The three 'C's

01/14/15

A case for Christian liberal arts education

BLUFFTON, Ohio—The three 'R's have been viewed as foundations of education since the days of the one-room schoolhouse.

But the president of Canada’s Conrad Grebel University College proposed Jan. 13 that the success of small, Christian liberal arts colleges boils down to three 'C's.

Speaking at Bluffton University, Dr. Susan Schultz Huxman said Christian liberal arts education matters because “its counterculture mandate serves a noble purpose; connections are the heart and soul of its academic mission; and community (that it builds) transforms lives by grooming responsible citizens to engage our very beautiful but broken world.”

Countercultural

Asserting that Mennonite liberal arts institutions are “thriving,” she attributed their success in part to a “dare-to-be-different” attitude among their founders. “In ‘planting the seeds’ of these first Mennonite colleges in North America,” she said, “these brave men and women were going against the grain, taking large risks, purchasing barren property ‘on a wing and a prayer’ … and believing fervently (despite the odds) that Mennonite colleges would rise from these humble roots and thrive amid all of the state and private colleges and big research universities.”

“Our faith tradition” demanded, and still demands, such a nonconformist attitude, added Huxman, who leads a Waterloo, Ontario, college that was founded by Mennonites in 1963.

Both the Christian and Anabaptist stories are “entirely counterculture,” she maintained. In the former case, she pointed to such examples as Jesus’ birth “in a barn to an unwed teenager; to his life and ministry where he consorted with outcasts, misfits, sinners and unbelievers, even choosing his disciples not from the learned set but from the blue-collar set; to his death on a cross with common criminals; to his resurrection, first presenting his risen self to women, of all things, scandalous for his day.”

Noting the origins of the Mennonites, she recalled the story of Conrad Grebel, “the first Anabaptist,” who was born into a wealthy Zurich family but later became the so-called “ringleader” of “this new ‘heretical’ Christian ministry committed to baptize adult believers, and to live a more radical Christ-like discipleship.”

For his “treasonous” acts, Grebel was arrested, imprisoned and died before his 30th birthday. But he, too, planted seeds, of a “model of education all our Mennonite colleges still practice,” based upon “grace and works, wisdom and witness, intellect and faith,” Huxman said.

And Christian liberal arts colleges “of all stripes” still “adhere to the idea that Christian liberal arts matters precisely because its countercultural mandate—grounded in the Good News of the Gospel—serves a noble purpose,” she added.    

Connections   

Huxman cited connections between typical faculty members and students at Christian liberal arts colleges—sharing meals and co-participation in sports, music groups and service trips, for instance—that are uncommon on other, larger campuses. That’s countercultural, she said, but it’s also indicative of “the distinctive kind of education” available at such colleges, including Mennonite institutions.

A lot of stories and research “document that the broadly educated person—the person who can connect the dots across content and context—is what employers want and what our civic life needs,” she contended. To illustrate, she told of the Conrad Grebel alumnus whose campus experience in peace and conflict studies, music, student council and service learning helped him land a job with Apple right after graduation.

There are risks to stressing connections when talking to prospective students, in part because pressures to specialize are everywhere, Huxman said. “And the drumbeat of negativity toward broad-based liberal arts education as hopelessly outdated is alive and well,” she continued.

Supporting liberal arts education, however, are recent studies commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. In one of them, she said, three-quarters of polled employers agreed with the statement that “being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry expertise because job-specific skills can be learned on the job.”

Community

She also asked what Christian liberal arts colleges can do about what some scholars are calling “the post-civic generation”—“the generation that’s grown up without much in the way of a larger public social life.” The answer is community—“our middle name,” she said. “We aspire to practice it because it is a core value.”

“The number one reason students give for why they leave a given university after first year is because they do not feel a sense of belonging, a sense of community—a sense that anyone is really paying attention to them,” Huxman pointed out.

But community-building is central to Conrad Grebel’s mission, she noted, saying, for instance, that faculty, staff and students share a common meal at “community supper” each Wednesday.

It’s in Mennonite theology and “in our practice of serving others,” she added, citing Bluffton’s “Creating Together” initiative as another example. Quoting university President Dr. James Harder, she said “‘Creating Together’ is Bluffton’s style of producing a total educational experience that is not something that is done to you or for you, but WITH you.”

Before becoming Conrad Grebel’s president in 2011, Huxman was dean of the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University for eight years.

Also a professor of communication, she holds master’s and doctoral degrees in communication studies from the University of Kansas. She and her husband, Jesse, the communication director for Mennonite Foundation of Canada, have three children, including Emily, a sophomore at Bluffton.

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