We all know that many peo­ple who receive col­lege degrees have not received a lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion. We hope that it is so, we work to make it so, and in your case we want to believe that it is so. But how do we know the dif­fer­ence? The marks are clear enough. 

• The per­son with a lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion is look­ing for the right ques­tions to ask; the per­son who mere­ly receives a degree claims to have all the right answers.

• The per­son with the lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion seeks the truth; the per­son with only a degree seeks to be right.

• The per­son with the lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion sets forth the best pos­si­ble case for his oppo­nent; the per­son with no more than a degree erects a straw man and pro­ceeds to hack it to pieces in pseudo-superiority. 

• The per­son with the lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion is keen­ly aware of the lim­i­ta­tions of human rea­son; the per­son with mere­ly a degree deifies rea­son and forces it into realms it can­not pen­e­trate.

• The per­son with the lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion has no need to speak down to peo­ple but com­mu­ni­cates clear­ly and sim­ply; the per­son with only a degree loves to use abstract jar­gon whose pur­pose is to obscure and impress.

So there is a big dif­fer­ence between mere­ly acquir­ing a degree and expe­ri­enc­ing a lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion. Our hope is that our grad­u­ates know the expe­ri­ence of the lib­er­al arts. We need you, the Church needs you, this crazy, mixed-up world needs you. Because of your train­ing you have resources that most peo­ple lack. And in many ways these are resources that you are hard­ly aware of because they have been built into your inter­nal habit struc­ture. They are things that by now are sec­ond nature to you. And because of these inner resources you have the abil­i­ty to real­ly make a dif­fer­ence today. Let me men­tion just a few of these resources that we hope have been built into the ingrained habit pat­terns of your life.

1. A Han­ker­ing to Know 

First, I hope you have built deep down inside your­self a deep desire to know, to grow, and to learn. This idea may seem almost laugh­able to you right now. You’ve had enough of books and exams and end- less intel­lec­tu­al debates. But in time I hope you will devel­op an inquis­i­tive spir­it that you just can’t keep down. It won’t mat­ter what job you are in or where you are. This itch to dis­cov­er will pop up and you will have to respond to it. If you’re in busi­ness, you’ll want to know what makes orga­ni­za­tions tick. If you’re in psy­chol­o­gy, you’ll want to know what makes peo­ple tick. If you’re in sci­ence, you’ll want to know what makes the uni­verse tick. The world becomes alive with inter­est, peo­ple, ideas, and orga­ni­za­tions. Kagawa said that every sci­en­tif­ic book was a let­ter from God telling us how He runs His universe.

A lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion helps us to expe­ri­ence the whole of life. It’s one thing to look at a pic­ture post­card of the Pacif­ic coast­line; it is anoth­er to feel the sand between our toes, to smell the salt air, and to thrill to the crash of the waves against the rocks. Too many peo­ple live life on the glossy, flat lev­el of the pic­ture post­card, but you have the resources to go high­er up and deep­er in. You’ve mar­veled at the ethe­re­al majesty of the Ninth Sym­pho­ny and Chopin’s joy­ful waltzes and Duke Elling­ton’s sassy Satin Doll. You’ve stood aston­ished at the big­ger-than-life fig­ures by Michelan­ge­lo and the mag­nif­i­cent archi­tec­ture of Christo­pher Wren. You’ve read with won­der the tow­er­ing his­to­ries of Will Durant and Win­ston Churchill. You’ve delight­ed in the del­i­cate­ly craft­ed words of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shel­ley, Keats, and many oth­ers. You’ve rejoiced to dis­cov­er com­mon pil­grims of faith in St. Augus­tine and St. Fran­cis, in There­sa of Avi­la and Cather­ine of Sien­na, in John Calvin and John Wes­ley, in George Fox and George Whitefield. 

Already this sounds like a cat­a­log, but the truth is that we have only peeked through the door that the lib­er­al arts open to us. Tell me, are we bet­ter or worse to aban­don such a world of delight? Must we live all our lives on the slick, flat post­card lev­el of Ram­bo, Mia­mi Vice, Mon­day night foot­ball, Chip­munk Alvin singing punk rock, and Max Headroom?

Now, in a few short years of col­lege there is no con­ceiv­able way that you can learn every­thing, even in your cho­sen field of spe­cial­iza­tion: But nobody was try­ing to teach you every­thing. Our con­cern was to pro­vide you with a few open win­dows and swing­ing doors onto this vast, won­der­ful world of ideas and to give you enough tools to get start­ed. And now you have an entire life­time to stretch, to grow, to explore, to learn. 

