American institutions aren’t doing so well these days. There is a loss of confidence in the media, the government, and, of course, higher education.
According to New America’s sixth annual survey on higher education, only 55 percent of those taking the survey think that institutions of higher education were having “a positive impact on the country” – down from 59 percent last year and 69 percent in early 2020. (Inside Higher Ed July 26, 2022.)
Many see higher education in terms of today’s “culture wars.” Some see a secular dogmatism coming from our elite institutions that separates these institutions from the diverse views and beliefs of our country. This rigid, self-referential set of principles creates the opposite impact higher education should have in a pluralistic democracy like ours. It undermines confidence our country has in the role of higher education in preparing citizens for civic duty.
At Birmingham-Southern, we provide a classical education through the liberal arts – a term from the Latin referring to the subjects of study (artes) pursued by “free people” (liberales). That education is grounded in a commitment to service that traces to our Methodist roots and is focused on preparing students for the world they will enter upon commencement. That world will demand a lot from them: adaptability in their careers, as the jobs many will have in a decade do not yet exist; the ability to work cordially and productively with people who are not exactly like them; fluency in technology, which will impact every aspect of their lives; and the moral courage to stand for what they know to be good and right.
It is no coincidence that BSC has a culturally and religiously diverse student body — Christians of many denominations, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim students, and students who do not report identifying with any religion at all. Although we are affiliated with the United Methodist Church, our number one denomination these days is Baptist. And yet, the strength of our educational experience comes from the traditions of the Methodist Church.
At BSC, we instill a sense of purpose among our students to serve the world around them. Reflecting the teaching of John Wesley, education at Birmingham-Southern comes to life when applied to make the world a better place. Almost 85% of our students voluntarily participate in service- learning, working under the guidance of professors to tackle the problems our community faces.
In addition, we practice a secular form of grace in our academic process. In Christianity, God’s grace enables us, the unworthy, to be saved. Grace requires forgiveness. In a secular classroom, grace among our students and faculty means that we share ideas without judgment; we accept each other’s mistakes without exacting a price. In fact, only through a secular grace are we able to bring together a community that is diverse in background and beliefs in the pursuit of academic truth. Only through a secular grace are we able to leverage different perspectives that hone the process of critical thinking.
BSC is taking a leading role in integrating technology into our curriculum, a combination that may seem outside the scope of a liberal arts college but which we believe is a natural and necessary fit. Equipping students with the ability to extract, analyze and apply data in the context of the humanities, business, science, and the arts is an exciting and timely opportunity for the College, serving not only our students but the workforce needs of our state and region. A data-savvy liberal arts graduate who can lead a diverse team to solve problems is any company’s best next hire.
It is not our mission to send graduates into the world who all think the same way, have the same skills, come from the same backgrounds, or approach problems from the same perspective.
Rather it is our mission to graduate students who can think critically and apply what they learn through engagement with the world to make it a better place. In a pluralistic democracy like the United States, we are fulfilling our mission, the mission of artes liberales, by graduating young people who are prepared for their civic duty.
Daniel Coleman is president of Birmingham-Southern College.