There’s a tendency in education today toward specialization, even at the K-12 level. I saw an article the other day referring to a move as early as middle school in pressing children toward focusing their education on health-related fields, technology-related fields, or other specific areas. In middle school.
On the face of it, the move toward specialization has its charms. The earlier I can funnel my child into a career path, the earlier I can get him or her to make a higher education decision, then a professional decision. The earlier I can get him or her to a decision point on these things, it might save them some time before getting into the workforce, and it might save me (or them) some money in the education process. But while it seems attractive, I find this trend disturbing for a couple of reasons. First, while students may certainly begin developing preferences and ideas of what studies they enjoy and don’t enjoy at such an early age, the vast majority of them lack the maturity or mental framework to make decisions regarding major courses of study that could, in large part, determine the course of their lives. Making a decision too soon often result in preferences changing as students mature, leading to significant course of study changes later on, resulting in more time and money lost, rather than less.
Yet, to me the most disturbing aspect of early specialization, and one reason Grace and the better Christian schools (like the CESA network of which Grace is a part) resist this trend is the value of a broad liberal arts education. The “liberal” in liberal arts has nothing to do with politics. The term comes from libero, which is Latin for “book” or “great work,” and also connotes “liberal” in the sense of generous or broad. A liberal arts education is the ancient concept of a broad and general approach to education, learning many different things, many different disciplines; everything from literature, to mathematics, to the social sciences, to what used to be called “gymnastics” and what’s now called “physical education,” or “athletics,” all thoughtfully linked in cross-disciplinary ways to promote broad and varied thinking.
Through the liberal arts, students learn how people have lived for thousands of years, and what constitutes the life well-lived. They learn what the great writers and thinkers throughout the ages have said and thought about what is true and noble and good. They learn what it means to be a good man or woman, and good citizen, and a good steward of the things they have been given. And, when they receive a Christian liberal arts education, when they learn all those things through the lens of what the author and creator of the universe has to say about who they are and how they were created to live, it is truly spectacular and life-giving.
Ever since the turn of the century, educators have been writing about 21st century learning skills, concepts like critical thinking, reasoning, clear and cogent communication, collaboration, and creativity. In a very real sense, there’s nothing particularly “21st century” about these ideas: they’ve always been necessary to living and functioning well in the workplace and society. And, nothing develops these skills like reading complex texts and critically analyzing them, being able to write and speak in clear and compelling ways, learning to listen and understand the thoughts and feelings of others, learning to work and live with all sorts of people, and learning to solve complex problems both logically and with an eye and ear towards the heart. The liberal arts, a broad course of study, especially one infused and undergirded with God’s truth, is the key to developing all these skills. In this culture, with higher education becoming increasingly specialized and a diminished focus on the liberal arts as not being “career friendly,” if our children are going to be able to have these opportunities for a broad education anywhere, it will happen at the K-12 level. It is an educational mistake to rush them through that process.
From a pragmatic standpoint, an increasing amount of research shows that it’s a costly mistake, as well. The Washington Post recently reported on a study of liberal arts programs from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The study found that, over the course of a career, a liberal arts education is remarkably practical, providing a 40-year median return on investment after enrollment in a liberal arts program of nearly $1 million. In fact, the study found that the return on investment for participating in programs at liberal arts colleges is more than 25 percent higher than the median for all colleges. The highest return of all was when a liberal arts education was followed with a professional degree, like engineering, or medicine, or law.
I had an experience several years ago that shows why this finding is true. I was doing an institutional review on a Christian K-12 school near a major high-tech employer in another state. Most of the parents were engineers, and a colleague of mine and I were conducting a parent focus group. We were making a case for a strong liberal arts program at their school. We asked the engineer-parents what they majored in when they were in college. Most of them responded with some sort of engineering degree. We then asked them what their bosses majored in. The engineer-parents sheepishly looked at their feet and identified English, or history, or political science, or sociology, or some other liberal arts major, coupled with an engineering master’s degree. The moral? If you want to be an engineer, major in engineering. If you want to lead engineers, major in English. Their leaders understood engineering, but they also understood how to think, and write, and problem-solve, and collaborate, and all the great things they learned from their liberal arts education, as well. And, that made all the difference.
While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with ROI, at the end of the day (as a wise man said) children are God’s homework assignment to parents. The grade we receive isn’t determined by whether our kids’ lifetime earning average is greater than the guy or gal next door. It’s determined by whether they know who they are in Christ; whether they know their calling to walk alongside Him in the joy and grief and sadness and ecstasy that the abundant life Christ promises always brings; whether they know not just how to be good doctors or businessmen, but how to be good mothers, or fathers or church members, or students, or husbands, or wives, or citizens, or friends- in short, great human beings and image bearers of God. A comprehensive liberal arts education, undergirded and rooted in God’s Word and stewarded by His people, is the best hope I’ve found for developing these essential virtues in our kids.