2. A Dis­dain for the False and the Phony 

Along­side the insa­tiable desire to know and to grow there is anoth­er thing that I hope has worked its way deep into the ingrained habit pat­terns of your life. That is a dis­dain for the false and the pho­ny, for the shod­dy and the slip­shod. The world is full of peo­ple who have some­thing to sell and they will take the knowl­edge gained in uni­ver­si­ty stud­ies and manip­u­late it to serve their own ends. They are not lying, they are just using the infor­ma­tion to build a bet­ter case for their cause than the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion allows. Such peo­ple love to use dou­ble talk. A buildup of the most mas­sive mil­i­tary arse­nal in human his­to­ry is called prepar­ing for peace. Bud­gets that can­not pos­si­bly be bal­anced are labeled as Cre­ative eco­nom­ics.” On and on it goes. 

This is not just a prob­lem for pow­er-crazed politi­cians or mon­ey-crazed financiers; it is a prob­lem in the Church. Our church bul­letins and our mis­sion­ary let­ters are filled with our evan­ge­lis­tic counts.” We say, God has been teach­ing us faith­ful­ness,” when we mean This year has been a disaster”! 

But you have been trained to see through all that. You can spot an ad hominem or a non sequitur a mile away. You know when spe­cial plead­ing or a post hoc fal­la­cy is being used. And I hope you will instinc­tive­ly turn from all that is pho­ny and false. Believe me, our world needs your insight and per­cep­tion. Busi­ness peo­ple need it, politi­cians need it, sales peo­ple need it, pub­li­cists need it, church lead­ers need it, gro­cery store clerks, and wait­ers, and jan­i­tors, and plumbers, and all of us need it! I tell you, our world is all but tak­en over by pro­pa­gan­dists. We need peo­ple who can tell the dif­fer­ence between a true argu­ment and a pho­ny one. 

But even more, I hope you will look with utter dis­dain on the shod­dy and the slip­shod. I hope your col­lege expe­ri­ence has forced you to pol­ish and redo and rede­fine and rework and rethink all your efforts. I hope your teach­ers had the courage to send your work back say­ing, I’m sor­ry, but this won’t do. Rewrite it!”

Just because a good idea has come flit­ting through our heads does not mean we have a fin­ished prod­uct. And you know that. You’ve been trained dif­fer­ent­ly. You know that it needs reshap­ing, refin­ing, rethink­ing, and remold­ing. By the rig­or of your aca­d­e­m­ic train­ing you’ve been forced to make not just good, but excel­lent; not just inter­est­ing, but right. You’ve been forced to cut out fluff and unnec­es­sary froth. You’ve been giv­en the dis­ci­pline and train­ing to take any­thing – an idea, a pro­pos­al, a busi­ness plan – and sub­mit it to the most rig­or­ous process of refine­ment until it glis­tens and sparkles. Instinc­tive­ly, you are dis­con­tent with the half-baked idea. 

These col­lege years have also taught you the val­ue of dis­ci­pline. The dis­ci­plined per­son is the per­son who can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. You know when to play and you know when to work. You have learned to spurn sloth and rigid­i­ty.

Now, I know many of you are think­ing: What is he talk­ing about? I haven’t learned any of that. All I did was try to get through exams and papers so I could get this degree and get on with it. Maybe so, but if your teach­ers have done their job, the very process has taught you some­thing. When you called up the pro­fes­sor two days before the term paper was due with ten thou­sand excus­es why you should be giv­en an exten­sion, and that hard-boiled, mean, insen­si­tive pro­fes­sor calm­ly refused and told you to do your best, you learned some­thing about dis­ci­pline and time and commitments. 

I once had a stu­dent who was incred­i­bly bright but was the most undis­ci­plined per­son I have ever met. He was writ­ing a major research paper for anoth­er pro­fes­sor and I was try­ing to encour­age him. But it was amaz­ing how he could find a thou­sand things to keep him from actu­al­ly fin­ish­ing that research paper. Final­ly, one week­end I took him to our house and sent him down­stairs where there was a chair, a table, and jar of glue. I told him to pour the glue onto the chair and to sit on it and to stay there until the paper was done. We let him come up to eat but made sure he stayed in that base­ment for two days. It was amaz­ing the progress that he was able to make, and most amaz­ing of all to him was what he was able to accom­plish when he focused his mind on a sin­gle thing for a con­cen­trat­ed peri­od of time. 

You see, you have devel­oped skills of dis­ci­pline and con­cen­tra­tion that many peo­ple sim­ply do not have, and because of that you are going to be able to move beyond the shod­dy and slip­shod, the false and the phony.

3. A Bru­tal Honesty 

Not only has the lib­er­al arts lib­er­at­ed you to know and to grow, not only has it giv­en you a pro­found dis­sat­is­fac­tion for the false and the pho­ny, but it has also giv­en you the resources to be bru­tal­ly hon­est about the world in which we live. You see, many peo­ple sim­ply can­not do that. They can­not face our world with its mix­ture of hor­ror and beau­ty, grace and ugli­ness. They can­not stand the para­dox and the mys­tery that is part of what it means to live in a good world that has gone bad. 

Some peo­ple have to have it all good. They are naïve opti­mists. Every­thing must turn out won­der­ful. They refuse to see the ugly. Many Chris­tians have this mal­a­dy. They are the smile if you love Jesus” crowd! They write inane books that always take you from the gut­ter to the cross. Every­thing always comes out wonderful. 

But life isn’t like that and God isn’t like that. Per­haps the great­est tragedy Shake­speare ever wrote was King Lear. It is a deeply mov­ing play, main­ly because in it Shake­speare is so bru­tal­ly hon­est. And he ends the play with a cou­plet that speaks, not just for that play, but for Shake­speare’s life, and indeed for the lives of us all. He writes: 

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to

The play described a sad time indeed, and all of us know sad times. The world is filled with hor­ror and injus­tice and bru­tal­i­ty, and this is true whether we look at life through the macro­cosm of human his­to­ry or the micro­cosm of our own per­son­al his­to­ries. We can­not look at the ovens of Dachau and Auschwitz with­out cry­ing out Why? Why? Why?” And we can­not look into the micro­cosm of our own per­son­al his­to­ries with­out cry­ing out Why? Why? Why?” The weight of this sad time we must obey.” We must lis­ten to the sad time. We must real­ly see the sad time. We must with bru­tal hon­esty face up to the sad time. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” 

We are tempt­ed to say that every­thing always comes out alright. Chris­tians espe­cial­ly want to pre­serve God’s hon­or and say that God worked every­thing out, that the tragedy was avert­ed, that God came to the res­cue, and that they lived hap­pi­ly ever after. That is what we are tempt­ed to say. But, you see, Shake­speare helps us to see that we must face up to this sad time. We must obey it. We must respond to the demand of the sad time, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. You may not have had sad times yet … you may not have been touched by evil very much… but you will… you will.

We need a whole new hon­esty today that isn’t afraid to look life square­ly in the face. You have the resources to do that. Your edu­ca­tion, espe­cial­ly since it has been nur­tured with­in the con­text of a lov­ing Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty, allows you to see life with a bru­tal hon­esty because you’ve been giv­en a faith that can live through the most dif­fi­cult of cir­cum­stances. You’ve been bap­tized into an ocean of light that over­comes the ocean of dark­ness and death, as George Fox put it. That is a won­der­ful advan­tage, because you don’t need to main­tain a naïve opti­mism that makes every­thing into sug­ar and spice or a gloomy pes­simism that leaves you in despair. You can have a hope­ful real­ism, and this is where your study of the lib­er­al arts from a Chris­t­ian world view gives you a clear advantage. 

You’ve been giv­en the tools that allow you to reject both the naiveté of the opti­mist and the gloomi­ness of the pes­simist, that allow you to look at life square­ly and hon­est­ly, and yet with hope and courage. 

When many peo­ple face life with bru­tal hon­esty they decide they don’t want to deal with it. But you have resources that allow you to face life as it is. Remem­ber the words of the Apos­tle Paul, I can do all things through Him who strength­ens me.” Often, we mis­un­der­stand that verse and turn it into a sil­ly, naïve opti­mism. We think it means, I can get an A on this exam through Christ who strength­ens me. I can win the race through Christ who strength­ens me. I can accom­plish great feats through Christ who strength­ens me.” But that isn’t what Paul was try­ing to say. Paul was in prison when he wrote those words, and the folks at Philip­pi had shown some spe­cial kind­ness­es to him. He was thank­ing them and then he said, Not that I speak from want; for I have learned to be con­tent in what­ev­er cir­cum­stances I am. I know how to get along with hum­ble means, and I also know how to live in pros­per­i­ty: in any and every cir­cum­stance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hun­gry, both of hav­ing abun­dance and suf­fer­ing need. I can do all things through Him who strength­ens me.” 

Paul’s point was that he could live under every con­di­tion in life – he could win and he could lose, he could suc­ceed and he could fail. It didn’t mat­ter, because it was Christ who strength­ened him to live under every cir­cum­stance in life. That’s the con­fi­dence that we have, that we’re empow­ered by God to live faith­ful­ly, to face the world regard­less of the con­se­quences because it is Christ who strength­ens us to do it.

4. The Abil­i­ty to See Cre­ative New Possibilities 

There is one more thing I want to share with you. Because of your learn­ing and train­ing, you have the abil­i­ty to see Cre­ative new pos­si­bil­i­ties that oth­ers can­not see. In every job you have, in every place you go, you are going to find peo­ple that are enslaved to old habits and pat­terns of doing things. They can­not envi­sion any oth­er way of approach­ing life. But you have a price­less gift – a train­ing that lib­er­ates you to dream and to won­der, a train­ing that opens you to new ways of look­ing at issues. You’ve not been trained to give only one answer to a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem. No. You have some­thing much bet­ter than that! 

You’re trained so that you approach any prob­lem with a dif­fer­ent set of assump­tions. You know enough his­to­ry so that you have per­spec­tive. You know enough log­ic and Sci­ence to be able to think ratio­nal­ly through an issue. You know enough psy­chol­o­gy and soci­ol­o­gy to under­stand the human con­di­tion. You know that when human beings are involved, far more than log­ic and rea­son are need­ed. Ten­der­ness, com­pas­sion, and hon­est rela­tion­ship are all need­ed. You have tak­en seri­ous­ly the direc­tive of Socrates to know your­self and so you are marked with an emo­tion­al matu­ri­ty, a self-esteem, and gen­uine humil­i­ty that is beyond your years. 

It does not threat­en you to have your own ideas and sug­ges­tions exposed to the most rig­or­ous exam­i­na­tion and crit­i­cism. You’ve had that hap­pen hun­dreds of times in the class­room. You can see any prob­lem at a dozen dif­fer­ent angles that most oth­ers don’t even know exist. You have the facil­i­ty with lan­guage and rhetoric to make your case clear and persuasive. 

And you have some­thing else: You have mod­els of the crisp, the clear, the imag­i­na­tive. The great British philoso­pher Alfred North White­head said that if we ever expect to rise above the mediocre we need, as he put it, an habit­u­al vision of great­ness.” You see, the best way to learn how to envi­sion more Cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties is to see mod­els of those who do it. 

Dur­ing my col­lege expe­ri­ence I had a pro­fes­sor who gave me this habit­u­al vision of great­ness.” He taught phi­los­o­phy, but I learned a lot more than phi­los­o­phy from him. I will nev­er remem­ber every­thing he said about Pla­to and Kierkegaard, but I will nev­er for­get his love of words. He han­dled words in a way that was new for me, as trea­sure to be cher­ished rather than pro­pa­gan­da to be maneu­vered. He had a spe­cial rev­er­ence for the mys­tery of words. In fact, words seemed to ush­er him into anoth­er world, a world that I could only see from a dis­tant shore. But what I saw tan­ta­lized and encour­aged me to see more, even to vis­it this world if only as a foreigner.

It was a strange world to me as a naïve sopho­more – a world in which zeal and insight met in friend­ship, a world in which truth and beau­ty kissed each oth­er. I was ter­ri­bly clum­sy with words, and so this char­ac­ter­is­tic in my teacher fright­ened me, but it also tan­ta­lized me. When­ev­er I wrote a term paper for him, I was ter­ri­bly afraid that it would fall far below his stan­dards, and many times it did, but he always encour­aged me to keep at it. I would write and rewrite until, final­ly, ideas would begin to rise above a sopho­moric bab­ble and car­ry me into new heights of the mys­tery, the won­der, and the enchant­ment of words. I prob­a­bly owe as much to this teacher as any sin­gle indi­vid­ual for mov­ing me into the field of writ­ing. He was, for me, an habit­u­al vision of greatness.” 

Of course, we’re not con­fined to the fel­low­ship of schol­ars that makes up a col­lege com­mu­ni­ty, as won­der­ful as that is. The lib­er­al arts invites us into inti­ma­cy with an incred­i­ble array of giants in every field. We meet Albert Ein­stein, not just as the archi­tect of the the­o­ry of rel­a­tiv­i­ty, but as a pen­e­trat­ing human being who can lift our sights to see new pos­si­bil­i­ties for the human fam­i­ly. We can learn in inti­mate detail about both the incred­i­ble musi­cal gifts and dis­heart­en­ing per­son­al flaws of Wolf­gang Amadeus Mozart, so that we are not only inspired by his music but instruct­ed by his life. We can become a com­pan­ion of Diet­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer and strug­gle with him through the dif­fi­cult issues of church and State and thus be brought to new heights of courage and obe­di­ence today. And many, many oth­ers. They give to us an habit­u­al vision of greatness.” 

And that vision does some­thing more than inspire us, it gives us new ways of look­ing at life. We are not ban­ished to the stale land­scape of the con­tem­po­rary, we are not con­fined to the mea­ger choic­es fed to us by mod­ern soci­ety. No, we see things with dif­fer­ent eyes. We look at the world not as it is, but as it could be, as it should be. That is the vision giv­en to us by the lib­er­al arts. That is what lib­er­ates us. That is what sets us free.

(Adapt­ed from the com­mence­ment address giv­en at George Fox Col­lege in New­berg, Ore­gon in May 1987.)

Pub­lished in Evan­gel­i­cal Friend (January/​February 1988)

Originally published December 1987

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