Wheaton College students need to understand people, cultures of the world
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A recent report by the National Association of Scholars is generating interest and controversy in the world of higher education.
In an effort to understand what is being taught at America's top liberal arts colleges, the association conducted an in-depth review of the curriculum at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.
The final report titled "What Does Bowdoin Teach?" offered a scathing critique. The college's curriculum was criticized for a lack of both intellectual coherence and moral conviction. Bowdoin has "a curriculum that fails to teach," the report concluded, and "a culture devoid of values."
In response, President Barry Mills offered a vigorous defense of Bowdoin's curriculum and its ongoing commitment to liberal arts education. The association report was "mean-spirited," he said, and misrepresented what faculty members at Bowdoin actually teach.
More substantively, Mills criticized the association for failing to appreciate the educational value of cultural diversity. Whereas the report seemed to favor a curriculum that focused on Western history, literature and culture, Bowdoin wanted to introduce its students to the wider world.
Many of the questions raised by "What Does Bowdoin Teach?" are relevant for liberal arts education at Wheaton College.
There are many differences between the two institutions, of course. Apart from geography, Bowdoin is a more selective school, with somewhat higher test scores and more substantial financial resources.
Then there is the biggest difference of all: Whereas Bowdoin has always been a secular school, Wheaton's pervasively Christian ethos is captured in the motto, "For Christ and His Kingdom."
Still, both schools are asking many of the same questions: What is the value of a liberal arts education? What is our commitment to ethnic diversity, and how is this commitment demonstrated in the classroom? What curriculum will provide the best education for our students and the best preparation for life after college?
Like Bowdoin, Wheaton is thoroughly committed to liberal arts learning. "Liberal" comes from the Latin term liber, meaning "free." Liberal education originally gave the citizens of a Greek or Roman democracy the moral and intellectual preparation they needed to serve as leaders of a free society.
This kind of education and the freedom to live by its values were rare privileges during a time when slavery was common.
The Christian community has a long history of engagement with liberal education. Already in the early centuries of the church in places like Antioch and Alexandria Christians who admired the Greek tradition taught their young people mathematics and philosophy, as well as Bible and theology.
These early Christians wanted to learn as much as they could about the world, which they believed to be created by God. They also wanted to integrate their learning with their faith, seeing every branch of learning as an opportunity to learn more about God, his world and his people.
The tradition of Christian liberal arts education, which remained strong through the Middle Ages and the Reformation, has exercised a strong influence on higher education in the United States. Most of our nation's liberal arts colleges were founded on distinctively Christian principles.
Wheaton College carries this noble tradition forward into the 21st century through a rigorous and capacious general education curriculum that affords every student broad exposure to language, art, music, literature, mathematics, philosophy, history, and the natural and social sciences.
A good deal of the content in Wheaton's curriculum comes from the Western tradition, especially in the humanities. But the college also is intentional about fulfilling its mission of preparing students to serve as global citizens who "build the church and benefit society worldwide."
So there is an increasing emphasis on learning about other religions, engaging other cultures, and developing competency in cross-cultural relationships.
Celebrating ethnic diversity and developing stronger international partnerships are both essential to Wheaton's mission. The church is global as well as local, and Jesus of Nazareth gave his followers a clear command to take his gospel to every nation.
To fulfill this mission, Wheaton's graduates need to understand the peoples and cultures of the world.
In light of these goals, Wheaton's growing ethnic and international diversity is encouraging. Nearly 25 percent of this year's freshmen are students of color, and more than 10 percent of the student body grew up overseas. This diversity enriches every classroom, every dormitory and every student organization.
Best of all, these students and their classmates will be guided by a curriculum that finds its moral and intellectual coherence in the Christian worldview what Wheaton teaches.
• Philip Graham Ryken is president of Wheaton College.
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