Mark Sargent on the Value of the Christian Liberal Arts

Mark Sargent has been provost at Westmont College now for over a year. The following is a long excerpt on the value of Christian Liberal Arts Education from an article in the Westmont Magazine entitled "A Few Words from Mark Sargent" (Winter 2012). They are great words and reminders about what the liberal arts is and how important this sort of education has been and will continue to be.

The Value of Christian Liberal Arts Education
During my college years I often made long bicycle trips with friends along the California coast. For cyclists, few stretches of the road are more demanding than the Big Sur coastline, where the mountains press against the sea. For 70 miles the highway clings to precipitous cliffs, mixing sharp climbs and rapid descents. That stage of the journey requires full concentration on the thin white line along the road’s edge as you weave through the fallen shale and pine branches and avoid nervous drivers.Yet every now and then, after a long ascent, you reach a vista point.You can raise your eyes from that hypnotic white line to survey your environs: the clouds darkening the quiet ocean, the cypress twisting in the wind, and the whitecaps sinking into the crevassed stone.

The liberal arts are much like that slow trek along Highway 1. They will increasingly require both singular focus and breadth of vision. Few challenges will be more pressing for 21st century leaders and intellectuals than balancing specialization and wisdom. Scholarly or professional work often demands the intense concentration of a cyclist climbing a single hill one fierce pedal at a time.We may need, at times, to display the intellectual discipline to carry a single task to finer and finer levels of refinement. But we can also, like the weary and anxious cyclist, get obsessively preoccupied with the white line in front of us, on our own professional duties, scholarly ambitions, disciplinary guilds, or even the proprietary use of knowledge.We need to see our own labors and hopes against the grander vista—the wide history of human endeavor, the diversity of our global neighborhood, and the looming ethical challenges.

At its best, the Christian liberal arts college provides several remarkable vista points. Our task is to help students lift their eyes to see, as we endeavor to lift our own.Above all, we need to continually discover the beauty of the world the Lord has made. The Christian liberal arts—with its diverse fields of inquiry— should enrich our capacity for worship and wonder.The life of the mind is inflamed by discovery and gratitude for all that our Creator has given us. Exploring natural and special revelation is one of our prime callings.We undertake that task with the audacious hope that the broad vista of liberal learning can help us discern, more fully, how to know and to serve God.

We also need to encourage students to see the long panorama of the Christian faith—not just current doctrines and disciplines but the tradition of faithfulness.All of us came to faith at some point along the road, either in a quiet, restful spot through the guidance of family and mentors, or after a tough hill or crash. Evangelical students generally arrive at Christian colleges caught in their own moment, within their own generational stories and idioms.They need to study the various twists and turns in the course of Christian community and thought, both the legacy of great witnesses and the church’s moral failures.We need to help them discern their own road ahead, their sense of calling, realizing that the conscience of the future is often indebted to an understanding of the past. In short, we need to connect heritage and vocation in our students’ journeys.

Similarly, a Christian institution can connect the future and the heritage of the liberal arts themselves.Westmont is able to invoke the medieval synthesis of classical inquiry and Christian thought, when the liberal arts flourished among those who followed Christ.We can also blend this with the service-orientation, philanthropy and pragmatism of American evangelicalism into an ever-more vibrant model of life and learning, full of rich texts and transformative experiences.

For me, our essential goal is to awaken the moral imagination of our students. So many come to us with hearts eager to serve; they also need minds able to imagine new possibilities for social and spiritual hope.The scope of learning provided by the liberal arts encourages interdisciplinary solutions to contemporary issues, often overcoming some stubborn preconceptions, professional habits, partisan loyalties or even counter-productive philanthropy. American Christians, for instance, rushed millions of pounds of grain into rural Africa to address hunger only to discover that their actions undercut the markets for native farmers and, before long, actually increased poverty and starvation.The humanitarian needs the botanist and economist. Pursuing justice—and meeting social needs—requires the interdisciplinary and imaginative problem-solving skills that the liberal arts can cultivate.

To cultivate the moral imagination, the Christian liberal arts college needs to bolster its commitment to blend spiritual virtues and intellectual strengths. For instance, fewer skills may be more necessary for promoting international peace and the resolution of conflict than charity and empathy, the spiritual disciplines of discernment and even forgiveness before condemnation and violence. Our students also need to see the vitality of Christian thought in the marketplace of ideas, rather than retreating into subcultural silos. Even as our graduates learn to live civilly in our increasingly pluralistic society, they also need stronger confidence that bioethics can be enriched by Christian ideals of prudence, stewardship and human dignity—or that community development and economic reform are enhanced by the Christian practices for addressing the spiritual and psychological welfare of people as well as their physical needs.

Few things kindle the moral imagination more than respect for other peoples and cultures.The most significant influence on students’ personal and cognitive development is their peer group. Recruiting a more diverse student and faculty community— socially, ethnically, denominationally—enriches the intellectual and spiritual climate on campus, as we daily encounter the perspectives, experiences, and faith journeys of a broader range of the world’s citizens.The classical image of the liberal arts stresses both an encyclopedic gathering of the world’s knowledge and a commitment to pass the cycle of learning to a new generation.
In many respects, the Christian liberal arts college is the laboratory for the next generation of leadership in the church.

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