TWU liberal interpretation of a liberal art education.
“There are only pockets of true Christian liberal arts at Trinity,” says Political Studies Professor Calvin Townsend who, despite his two daughters currently attending Trinity Western University, fervently supports his son’s decision to attend a completely different university.
This month, Townsend, along with Professors Jens Zimmerman and Chris Morrissey converged at the West Coast Collegium to answer the question posed by fifth year student Chris McDonald: “What does it take to sustain liberal arts at TWU?”
As the meeting begins, English Professor Jens Zimmerman immediately interjects a plea to speak first. A lifetime of falling alphabetically last motivates him to point out that, eschatologically speaking, “The last should be first.” No one can argue with this logic, so he proceeds to read his carefully prepared and neatly typed viewpoint: “Polemic discourse, or training in wisdom, is the place to begin,” he says. “If the liberal arts do not flourish, we have to make over our Christian subculture because we are at odds with two conflicting visions: concern over our private and public roles and our reputation in the community, and an evangelical ‘Bible camp’ mentality.”
In contrast, Philosophy Professor Chris Morrissey tranquilly replies, “I haven’t prepared anything. What was the question again?” He sits up straight in the far corner of the room, warmly flashing a beaming smile on everyone before he begins his response. “We need to take the stance of critical distance,” he says. “This is a more objective perspective than that of our current prevalent one, of group-think or peer pressure. It is a search for wisdom, the attainment of which requires us to read books, including the Bible, to study classical languages like Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. This route can remove us from our current worldview and place us into the former ways of thinking. If this can be accomplished, then we must foster the ensuing right thinking with the right kind of love to sustain it.”
Professor Townsend affirms these comments by revealing that the “Great Books” program that he feels his son needs is severely lacking at TWU but is vital for every liberal arts student’s first, foundational year— one that focuses on the Classics, such as St. Augustine, Sophocles, Aquinas, and many authors in the Western canon. “It teaches students critical thinking, in the true liberal arts tradition, before moving into their major,” he says. “Anything comparable is simply not available at Trinity.” Not available, you say? But aren’t we a liberal arts university?
In the ensuing group discussion, the need for a Classics Minor is put forth. Zimmerman posits, “There is vague talk about liberal arts at times, but no concerted strategy to root the university in the liberal arts tradition. Lack of finances to invest in the necessary re-structuring and marketing seem to be the biggest obstacles.”
A student in the back raises his hand and gives his thoughtful viewpoint, “C.S. Lewis says, ‘The world doesn’t need more little books about Christians. It needs more books about everything, written by Christians.’” He goes on to say that one can sometimes more effectively portray Christian values in a non-overt manner.
A true classical liberal arts education would be enlightening to students in ways that they can’t suspect because they don’t yet have the ability to think in the ways that this type of program would train them for. Townsend thinks TWU could be a perfect candidate for a liberal arts makeover: “Trinity already has a good track record of producing competent students, well-rounded and informed, capable of researching, writing, and thinking; rooted in the Christian faith,” he says.
As the discussion winds down Zimmerman admits, “I love TWU more for its potential of what it could be than for what it currently is,” and Townsend confirms, “The university has a strong base that could become the foundation of classical learning for students in the traditional liberal arts tradition.”
Differences in the critical thinking ability and subsequent quality of work between liberal arts and non-liberal arts graduates might not be quantifiable, but ideas and work that have been infused with liberal arts training benefit intangibly and are richer for it, just as work produced by Christian scholars is.