Archive for February, 2015


The U.S. Senate’s bipartisan “task force” committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), released its report on ways Congress and the U.S. Department of Education could streamline and hopefully reduce federal regulations now overwhelming America’s 6,000 colleges and universities–especially the nation’s approximately 4,000 private institutions–while still protecting students and holding schools accountable to taxpayers.

According to the committee’s press release, “The task force’s objective was to provide specific recommendations on reducing, eliminating or streamlining duplicative, costly or confusing regulations and reporting requirements to Congress and the administration in anticipation of the ninth reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.”

Senate education committee Chairman Alexander said, “The stack of federal regulations on colleges and universities today, which stretches as tall as I am, is simply the piling up of well-intentioned laws and regulations, done without anyone first weeding the garden. This report will guide our efforts to weed the garden and allow colleges to spend more of their time and money educating students, instead of filling out mountains of paperwork.”

Alexander announced a hearing on February 24 to discuss the findings of the report.

You can read the committee’s report here in pdf.

A report in a recent edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education raises this and other important questions about the state of undergraduate specialization in American higher ed. For example, “how often do graduates end up working in fields unrelated to their major? Frequently, it turns out.”

The article rightly notes that “College officials, of course, think that the specific discipline students pursue matters little to their ultimate success because so many people end up working in fields unrelated to their college major.”

Unfortunately, the article goes on to report that “majors don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. In fact, students keep getting more of them to choose from. Colleges have sliced and diced academic disciplines in many different ways in the last two decades to create clusters of new majors. From 2000 to 2010, the number of majors on campuses increased by some 20 percent, according to data collected by the U.S. Education Department.”

Read more here.

If today’s social, cultural, political and economic myopia is due in large part to the failure of today’s post-secondary institutions to educate the next generation broadly, not just in narrow academic or vocational specializations, as I suggested in my last post, “Through a Pipe Darkly,” then the pressing challenge is how to correct that problem.

How can the academy help restore our peripheral vision?  How can it recover a perspective that is integrative rather than intrinsically fragmented? That may be a tough challenge, given the assumptions of our increasingly secular and crudely pragmatic society, but I believe the place to start (but not end) is recovering the Christian liberal arts.

The liberal arts have been mocked pretty mercilessly over the past 50+ years (you know, English majors are highly qualified to work at McDonald’s, etc.), but those cheap shots are born of a smugness that doth protest too much. For one thing, the common undergraduate liberal arts experience today has little or no resemblance to the historic liberal arts known before WWII. What goes by the liberal arts label now is little more than a random cluster of isolated courses that focus as narrowly and myopically as any professional training program (e.g., accounting, engineering, etc.). They lack almost universally any intentionally integrative, connective ties to the rest of their closest liberal arts curricular kin. Yet, I’d submit that without such an integrative relationship in the liberal arts, those studies are neither liberal nor an art–just more weak training to produce future widgets for our political and economic machinery.

For another thing, the claims about the the job placement of those graduating in supposedly “real majors” (meaning not in the liberal arts) have been so exaggerated (especially by self-interested academic departments trying lure unsuspecting students and their parents into their lair), so absurd, that it is a standing joke on most campuses.

Again, just ask any modest-sized group of folks to raise their hands if they majored in college, and then have them keep their hands up if they still work in the field of their major. Watch all the hands go down and the laughter begin. The proportion of those dropping their hands who studied outside the liberal arts will be as high or higher as those who majored within the liberal arts. A 2009 National Science Foundation study found, for example, that only about 38 percent of those who majored in the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math–often touted as exemplary “real majors” that lead to “real jobs”) still work in “their field” after just a few short years.

If one is going to mock majors, one must compare apples to apples and salaries to salaries over an entire working life.  When you do, it’s pretty hard for most majors to be very smug when matching up to liberal arts grads (even with their rather fragmented approach today). They all suffer from largely the same problem and that approach is helpful neither to the workplace nor for recovering peripheral vision in the public sphere.

But regardless of the job prospects for liberal arts grads, the integrative liberal arts, as historically understood and taught, are crucial to recovering peripheral vision in our collective public and social lives, and the body politic.

The Corrective Lens of the Classical and Christian Liberal Arts

The university was a Christian invention in the Middle Ages (the earliest established between A.D. 1100 and 1200), designed to give students a holistic vision of the world and a foundation for future learning. That was the original purpose of the classical liberal arts (meaning, the arts necessary to be a free citizen and not merely a slave trained to perform tasks for others, as Aristotle explained long ago). For almost a millennium, Christian universities taught the classical liberal arts–sometimes known as the seven liberal arts which were divided into the Trivium and Quadrivium:

    • The Trivium, or the Three Ways, stressed the good structure of language (Grammar), the way to discern truth (Logic), and the way to express truth beautifully and persuasively (Rhetoric)—all to encourage a student’s life-long love of goodness, truth, and beauty with respect to words and language, as typified by The Word Himself (see John 1:1-14).
    • The Quadrivium, or the Four Ways, encouraged a life-long love of goodness, truth, and beauty in the right use of numbers (Arithmetic), numbers in space (Geometry), numbers in time (Music or Harmony), and numbers in space and time (Astronomy). Numbers examined in these ways reveal the unity and diversity of creation and of our Triune Creator Himself (Deut. 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one,” and Matt. 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”).

Together, the Trivium and Quadrivium, the original seven liberal arts, offered students essential insights into the harmony and wholeness of God’s gloriously diverse world and into the interrelated truth, goodness and beauty of its Triune Creator. They didn’t just give students isolated or fragmented information, “facts” or technical skills for a job or function in the economy, but the crucial tools for lifelong learning across  many (perhaps all) fields and situations–and from a distinctively Christian perspective.

An education that does not teach us how to see the wholeness of God’s creation, and to equip us to understand how all things cohere in Christ, inevitably misses the big picture about creation and creation’s God. It is a partial, incomplete, distorted education. It is myopic and lacks peripheral vision.

What an integrated Christian liberal arts education provides is the framework and perceptual skills to see both broadly (peripherally) and to see how one thing connects or relates to another. It gives students the essential tools for learning that apply to all their various callings as sons and daughters, spouses, parents, neighbors, citizens, providers, voters, buyers and sellers in the marketplace, and parishioners. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Kuyper, C.S. Lewis—all the greatest leaders in our Christian tradition—were so educated in the traditional, integrative liberal arts of the Trivium and Quadrivium.

An education in the classical Christian liberal arts is certainly no panacea by itself, but it is a start–an important and absolutely crucial start–to recovering the peripheral vision we have lost in our secularizing culture and in the Christian community. Simply getting more of higher ed as usual, more of today’s highly specialized and fragmented university education, will only deepen our spiritual decline and exacerbate our current social, cultural, political, and economic myopia.