Nowadays, we frequently hear that education as we know it is under attack. And it is true, our education system faces many dramatic challenges. Many people, politicians more so than educators, demand that educational institutions must be for-profit and more competitive. To them, education must be quantifiable, accountable and profitable. State institutions of higher learning face budget cuts. Liberal arts colleges like Luther College struggle with low enrollment and changing demographics. The White House contemplates the elimination of the NEH and NEA, which have been providing government funding for projects in and contributing to the humanities and the arts.
We at Luther are considering terminating specific programs to avoid financial exigency. In these trying times for academics and the institutions they belong to, an unexpected ally, Mark Cuban, recently emphasized the importance of the liberal arts. It is, therefore, important to reflect on the role of the liberal arts in today's society.
I would like to commence my reflections with a confession. I am an unabashed supporter of the liberal arts. I believe that education has to be more than the mere acquisition of skill sets and one's familiarization with or memorization of data and theories. Let me be frank: I believe that training in skills is absolutely necessary for education. But I also believe that educational institutions, to be successful, must accomplish more than facilitating the acquisition of knowledge. I joined the Luther faculty because of the college's focus on the liberal arts, its affiliation with the ELCA and because our mission is to nurture global citizens who can face the challenges of the 21st century.
Educational institutions do not need a religious affiliation to succeed in the liberal arts; however, in the case of Luther, an affiliation with the ELCA communicates a commitment to "more." It delineates the liberal arts from professional training and signals a conviction that education must be holistic. Luther's affiliation with the church fosters a "community where students, faculty and staff are enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas and by the life of faith and learning."
What is attractive about Luther College is the fact that students are invited to ponder the "great questions" and to engage in moral reasoning via the Paideia program. They are encouraged to explore the world through various programs offered by the Center for Global Learning. The intercultural competency requirement exposes students to various ways of thinking and learning, and allows for the opportunity to explore topics they heretofore have never thought about such as environmental studies, neuroscience, Chinese or dance improvisation, to name only a few.
I wholeheartedly embrace Luther College's commitment to encouraging faculty and students alike to cross and transgress the boundaries of academic disciplines, linguistic and religio-intellectual traditions, and cultures. These interdisciplinary, interreligious and intercultural exercises are central to the liberal arts: they expand our horizon, help us understand the perspectives of others and allow students to try on new mental or hermeneutic frames.
These experiences are not quantifiable, but are essential to a holistic education. They allow students to identify and locate their place in the social and natural world. The first-year January Term course encourages students to explore new topics and fields of inquiry, while the upper class January Term courses invite students to engage in experimental learning and pursue creative thinking. These courses may not be directly applicable to one's major, but they increase flexibility in thinking, shape students as persons and help contextualize our disciplines and professions. Already before Mark Cuban went public with his endorsement of the liberal arts, we in the humanities were told by representatives of medical schools that they valued applicants who had not only fulfilled all pre-medical requirements, but who had also majored in the humanities. Professionals in any field, including medicine, do not only need impeccable credentials, but also person skills, cultural and religious sensitivity, and a deep knowledge of the ethical ramifications of their work. Our professional actions affect our communities, the environment, and our socio-political and economic relationships. The ability to assess one's own actions and to place oneself within the context of the historical world is necessary to succeed and survive. The goal of the liberal arts is to prepare students for this kind of self-reflection. While this type of education may not be quantifiable or profitable, it is definitely indispensable.
So what are we to do about the current challenges to the liberal arts? Quite frankly, I do not know. I am an educator and an academic, not an administrator or a politician. I do not even have a vote (even though I pay taxes) and often feel that, even at Luther College, my voice is not heard. I understand the challenges administrators and politicians face and respect that they have difficult decisions to make. I also know that we need to change the way we approach education and to be open to envisioning and creating new forms of education. However, as an educator and academic, I also know that reducing the standards and criteria of a successful education to statistics and financial contingencies is, at best, problematic. If we decide to do so, we must be aware of the consequences our decisions have for our students, our society and the world.
The key question that we must ask ourselves is what kind of educational institution and society do we want to be? Do we really think we can prepare students for a successful career and a fulfilling life in the 21st century without offering even the possibility to study Chinese? Do we want to produce students that function like machines, or do we strive to provide an academic environment that fosters engaged and self-aware citizens of the world who are sensitive to the moral questions of our times? These are the challenges. Now, it is our responsibility to respond to them.
To be clear, I am not suggesting one vision for education over another, but I want us, as the Luther community and as a society, to be aware that our decisions have consequences. As a liberal arts college of the church, we should be aware of who we are, what we want to be, and what our strengths are as an institution. Some have voiced concern that the college is losing its culture. Change does not necessarily mark an improvement, and we should be clear about which changes we want and which changes our decisions engender. Luther's culture is often synonymous with its Norwegian Lutheran heritage - this is one aspect of who we are. However, the culture of liberal arts is equally important to our identity, and some of the changes discussed these days will make it harder for us to maintain this identity. Is this what we want to change? Do we want to abandon the liberal arts project? I, for one, think that right now, we succeed at being a liberal arts college that upholds the Lutheran tradition yet embraces diversity. This is who we are. This is what we are good at. This is what makes us unique.
Gereon Kopf is professor of religion at Luther College. Kopf is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Buddhist Philosophy. He is also the author of Beyond Personal Identity and the co-editor of Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism.