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A recent Gallup-Purdue survey 0f more than 30,000 college graduates explored connections between education and workplace engagement and well-being. The former combined job satisfaction with intellectual and emotional connection to the people and places of employment while the latter encompassed the five variables of having purpose, relational connections, financial security, community engagement, and physical health. By focusing on the well-being of students after graduation in relation to their undergraduate program, the report returned to a basic premise of a liberal-arts education: moral formation for civic life. This broadens the discussion in helpful ways.

One of the most surprising findings was that there was no difference between public or private education or the ranking of the college or university and workplace engagement and well-being. Instead, the correlation was between a student’s experiences in college and well-being after college regardless of college ranking or status. One important difference was that non-profit universities and colleges faired much better than for-profit in work engagement and well-being.

Student well-being after college increased in relation to higher participation in extra-curricular activities at college, relational connections with faculty (mentoring, generated love of learning, and care for the student), and the student felt supported by the college. In addition to this, workplace engagement increased if the students were involved in an internship outside of the college and worked on a long-term project as part of their academic program. Finally, the ongoing issue of student debt factored in to well-being after college insofar as the greater the debt the less likely the student achieved well-being in all five areas.

The original intention behind a liberal-arts education in the ancient world was to provide moral and cultural formation. As Peter Brown has noted, the liberal arts gave the child to the city. More often than not, there was a religious component, because education opened the child up to transcendence in some way. Encasing the process of education in a mythical ascent into the heavens, as Martianus Capella did in his Marriage of Mercury and Philology, underscored this transcendent dimension. 

All of this is to say that the movement through the liberal arts was simultaneously a moral and spiritual journey that formed the child in preparation for civic life. Christian writers like Augustine connected to the moral and spiritual aims of the liberal arts while resisting the way in which it shaped the child for a culture that was not essentially Christian.

One finds something similar occurring in the Middle Ages with the rise of the first universities. Stemming as they did from monastic schools and cathedral schools, they assumed intimate communities that provided an environment of moral and spiritual formation. The meaning of the liberal arts as educating the “free adult male” was transformed into a program of enhancing human freedom, but this was always perceived in terms of forming and shaping a person.

It was not until the rise of the research university in the nineteenth century that the older liberal-arts model began to be challenged significantly. The research university would contribute to civic life by unleashing scholarly creativity in a way that drove scientific and technological advancement. Of course, such research invariably means less time in the classroom and mentoring only those few elite students who research alongside the scholars. Under this system, the life of the mind became connected to a research-driven agenda, scholars being measured by how much they advanced knowledge. Ideas about freedom became wedded to scholarly creativity rather than student formation.

There remains a strong tension between the university as a place to form students’ lives who then contribute to society and the university as a place of the highest research that contributes to society by discovery and advancement of knowledge. This tension works on all kinds of levels, especially when universities tend to be ranked based on their capacity to facilitate research, not on whether they generate student well-being and workplace engagement after graduation. In truth, it is extremely difficult for any single university to do both well because it requires faculty to be both researchers and mentors.

When one thinks of evangelical higher education, it is clear that historically evangelicals have landed on the side of forming students’ lives as a whole. This aligned well with the evangelical emphasis of mobilizing greater lay participation on the church’s mission in the world and the resistance to the higher critical scholarship coming from German universities given that this scholarship was connected to the rise of the research model of the university.

Mark Noll intended his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in part to stimulate moves across the evangelical spectrum toward a research-driven model that would enable evangelicals to advance knowledge at the highest levels within a distinctly evangelical worldview. Yet, most evangelical institutions remain firmly committed to the older liberal arts model of formation, fusing it with worldview analysis in order to cultivate an educated Christian laity who can then change society. As Noll correctly noted, the research-model is the most expensive to undertake and most evangelical institutions remain tuition-driven, which requires faculty to be in the classroom more than out of it.

The Gallup-Purdue report, however, brings formation of the human person back to the center of the task of the university. By suggesting a correlation between how well a college actually succeeds in forming and shaping students’ lives during their academic journey and well-being after graduation, the report offers an opportunity for further debate over how best to cultivate the life of the mind.

At minimum, it points back toward the importance of the ancient and medieval emphases on spiritual formation, which is where evangelical scholarship about education has been pointing. This does not imply that research is unimportant, but it does suggest that the life of the mind and the ranking of the university needs to be more than how well it contributes to the advancement of knowledge. It should encompass how well it advances society through forming its citizens. 

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