Here are my four other reasons for studying the liberal arts:
Reason #4: Studying the liberal arts builds the virtue of self-control. Admittedly, if you study the liberal arts, you are bound to encounter subjects you don’t like and even find tedious and annoying. That’s fine. But then you have the opportunity to grow. Studying subjects you dislike is a good discipline and builds self-control, which is a fruit of the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:22-23) and fundamental to godliness. Athletes intentionally do unpleasant and tedious exercises like wind sprints and weightlifting, yet they know its valuable because it gets them ready to compete. How much more value does self-control and godliness have? The Bible says “physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8). Studying subjects you dislike is valuable because of how it builds self-control and, thus, makes you more godly.
This is not to say that the life of a liberal arts learner is not pleasurable. Self-control is not inconsistent with a life of pleasure. (Just ask Mr. Christian Hedonist, John Piper.) In fact, the life of broad learning is actually the most pleasurable. We all find pleasure in participating in and discussing things that interest us. So those who have more interests have more ways of finding pleasure in life. On the other hand, the less you know, the fewer interests you’ll have and thus the less fun you can have and the more easily you can be bored. So whenever I hear someone say, “I’m bored,” I think “Well, that’s probably because you’re boring. And you’re boring because you don’t have enough interests. And you don’t have enough interests, because you haven’t learned enough. What you need is a liberal arts education!” That’s just what I think to myself. I rarely say that out loud. (And I have the self-control to resist saying it because I have a liberal arts education.)
Reason #5: Studying the liberal arts makes you a more open-minded person. Open-mindedness is an intellectual virtue. It is the virtue of being willing to consider new ideas, perspectives, or entire subjects. The open-minded person is generally willing to give something or someone a fair hearing. In contrast, the closed-minded person is intellectually foreclosed against new ideas or perspectives. In the context of education, this vice is displayed by anyone who stubbornly refuses to consider a legitimate idea or perspective. It is also evident in anyone who begrudges the study of math or biology or art or any other entire field of study.
Closed-mindedness is a vice and intellectually deadly for anyone, but it is especially tragic in young people. As a person ages—and this includes college professors—they experience what might be called “hardening of the categories” as they close their minds to new things. People are most imaginative and intellectually fertile in their younger years. (This is why the most groundbreaking achievements in art, science, and literature tend to be made by those who are relatively young.) So to be a closed-minded young person is like choosing to be prematurely senile.
Like humility and winsomeness, open-mindedness is the sort of virtue that is not only attractive but tends to inspire the same quality in others. If we are willing to give others’ ideas and opinions a fair hearing, then they will be more willing to listen to us as well. So a simple application of the Golden Rule shows us that we should strive for this trait. And, of course, studying the liberal arts is crucial to doing so. Exploring a variety of subjects opens the mind to new vistas of insight and understanding.
I should add that as Christians (and who, by the way, are foreclosed on the creedal points—such as the triune reality of God, the divinity and resurrection of Christ, and the need to obey him), we have nothing to fear when it comes to new ideas and innovations. This is because, as the well-worn dictum goes, all truth really is God’s truth. So we can be adventurously open-minded in our studies while unwaveringly committed to the verities of our faith. And that is the essence of a Christian liberal arts education.
Reason #6: Studying the liberal arts is a biblical duty. Proverbs 4:7 tells us to “Get wisdom. Thought it cost all you have, get understanding.” And in hundreds of other biblical passages we are told to pursue wisdom and understanding. The biblical writers did not restrict the subjects of “understanding” to your major or just the stuff you’re interested in. Presumably, they mean any kind of genuine understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty. So it appears we have a duty to learn in every discipline. Christian liberal arts colleges like the one where I teach are simply being faithful to this biblical mandate.
Reason #7: Studying the liberal arts is essential to Christlikeness. In the Gospel of Mark we read that the people said about Jesus, “he has done everything well” (7:37). Jesus, it appears, was the ultimate example of the versatile student. Lest we dismiss this as an automatic consequence of his being divine, don’t forget that the New Testament also tells us that Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52) and that he even “learned obedience” (Heb. 5:8). Being fully human, Jesus shared these experiences with us, including all of the difficulties and suffering that they entail. Since we are commended to imitate him in every way, we too must learn obedience, grow in wisdom, and, yes, do everything well. And, of course, this is precisely the point of a Christian liberal arts education—to make us Christlike learners.
So there you have it—seven reasons, among myriad others I’m sure, to study the liberal arts. To summarize, if you want to know the wisdom and beauty of God, if you want to be a strong ambassador for Christ, if you want to avoid embarrassing your faith, if you want to display the fruit of the Spirit, if you want to have the virtue of open-mindedness, if you want to fulfill your biblical duty to pursue wisdom and understanding, if you want to be more like Christ; in short, if you want to be a better Christian, then you need to study the liberal arts.
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