Skip to content

Against the Liberal Arts

Yoder again, more on education:

Many contemporary discussions of the meaning of liberal arts read into this phrase numerous most edifying descriptions of what it means that the Christian is “truly free” or how the study of classical literature “liberates” one. Only a few have the honesty to admit that the historic derivation of the term is quite different one. The “liberal arts” were originally those arts in which the leisure class of society could afford to indulge. Their first value was that they provided the kind of non-utilitarian occupation with which it was seemly for persons of their class to be busied. A second value was that they could thus actually preserve and propagate a classical humanistic heritage for which there was at the time not much other use. Further, the structure of their society being what it was, this training was for them utilitarian in that it prepared them to continue to be the kind of social elite that their parents were. . . .

This general bourgeois cultural reflex takes on a new dimension when it is argued that it is specifically Christians who for “religious” or “character building” reasons should be concerned especially for the liberal arts. For a surprising number of interpreters, the case for a Christian college is identical with the case for a liberal arts college (and usually with the case for a small college). Such things as “perspective” or “cultural breadth and depth” are assumed to be more faithful reflections of religious concern than merely learning to be useful.

~ John Howard Yoder, “A Syllabus of Issues Facing the Church” in Concern for Education, Forthcoming from Cascade Books.


  1. myles wrote:

    I’m glad to see Cascade publishing the Concern stuff. It’s important for reading Yoder. Kudos.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 7:28 am | Permalink
  2. Nathan Smith wrote:

    As Dr. Scalberg once noted at the beginning of a missions conference, there is great utility in liberal arts education in support of Christian mission. That is, perhaps the desire to be useful (toward the right end) is a faithful reflection of religious concern.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 7:30 am | Permalink
  3. Nathan Smith wrote:

    Also: Halden, you’re killing me with your quote embedding. Double quotes inside double quotes? For shame!

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 7:31 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    That’s what happens when you cut and paste too quickly.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 8:14 am | Permalink
  5. Dan wrote:

    The main thing that liberal arts students produce is essays and I would argue that yes, there is some utility in learning how to successfully develop and communicate ideas. Moreover, if the elite are learning this stuff anyway, shouldn’t the rest of us have some approximation of it so we can know what they are up to?

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 9:06 am | Permalink
  6. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Is Yoder asserting that because of genetics all subsequent “Liberal Arts” education is evil?

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  7. joel hunter wrote:

    I see your Yoder and raise you an Ellul. Yoder is performing a historical two-step in the service of Technique’s ambitions.

    The study of classical literature, of reading books worth reading, of listening to music, of walking without prosthetic media attached to one’s person, is an anarchic subversion of our mindless hyperkineticism and the frenzied leisure of consumers (eminently practical creatures, every one of ‘em). What constitutes “elitism” is not supplied from a storehouse of timeless cultural products. What may be a “bourgeouis cultural reflex” for some is, in my hands, a call for militant inefficiency and unproductiveness: Dolce Far Niente.

    What is Yoder’s alternative except some sort of quietism? Mustn’t we know what the good is and how we may morally attain it? Being “useful” is not a good in and of itself. So in respect of which ends are we to be “useful?” To answer the latter question requires developing the faculty of moral discernment. Pray how to do that while we’re at the busyness of not becoming social elites?

    I’ll risk the label of elitist in order to give my students a glimpse of what poem, tale, tragedy, and music are capable of. “But, but, that’s just some ridiculous repristination of constantinian state-church power structures!” Transcendentalized bosh. The reason for a christian educator to do so because such human products, like the Gospel, have the power to speak to what is deepest in us.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  8. Doug Harink wrote:

    This is not Yoder at his best. Throughout the history of Israel and the Church something like the “liberal arts” has been conscripted or co-opted and made useful to God’s mission in the world. The very existence of the scriptures required the use of the “liberal arts” of the days in which they were written (by the elites, no less, for they were the ones who could read and write). We would not have the Torah or the gospels or Paul’s letters apart from the liberal arts, transfigured by the Holy Spirit to bear the word of God. And certainly Yoder is a prime example of an elite, educated thoroughly in the liberal arts, making use of them for God’s mission.

