Category: Liberal Arts

May 14, 2015: Ascension Day/Commencement Day

Final Charge to the New Saint Andrews College Class of 2015

Dr. Roy Alden Atwood
Past President and Senior Fellow of Humanities 

Members of the Class of 2015:


As your former college president, it is my privilege to give you, as former college students, your final charge. Put another way, this is the final word of one has-been to the latest class of NSA has-beens.

You have been a good class and it should probably be you up here instead of me.

After all, you finished your work at NSA in about four years or less; it took me more than 20 years to finish mine.

But whether our Moscow captivity has been two years or 20, this is a glorious occasion, fittingly punctuated by the fact that today is Ascension Day.

The Ascension is, sadly, the most neglected, least understood, and least celebrated part of the redemptive story in the church today.

Tim Chester & Jonny Woodrow, in their delightful little book, The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God (2013), explain why, when they write,

“Let’s be honest: the ascension of Jesus is weird.”

It seems strange indeed to most of us that the final act of Jesus’s earthly ministry should be him floating off into the clouds and out of sight.

But it only seems weird until you realize that it was the capstone moment of Jesus’s earthly ministry that was absolutely essential for our redemption.

It was the Second Adam returning, with us who are in Him, to the fellowship and very presence of God the Father.

It was the Second Moses returning to the impenetrable cloud on the Mount.

Without Christ’s ascension there is no consummation to our salvation, no Holy Spirit, no great commission.

We’d be like the prodigal son returning, being forgiven, even given a new life, but then receiving our Father’s cold shoulder with no celebratory feast, no reconciliation. That would be even weirder.

So the ascension is weird, but only in the most redemptive and glorious sense.

And I believe there are some interesting parallels between the ascension story and our story here as those who have completed our work at New Saint Andrews today:

  • Just as it was not enough for Jesus to merely take on human flesh at his incarnation, it was not enough for you to have merely been admitted to NSA—more was needed.
  • Just as it was not enough for Jesus to merely suffer and die on the cross, it was not enough for you to merely suffer through all those classes, books, declamations, recitations, Disputatios, lectures, papers and a thesis —more was needed.
  • Just as it was not enough for Jesus to merely rise from the dead on the third day, it was not enough for you to merely complete your graduation requirements and to receive your diploma today—more is still needed.

One more thing was required of Jesus after the resurrection, just as one more thing is required of you after graduation.

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he took his incarnate-crucified-and-resurrected human body and restored redeemed humanity to full fellowship with our Heavenly Father. By his ascension we now have the full rights and inheritance as adopted sons and daughters of the Lord of the Universe.

In a similar way, if you were only admitted, studied and graduated from the College, then your story would be radically incomplete.

What you must now do is rise to the occasion as those who have been admitted-educated-and-graduated, and go forth faithfully and joyfully to serve our Ascended King and his Kingdom as alumni of New Saint Andrews. This is your ascension moment.

St. Paul put it this way, in Colossians 3

(1) If then you have been raised with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (2) Set your minds on things above, not on things on earth. (3) For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

So my final, three-fold charge to all of us who bid New Saint Andrews farewell today is this:

  1. Remember that, just as Jesus’s final act of ascending to heaven was to reconcile fallen humanity to God the Father, once and for all, so too you, as alumni of New Saint Andrews and the adopted children and heirs of the King of kings, must be busy doing the Kingdom work of declaring the crown rights of Jesus over every square inch of all that exists.

If you are in Christ, this is your call. If you are an NSA alumnus, this is your call.

If we fall short of that, then our NSA experience and your graduation today will have been in vain.

  1. Second, never allow any friends, spouse, child, family, clan, college, career, congregation, community, nation, ideology, or dream to displace our First Love and highest priority. Let nothing in our lives or devotions distract us from our chief end to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.
  2. And finally, be weird. That will probably be easy for some of you. But remember each Ascension Day, the anniversary of our Last Day at NSA, that what seems weird is sometimes the most important and necessary and glorious thing of all.

When everyone else is taking the easy road to success or fame, be weird by choosing a more faithful direction.

When everyone else is camping only where it is safe, and comfortable, and smugly self-satisfied, then be weird and pack up your tent and follow the path Abraham took.

Go where there is the greatest need, rather than where you can make the most money.

Go where your gifts and abilities can best serve the least in Christ’s Kingdom, rather than producing one more widget for some godless corporation.

And be shapers, not consumers of culture—for Christ’s sake.

In doing so, we will, together, fulfill the mission and capstone experience of New Saint Andrews, namely, to become “leaders who shape culture through wise and victorious Christian living.”

Class of 2015, I hope every Ascension Day hereafter will remind you of your chief end and greatest privilege.

Make this your own ascension moment. Rise to the occasion. Take your rightful place next to Christ’s ascended side and advance his kingdom to every corner of Creation.

