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 naive 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 naive 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, naive 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 naive 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)

Text First Published December 1987