    Of course the liberal arts do not set us free. They too are often powers that enslave. But the Gospel can also deliver them up for God’s use and, indeed, our delight.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  9. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Great point, Doug!

    I’m thinking of how Christian Humanism (a direct result of the “Liberal Arts”) was used to reinvigorate the Apocalyptic message of the Gospel — the one that Yoder is a proponent of himself.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    It should be noted that Yoder explicitly states in the article (which I know none of you probably have access to) that he is intentionally playing devil’s advocate with a lot of different views and options regarding the nature of Christian education, specifically the “church college.”

    I think what he’s challenging here is the too-easy acceptance of the notion that the liberal arts are simply coterminous with what a “Christian college education” is supposed to be, not saying that they are of no value at all. What he’s really pushing against here is the notion that studying the liberal arts is somehow a process of “building character” that is part of, or easily circumscribed within Christian discipleship. That’s why I see him point to the liberal arts and basically saying, “Hey, lets not romanticize this or confuse it with discipleship. After all, the sort of education offered in the liberal arts is one of privilege and we don’t want to uncritically equate the self-improvement of the privileged with what discipleship means.”

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  11. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Halden said:

    . . . Hey, lets not romanticize this or confuse it with discipleship. After all, the sort of education offered in the liberal arts is one of privilege and we don’t want to uncritically equate the self-improvement of the privileged with what discipleship means.”

    If that’s what he’s saying, then I have no problem; I just didn’t get that whole context from the quote. Often I have thought the same way about this (in principle, not in articulation ;-) . . . knowing the history of “University” and such, I have come to some of these same conclusions; and the thing that really concretizes this for me is when I look at my “SallieMae” debt which is still in deferment :-(.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  12. ccollinswinn wrote:

    As one who teaches at a Christian university (whatever that is), and as one who teaches in the humanities program in that university, I confess that this smarts, but in the most productive sense. If Yoder’s meaning is the devil’s advocate then I would have to agree, in that I often wonder if my job ought not to be to make my students of ‘no worldly good.’ That, of course, is not what they pay to come to college for so what I aim for is to begin to help them to think for themselves within the broader Christian tradition and to find ways to be faithful to the calling that God has or (for most of them) will later place on the lives. My hope is that they find ways to make themselves of some use to God. Books worth reading are worth reading in part because they can teach one how to view the world differently, but also because they can midwife the courage to do so, the latter of which I think may be more important or perhaps useful for discipleship.

    I would also say that I have to agree with the spirit of the quote in that the story told–at least in our humanities program–is woefully inadequate because it fails precisely to tell those stories which Yoder would describe as moving “with the grain of the universe”; after all, the whole conception of “great books” rules out or at least curtails a sensitivity to those narratives told from the underside.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 9:24 pm | Permalink
  13. Zwingli 2.0 wrote:

    I graduated from St. John’s College, known for its ‘great books’ program.

    When I first arrived, I viewed the ‘great books’ as the 100 or so texts that served as the bricks in the grand edifice that is western civilization.

    That’s the way, I think, lots of National Review-reading Anglophile evangelical and Catholic conservative-types view ‘the great books’ and the ‘liberal arts’.

    After four years, though, I learned nothing could be further from the truth.

    The great books are akin to a conversation where everybody’s tackling the same questions but nobody agrees about anything.

    In fact, I found a thoroughly ‘liberal’ education to be liberating because it made most students radically skeptical, and almost desperate of truth. We spent four years learning about amazing possible answers (alternative accounts), but settling on nothing.

    That kind of education can be very valuable, but it can destroy some people (spiritually, intellectually, even morally), too.

    I think it’s asinine when conservative Christians hold up ‘the great books’ as a quasi-religious canon simply because it avoids the multicultural garbage so many schools focus on.

    Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 9:28 am | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site