May our Ascended Lord guide and bless you all your days. And may they be many, joyful, fruitful and wonderfully weird.

God bless you!

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray:

Holy Father,
Holy Spirit,
Holy and Ascended Lord,

We thank you for these graduates who worked so hard and faithfully these past few years. Bless them for their labors.

Go before them.
Guide them.
Protect them.
And most of all embolden them to serve you all their days without fear or faltering.

Make these graduates, as your adopted children, to be like their ascended Lord:

humble in spirit,
pure in faith,
self-sacrificial in love,
fervent in godliness,
steadfast in the truth, and ever joyful in hope, according to the sure promises of your Word.

Lord, thank you, too, for their families, especially their parents, who sacrificed so much that these graduates might be better prepared for service in your kingdom.

Multiple their blessings 10- and 100-fold for their faithful nurturing of these children you entrusted to them.

Now dismiss us with your Triune blessing, we pray,

In the strong name of our ascended Lord, Jesus,



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.


Academic specialization and task-specific career training has had the unintended negative consequence of narrowing and restricting our culture’s perspective on the world. That “narrow-sightedness” spawns narrow-mindedness and decreases our ability to anticipate and adapt to change, to think creatively “outside the box,” or to engage meaningfully, fruitfully with others outside our own narrow spheres. This approach to education and training has produced fewer, not more, creative problem solvers and visionary leaders and weakened our social, political and ecclesiastical communities. We have a generation that knows only how to look through a pipe darkly. As a culture, we have no peripheral vision. It is self-inflicted cultural blindness.

The modern university has made academic and vocational specialization a cultural norm.

College students are pressed from Day One (of high school actually) to declare-and fixate-on their “majors,” their supposedly long-term career goals, as if little else mattered. Short-sighted businesses and HR offices look for graduates who can fill the pigeon hole of immediate need. They often treat graduates (from assembly-line degree mills) like replaceable parts. If the freshly minted graduate doesn’t work out so well, they toss him or her out and grab another narrowly trained fresh-faced widget off the academic shelf.

The results have not been pretty.

We do not have better educated students, a more skilled workforce, or a more informed citizenry. Instead, we have a generation of mostly instrumental functionaries with tunnel vision. They may know how to look through and navigate the tiny world within the narrow confines of “their little pipe,” their niche area of specialization, but they are pretty much useless beyond it. There they are condemned to be little more the dutiful consumers of the commodities of our increasingly secular culture. They have not been equipped to be makers or shapers of culture. To the contrary, they don’t have right intellectual breadth or cultural horsepower for that higher level of engagement.

But they can feel pretty darn good about themselves when compared to the bar set by “Dumb and Dumber To” in the theaters.

Academic specialization and task-specific career training has had the unintended negative consequence of narrowing and restricting our culture’s perspective on the world. That “narrow-sightedness” spawns narrow-mindedness and decreases our ability to anticipate and adapt to change, to think creatively “outside the box,” or to engage meaningfully, fruitfully with others outside our own spheres of training and function. This approach to education and training has weakened our social, political and ecclesiastical communities to such an extent that it will take years to repair the damage, even if we could change things tomorrow.

We have a generation of university graduates who know only how to look through a pipe darkly. As a culture, we have no peripheral vision. Ours is self-inflicted cultural blindness.

Historically, the integrated classical Christian liberal arts have provided the world with men and women who have peripherial vision, who see the relationships between different aspects of life, who can anticipate change, who solve problems creatively, and who understand the bigger picture. The liberal arts help them understand where they are on the map of life and creation, where they’re headed, and why. Classical liberal arts graduates are some of the few who have a wide-angle perspective and peripheral vision to lead and to shape culture today. We need more. Many more.

Next Entry: Recovering Peripheral Vision 

Luke Sheahan, a professor at the Catholic University of America, has written an article (Humanitas, Vol. XXV, Nos. 1 & 2, 2012, pp. 44-65) outlining two different approaches to academic freedom, one articulated by Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind (1953) and the other following William F. Buckley, one of conservatism’s more articulate firebrands and author of God and Man at Yale (1951). The comparison is instructive on how conservatives remains divided: one side embraces power (just like liberals), only for use in opposition to its arch political antagonist; the other embraces the idealism inherent in rationalism (just like liberalism), without recognizing that deeply engrained cultural practices often/usually trump the most noble ideas (and ideals). Sheahan sums up the differences between their positions this way:

“The primary difference between Kirk and Buckley is that Buckley sees in academic freedom only a dissembling mechanism used effectively by the left and the irreligious to conceal the true power struggles in academia. Hence he argues that conservatives must tear the mask off that struggle and assert their own power.  Kirk defends the pursuit of what is higher in human life than base material existence, including temporal power in the academy. It is possible for an institution to protect the search for thruth for its porfessors as Guardians of the Word.  Kirk does not deny that many professors use academic freedom to cover their own indoctrination efforts just as Buckley decries. But all that is not naked power is not necessarily dissembling rhetoric.  There can be a place where the mind and the higher imagination are cultivated in a spirit of prescriptive freedom, where a community of scholars pursues truth in its particular manifestation without hindrance. This is the dignity of the academy that is inherited from humanity’s long search for truth, and it still enlivens the philosophers in its midst. This is Russell Kirk’s conservative vision for academic freedom.”

