seemed to say.”

According to van Liere, “there were a few students there of Arab descent who were clearly encouraged to hear that message because a lot of what they hear is ‘Well, you look Arabic so therefore you must be a terrorist,’ so I think to hear that publicly denied at Calvin sends the message ‘we affirm you, we don’t ostracize you,’ and I think it’s important to hear that message.”

Recent grad Audrey Hughey said she commended van Liere’s remarks “on the importance of really humanizing the situation and humanizing the refugees and the entire world of Islam and to not make the extremists the norm of how we view the religion of Islam.”

Junior Anneke Kapteyn said she “appreciated how they moderated with compassion and insight.”

Mattson agreed. “I think it was a great opportunity to get very knowledgeable, well-thought-out news.”

Lydia Cupery, a junior, said she enjoyed how the teach-in didn’t just focus on an emotional response but offered an educated explanation:

“I think it’s also important to ask the questions of why it happened,” she said, “and not only create a space for the emotions but create a space to learn more about it.”

Van Liere organized this teach-in because, he said, “especially after the Paris attacks, one of the things that I found striking was there was not much public discussion about it at Calvin, while at the same time, in the public media, you can see a lot of anti-Muslim rhetoric, a lot of talk that came out of a fear, and maybe even hatred, so we decided to put this event together as a teach-in … in order to counter those kind of opinions.”

A teach-in, he explained, is different from a forum in how it allows invited speakers to share their expertise instead of mainly revolving around discussion. He explained, “You look at one particular issue from the expertise of the people who are there without actually trying to achieve a variety of political opinions.”

Although, according to van Liere, the panelists hold a variety of viewpoints on what the US response to ISIS should be, they all agree that “ostracizing the Muslim community is not the answer.”

Thanks to Juliana Ludema for her excellent reporting on the event. Thanks also to the many who attended this event, both on campus and via our live stream. 

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