Education for Liberty

Every new arrival to Columbia College—and to some extent to SEAS as well—confronts the paradox of the Core. College, as we all tend to conceive it in our mythical imaginings, is a time of liberation. At eighteen, we get to throw off our parents’ authority and take charge of our own destinies. We get to set our own schedules, choose our own values, and re-invent ourselves. Most of us carry these assumptions, whatever faith tradition we come from, because it is the American college myth.

But, as we progress through Columbia, this picture will turn out to have been a rather narrow, selfish vision of having all the benefits of adulthood with hardly any of the costs. These fantasies of freedom immediately meet the solid bulwark of the Core Curriculum: Fully one-third of our coursework is chosen for us! That art class you wanted to experiment with conflicts with your LitHum section. This doesn’t look like the four years of free experimentation college was supposed to be.

Many of us are slow to mature past this initial, freshman resentment of the Core. It seems like an interruption to our lives, the imposition of an alien agenda. And the more deeply we reflect on it, the deeper the problem seems. It does indeed assume that all of us who study at Columbia should be capable of navigating the intellectual tradition this university stems from. It assumes that some texts are worth more than others, that the Aeneid matters more than Harry Potter. Surely all this is an affront to our freedom to ponder upon ideas from our own point of view, to make up our own minds?

I believe the Core actually holds out a unique and precious kind of liberty, one far richer than the typical, tired myth about college. And I believe that it is particularly Christian Columbians who should celebrate this. There is a paradox of authority and freedom at work here that underlies so much of the human experience in a fallen world.

The Core aims to give us an education in “the liberal arts”—not as having anything to do with partisan politics, but stemming from the same root as “liberty.” Etymologically, at least, the Core’s rigid structure claims to be a liberating experience.

Every thinker who considers human choice-making grapples with a version of this problem: authority makes freedom possible, yet it also threatens it. There must be some overarching direction and order to society to make individual freedom more than anarchy. But it’s a perilous paradox: Plato’s Republic pursues orderly cohesion to the point of totalitarianism. And it’s a modern as well as an ancient problem: Rousseau eventually suggested the citizen must be forced to be free.

The Bible’s wisdom prepares us to ask good questions about freedom, so often invoked as a totemic word-god. The Bible doesn’t portray complete autonomy as an option for the human condition. Only God is absolutely free, and he has been absolutely self-giving in Trinitarian love through all eternity.

Yes, before the Fall, when everything was in perfect harmony, we were free agents ruling over creation—but only as long as we remained in submission to the Creator. As soon as Adam and Eve grab for the only created thing not given to them, the thorns and thistles rebel against their rule. If we abandon God to worship idols, we become slaves to sin. And the New Testament continues to make the pattern clear: In Matthew 6:24, when Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money,” it’s far more than a warning against greed. We are always mastered, owing our allegiance and loyalty to something.

What does all of this mean for seeing the Core as a liberating constraint? However excellent it may be, its authority cannot ultimately save us. But it can be a means of grace to us, just as political order and parental authority do not substitute for God’s commands but are nonetheless awfully good for us. Though the Core’s requirements in some sense “master” us, there’s another, far more onerous master that the Core is saving us from. That is the monstrosity of a technocratic, utilitarian education, one where we learn to jump through hoops to manipulate tools to maximize our income one day.

The Core reminds us that we must work to live, not live to work. From our very first days on campus, it makes us examine, over and over again, through literature, philosophy, music, and art, what it is to be human. It lifts us out of the everyday narrowness of studying the one thing we’re particularly good at, and helps us get a sense of the whole picture of Truth. Physics interweaves with music, poetry with philosophy, and the structures of the Core teach us to think freely. And a Core education can send us out into the world as confident agents, knowing our place and our principles, and possessing the moral imagination to work redemptively in it.

But, admittedly, so little of our education here feels that meaningful or liberating. This sense of wonder, awe, and joy often gets lost amid the daily grind. When you’re trudging back upstairs at three in the morning with your half-dry laundry, when you’re dashing to Blue Java minutes before they close to buy the last coffee, when you’re hunting through Lerner for a stapler so you can turn the Plato paper in—where’s the liberation in that?

The franticness that is such a part of our campus’ life is partly an inevitable consequence of living in a flawed world. As delightful as the ideals of the Core are, we experience them amid the confused messiness of life East of Eden. But I also believe there’s a cultural reason too: It’s hard to sustain belief in the value of the Core’s questions of humanity if we don’t ultimately connect them back to divinity.

Christopher Noble, professor at Azusa Pacific University, has written in The Chronicle of Higher Education that it’s ultimately up to religious students and colleges to save liberal arts education. What he means is that, without believing in transcendent reality, there’s little reason to study anything beyond what will provide us with immediate wealth and power. If Darwin, Marx, and Freud were right to lower the horizons of human meaning, why study their ideas, or anyone’s? But if we believe the world, and human experience, to be created and redeemed by Goodness, Truth, and Beauty—as we Christians do—then we can trust that ideas are real, and have eternal value.

Thus, as Christian Columbians, not only should we affirm the liberating constraint of the Core, but we hope that the liberal arts might free Columbians to examine more than material reality.



Image by James Xue.

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