For Sheahan’s full article, click here.

Thx:  Micah Matix/Prufrock

This terrific graphic by Ben Schmidt is a terrific visualization of how college majors pursue various careers and professions. The data behind the graphic is from the American Community survey. The left side identifies the college majors (in large groupings) and the right side shows the common professions actually pursued by these graduates.

The width of each stream shows how many people with a particular major are working in that field. Hold your cursor over the graph to follow specific subfields and career trajectories.

Schmidt has also broken down the data more narrowly to specific subspecializations here.  And he has another graphic showing the change of college degrees over time.

Graphic: Majors to careers visualization.

Thx to Micah Mattix and Prufrock at The American Conservative

A new long-term report indicates that liberal arts graduates may start off slower than their undergraduate peers who specialize in other fields, but they tend to make up ground over the years and make more money than those who studied professional and pre-professional programs by the time they reach their mid-50s. The study was a joint effort by Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

According to a story in Inside Higher Ed,

“Liberal arts majors may start off slower than others when it comes to the postgraduate career path, but they close much of the salary and unemployment gap over time, a new report shows.

“By their mid-50s, liberal arts majors with an advanced or undergraduate degree are on average making more money than those who studied in professional and pre-professional fields, and are employed at similar rates. But that’s just one part of the paper’s overall argument that concerns about the value of a liberal arts degree “are unfounded and should be put to rest. [emphasis added]

“That’s a myth out there – that somehow if you major in humanities, you’re doomed to be unemployed for the rest of your life. This suggests otherwise,” said Debra Humphreys, a co-author of the report and vice president for policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “That sort of journey to professional success is more of a marathon than a sprint.”

The report, “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment,” includes U.S. Census data from 2010 and 2011 . . . . Humphreys and her co-author, Patrick Kelly, a senior associate at NCHEMS, looked at long-term career path and salary data as an answer to the many short-term studies on recent graduates that have fueled the assertion that liberal arts graduates are disproportionately un- or underemployed.”

For the full Inside Higher Ed article, go here: How liberal arts grads really fare, report examines long-term data.

The U.S. Census Bureau released a new report tracking non-college-degree credentials in the marketplace. According to the report, 50 million adults hold some form of non-degree-based credential that qualifies them for employment and boosts their earnings.

What this report also suggests, though doesn’t state, is that a college degree isn’t the only ticket to the workforce or lucrative employment. The necessity of a college degree for employment or professional career has been highly overrated and overstated, especially by higher ed industry itself, for years. Moreover, the report weakens the decades-long criticisms by vocationalists and academic specialists against a liberal arts education as an obstacle to meaningful and fruitful employment.

The Census report notes that 11.2 million adults, who have a high school diploma or less, earned professional certificates or licenses without a college degree. Approximately 5 percent of working-age Americans have not attended college, yet have earned some form of work-related professional credential beyond high school.

According to the report, “If this alternative credential were incorporated into an expanded measure of education, these 11.2 million people might be recategorized into the ‘more than high school’ category, representing a shift of almost 5 percent of the adult population.”

The report also showed that those who hold non-degree credentials have the potential for higher earnings. Generally, full time employees who hold some form of alternative credential earned more than those without.

The full U.S. Census Bureau report can be found here: Measuring Alternative Educational Credentials: 2012:  Household Economic Studies.

John Calvin’s Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1:

“We must, therefore, lay it down as a settled principle, that knowledge is good in itself; but as piety is its only foundation,  it becomes empty and useless in wicked men: as love is its true seasoning, where that is wanting it is tasteless. And truly, where there is not that thorough knowledge of God which humbles us, and teaches us to do good to the brethren, it is not so much knowledge, as an empty notion of it, even in those that are reckoned the most learned. At the same time, knowledge is not by any means to be blamed for this, any more than a sword, if it falls into the hands of a madman. Let this be considered as said with a view to certain fanatics, who furiously declaim against all the liberal arts and sciences, as if their only use were to puff men up, and were not of the greatest advantage as helps in common life. Now those very persons, who defame them in this style, are ready to burst with pride, to such an extent as to verify the old proverb — “Nothing is so arrogant as ignorance.”


John Calvin’s Commentary on 1 Corthinians 3:19-20:

“. . . The liberal arts, and all the sciences by which wisdom is acquired, are gifts of God.”