Busting Three Myths of a Christian Liberal Arts Education

Written by Stephen Andes, D.Phil, Professor of History

I’m a true believer in the ideals of the liberal arts – even, I admit, a believer in their real-world value for today’s college student. But I have a confession to make: defending the liberal arts these days feels exceedingly idealistic, unrealistic, and downright impractical. It can feel quixotic, in other words, a term derived from Cervantes’s most famous knight, Don Quixote. Quixote the delusional, who believed windmills were giants, who thought the washbasin on his head was a handsome steel helmet, and who was convinced the nag he rode upon was a war stallion. Doubts assail me. The quest to preserve the liberal arts might be noble – even admirable – but it seems fated for failure. To defend the liberal arts in an era of rising student debt, climbing tuition costs, and plummeting job prospects can seem, as with Quixote, a mission that is out-of-touch, starry-eyed, and quaint. The liberal arts, in this economy?! What are you going to DO with THAT major?

Many and manifold are the voices in culture (and in my head) that argue against the importance of a liberal arts education for today’s college student. Upholding the value of the liberal arts requires a defense, an apologia. And so, here presented, are three prominent myths about the liberal arts that need to be busted if the mission to preserve them is to succeed.

Myth 1: The Liberal
Arts Are Liberal

Some definitions are in order. When we say the liberal arts, what do we mean? Words have meaning and the words conservative and liberal come loaded with partisan baggage in today’s political landscape. The liberal arts, however, have their origin in a time long before the words conservative and liberal were coopted by the Republican and Democratic parties. The liberal arts originated more than 1500 years ago. There were seven traditional subjects taught in universities in late antiquity and the medieval era. These were grammar, rhetoric, and logic (known collectively as the trivium), along with an additional four, the quadrivium, comprised of geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy. As they developed over time, the liberal arts evolved into the disciplines we’ve come to know as the humanities (literature, theology, philosophy, history, etc.), the physical and biological sciences, mathematics, and the social sciences. At Bushnell, these liberal arts disciplines exist within the College of Theology, Arts, and Sciences.

Myth 2: The Liberal
Arts Are Not Christian

So, if the liberal arts have nothing to do with current political ideologies, what makes them liberal? Perhaps, some may fear, although they didn’t begin as carriers of anti-religious thought, they’ve become so? Are the liberal arts a conduit for anti-Christian ideas? Again, let’s take a look at some definitions. The term “liberal arts” derives from the Latin artes liberales. The root word is liber, which means “free.” As scholar Michael Lind (2006) explains, “Artes means crafts or skills, and liberales comes from liber, or free man, an individual who is both politically free, a citizen with rights, and economically independent.” The liberal arts, therefore, is the education fitting to a free person, one who has the agency to contribute to building a free society. The liberal arts are not inherently anti-Christian. On the contrary, they have the power to help inform the Christian conscience and support a Christian worldview.

A perfect example of the importance of the liberal arts to Christian education is the career of the fourth century theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), a key figure in both Christian history and Protestant theology. In his autobiography, Confessions, Augustine wrote about his career trajectory as a rhetorician. Though successful, lauded, and well on his way toward riches, he discovered it wasn’t enough. Augustine reflected that “publicly I was a teacher of the arts which they call liberal; privately I professed a false religion – in the former role arrogant,
in the latter superstitious, in everything vain.”

When Augustine became a Christian, he didn’t discard the things he learned in the “so-called liberal arts,” as he described them. Rather, he used the knowledge he had gained in service of God’s people. Augustine likened the truth he found in pagan philosophy (which he later used to refine his theological ideas) to the gold which the Egyptians gave to the Hebrews during the Exodus. All truth is God’s truth, Augustine explains. The Christian liberal arts enable students to mine truth wherever it can be found, because God is the source of it all.

