Liberal Arts and Biblical Studies: What's the Difference?

Benjamin Reese is the librarian at the Institute for G.O.D. He also teaches courses on the Psalms, Qohelet, Literary Analysis as well as Hebrew and Spanish.

Benjamin Reese is the librarian at the Institute for G.O.D. He also teaches courses on the Psalms, Qohelet, Literary Analysis as well as Hebrew and Spanish.

What kind of education do we offer our students? One way to understand anything is to compare it with something similar. With the goal of shedding some light on the education we offer students at the Institute, it might be productive to compare it to another, more popular approach, an approach that will be familiar to most: the liberal arts college. 

The term “liberal arts” was first used in 8th-century Greece, not quite the golden era of Socrates and Plato, but a significant time nonetheless, a time when small city states allowed for wider civil participation in government. Liberal arts was coined to describe the kind of education one would need to participate in this new form of civic life. Liberal meant free, that is, in contrast to the slaves who were trained to do manual tasks. From the beginning,op liberal arts programs were not focused on teaching a specific task or trade (like the slaves did), but rather it sought to give students the general skills that they could use in a wide range of contexts. In other words, It would make them free to choose what they wanted to do.

The argument for the value of a liberal arts degree has remained about the same: The world is complex and always changing and students need to be equipped with the skills to adapt and succeed as it changes. A student coming out of a good liberal arts program would have these skills. They would be able to communicate effectively, apply analytical methods to complicated problems, work and collaborate in teams, and inspire and persuade others. These skills can go anywhere. In contrast to a liberal arts degree, there are technical schools (that teach a trade) and fine art schools (that teach a specific artistic craft).

Between these two broad models -- education for a specific task and education for a variety of tasks -- our school falls into the latter category. This often surprises people. But we are not a Christian trade school teaching specific skills and knowledge that only apply within the narrow contexts defined by Christian institutions. Students learn how to communicate effectively in both written and oral forms; They learn how to problem solve; They learn how to analyze texts and make inferences; They learn how to think critically; and they learn about other cultures and world views, all of the things you might expect from a liberal arts program. Some may be incredulous, but the proof is in our students. They’ve gone on to become nurses, lawyers, business owners, and a lot else. And they’ve testified, over and over, the role that their education has played in the success of their endeavors. 

So where is the contrast? It’s really a contrast borne from what we have added to our program, not what we have subtracted. To be more specific, our school includes at its center a vocational focus, a calling, that comes from our commitment to the Hebrew scriptures and the defining ministry of Jesus. The lack of vocational focus in liberal arts programs is something that others have noted as a problem. Ellen Lagemann, writing for the publication Liberal Education, notes in an assessment of liberal arts programs: 

[T]hose students who attend our most selective institutions--all of which, I might add, consider themselves liberal arts colleges and universities--graduate without a clear sense of vocational direction. At a time of extreme social challenge, we seem to have few alternatives between clear and, inevitably, rather narrow vocational preparation and seemingly directionless programs of liberal study. (Lagemann, 2003). 

Jaimee Arroyo, Institute graduate and Family Nurse Practitioner, is a prime example of a student with vocational direction. Here, she facilitates first aid and emergency response training for a community of people in rural El Salvador.

Jaimee Arroyo, Institute graduate and Family Nurse Practitioner, is a prime example of a student with vocational direction. Here, she facilitates first aid and emergency response training for a community of people in rural El Salvador.

We believe we are one of those few alternatives. Think about the way people usually criticize a liberal arts program. They say that students don’t use their education. I don’t think this is because their education was valueless. It has more to do with students not knowing how to use their education, or even what endeavors are worth putting their effort into. Ellen Lagemann does a good job defining vocation when she says, “The word vocation implies more than earning a living or having a career. The word vocation implies having a calling: knowing who one is, what one believes, what one values, and where one stands in the world.” We believe that forming this in students is just as important as forming their mind. Without a clear sense of vocation, students will be aimless, directionless, even in danger of falling prey to those who want to use their skills and intelligence for ill purposes, and, in the end, is that at all being free?  

Students who come to our institute believe they have a calling from God to pursue his work. We foster and form that calling so that students have a clear sense of who they are, what they believe, and how they can make a difference in the world. Not everyone has this calling. But for those who do, we equip students with a skillset that will allow them to follow their vocation to whatever context God calls them into. 


Sources 

Lagemann, Ellen Condliffe. (2003). “The Challenge of Liberal Education: Past, Present, and Future.” Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/challenge-liberal-education-past-present-and-future