Myth 3: The Liberal
Arts Are Not Practical

That’s all well and good, the doubts whisper, but does studying the liberal arts lead to a job after graduation? Are the liberal arts practical? Our current moment is an interesting inversion of history. Where once those with ambition studied the liberal arts to give them the skills to build society, today it is the technical, skill-specific STEM (short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields which are everywhere in demand. One reason for this is a cold cost-benefit analysis that guides the decision-making process of parents and their children in choosing a career path. Because the cost of a college education has skyrocketed, goes the logic, the benefits of that education – measured in salary – must pay off. The stakes involved in going to college are admittedly higher now than a generation ago. Over a thirty-year period, tuition costs on average grew from $4,160 to $10,740 at public, four-year institutions; those numbers grew from $19,360 to $38,070 at private, four-year colleges. The belief is students who graduate with engineering and business degrees will make more – and therefore be happier – than their liberal arts and humanities counterparts. The salary calculus eclipses all other considerations of what makes a good life.

And this is where my inner Quixote voice starts to swell, challenging the honey-tongued whispers of doubt. What if the cold, hard facts are wrong? What if graduates who leave college with skills gained in the liberal arts are actually as well prepared for the road ahead as say, business or engineering graduates? It is true that the road ahead is, indeed, difficult. There is an ever-changing job market. It requires versatile, flexible, and entrepreneurial skills that allow graduates to zig their way through the perils of automation in AI, even as they zag through the dangerous minefield of career change.

Does a Christian liberal arts education prepare students for the zig-zag? Yes. The tradition of the liberal arts for over 1500 years has been to train leaders to have the very skills they need at present. The ability to research, write persuasively, organize information, manage teams of people, and think critically are hallmarks of education in the liberal arts and humanities. These are capacities which are considered invaluable to employers, as they seek employees who can take complicated ideas and make them accessible to others. Thus, the liberal arts is nothing if not practical. According to one study by the University of Queensland, Gen Z can expect to have 16-17 jobs across 5-7 careers. The successful zig-zag in a career beyond college means the ability to continually evolve with the changing marketplace. Liberal arts graduates learn just how to do that.

“The liberal arts are not inherently anti-Christian. On the contrary, they have the power to help inform the Christian conscience and support a Christian worldview.”

The Metrics Are Wrong

Beyond the myths of a liberal arts education – that it’s too liberal, not Christian, and not practical – there is a final monster to slay. And this, it turns out, is not a figment of the quixotic imagination. It’s the why of going to college. The metrics we assign to college-career success, I believe, are too narrow to encompass why we desire to go to college in the first place. A study produced by Gallup-Purdue in 2014 was one of the first of its kind in suggesting that getting “great jobs” and living “great lives” were at the root of why college remains attractive. Salary, for its part, was only one of the many factors cited. The study found that engaging work which promotes well-being (e.g., purpose, health, and social inclusion) gets at the meat and marrow of the why of going to college, rather than just the cold degree-equals-salary calculus. Put another way, the meaning and purpose of going to college is at risk of being sacrificed for just one small part of a much larger picture of a student’s life.

At its core, the pursuit of Christian liberal arts truly helps students embark on their most important exploration famously defined by theologian Frederick Buechner:
“Your calling is where your passions meet the world’s greatest needs.” This is what it means for us at Bushnell when we say it is our goal to help students “discover and answer God’s call on their lives.”

We see this happening everywhere. Nationwide, programs in the liberal arts and humanities are shrinking. Their budgets are slashed. Majors are cut. Languages, literature, and humanities have been hit especially hard. It’s an irony not lost on me. I majored in Spanish language and literature and it was there where I first read about Don Quixote’s quest. Many students will no longer have that chance. At Bushnell, we have the opportunity to support the liberal arts as foundational to our mission of wisdom, faith, and service. We care about what students do with their degree, but also what the Christian liberal arts here at Bushnell do for our students. So, in my noble quest, is it I who chase windmills and believe them to be giants?
No, indeed.


Lind, M. (2006), Why the liberal arts still matter. The Wilson Quarterly, pp. 52-56.

“The liberal arts are not inherently anti-Christian. On the contrary, they have the power to help inform the Christian conscience and support a Christian worldview.”

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