*image credit: https://www.davidklassenfineart.com/about

In 2020 and 2021, the cross-pressures on undergraduate education were phenomenal, and they raised so many fears and anxieties that it seemed that we couldn’t be anything but in a CONSTANT state of fear.  Individually, we have worn masks and washed hands because we have been afraid to catch and spread disease.  Socially, we come from churches that have often used punitive measures to regulate their institutional space, whether that be guilt and shame, or judgment and ex-communication.  Existing in that space can also be fearful. As social institutions, Churches themselves have been fearing a declining attendance, so that they become acutely aware of the possibility of becoming more structure than substance. Beyond the church, we fear the collapse of other social institutions like “the economy” which can lead to a significant destruction of the infrastructure of our cultural life. Socially, we have also tended to distrust our neighbors and outsiders.  We don’t know if by having a relationship with them, we will embark on conflict, whether it is political, religious or how we dispose of our garbage. It seems that nothing is safe! You remember the old adage for polite conversation at parties: stick to the weather and your health and you will be OK.  But now, with climate change and a pandemic, even those are off-limits.

Deep in the background lie more existential fears: global catastrophes (the appearance of genocide in the twentieth century, then nuclear war, and now climate change), the prevalence of mental illness (including manifest depression and persistent anxiety), and a growing sense that there is no point to it at all, as evidenced by the rapid increase in boredom and apathy that began as early as the early 1950s and continues through today.   

More concretely experienced, our white and heterosexual students and professors are often afraid to engage persons, cultures, and works of literature that are not white or non-binary.  Conversely, our non-white and non-binary students have expressed fears of the implicit structures of what has been called “white heterosexual space”, which is a reasonable description of Universities – a space that makes possible micro-aggressions that are so structural that they are even embedded in questions like “Where are you from?” or “Do you have a boyfriend?”.

In this context filled with fear, it seems essential, then, to contemplate on the University experience in which you are engaged. King’s has adopted a hybrid model of education, coming in-person to class only sometimes, partly because we fear that the loss of the personal contact from class time, from being on campus, will somehow mean that we will miss out – like my son who doesn’t want to go to bed before my wife and me, afraid he’ll miss the “good stuff”.  I think it would be different if he knew that the majority of what we talk about is what to eat or our schedules for the next day. However, he intuitively knows that heartfelt intimate connections are formed after dark.  We know too that there is something essential and meaningful about being together at school.  

I know you are absorbing this content over the internet.  But I want you to follow this intuition of “being together” as you consider engaging in a liberal education.  Being together has a commonality that we too often forget.  As Charles Taylor, a great Canadian social philosopher, has asserted about our common social existence, “to come together in mutual recognition of [our differences] requires more than a belief in [the value of recognition], we have to share also some standards of value on which the identities concerned check out as equal.” (Taylor, p. 52)

Historically, the Liberal Arts University has done a TERRIBLE job at defining this substantive commonality.  Too often, our liberal arts education is limited to the dual purposes of 1) processing large amounts of information (that we eventually forget after we finish university, or worse, after the exam) and, 2) being a mere stepping stone to employment prospects.

Regrettably, most of us committed to liberal education agree that the outcomes of undergraduate liberal education are not widely understood or valued by the general public. While the college degree is universally recognized as the key to economic and social mobility, what lies behind that credential, the educational experience, its full value, and its purposes, is more or less ignored. In general, in the popular imagination, undergraduate education is a commodity: students and their families are customers, faculty are service providers, and institutions compete to provide accommodations. Specific attention to the full purposes of liberal education is even less focused; and in light of that, it is now rarely considered a necessary element of undergraduate education.

Due to its neglect of the core purposes of liberal education, the academy itself bears some responsibility for popular misconceptions—or, lamentably, ignorance of what liberal education promises. And this persistent ignorance leaves us susceptible to the myriad of fears I mentioned at the beginning; these fears are embedded in the misconceptions.  Insecurity pushes us to use the degree only as a step to greater economic and social mobility, and isolated learning leads us to treat others instrumentally as if they exist only to serve our individual purposes.

But let’s consider this: It is as if the concept of “social mobility” may, in fact, be at the root of our deep misunderstandings of liberal education, and the root of so much injustice and inequality in the world.

Considering the purposes of liberal education is necessary WHILE understanding the cross-pressure of the need to gain social mobility.  By doing so, we will gain clearer understandings of what we are doing when we undertake such an education, and in what contexts we are doing it.  At the very least, we will discover some commonality that will mitigate some of the fears individually faced, substantiate the mutual recognition required for our social and public lives, and act as a cornerstone feature of a life of thriving.

Before I attended Bible College, and then university, in Manitoba, I was profoundly impacted by three general situations.  First, I was deeply moved to understand God’s word and God’s actions in the world with my whole being.  I was enamored by the feeling of connection I had with God when I took communion which was consistently experienced with the grace offered to me there, that I did not deserve to be in such an intimate and sacred relationship. Moreover, I had a similar connection to God at various points in my life which were not directly connected to the communion table.  Second, I was deeply concerned with suffering in the world and was thoroughly amazed by the huge number of marginalized people I encountered both in inner-city Winnipeg and on the world news.  The 1980’s famine in Ethiopia had impacted me, and so too had the fall of the Berlin Wall. Why was I so fortunate to not have had to live through a famine? Or to be borne in a situation that had been forcefully divided between political ideologies? Third, I had understood that University was the place where I could study the relationship of the marginalized to mainstream society, and in University I had understood this problem as encapsulated by the relationship of the individual and the community.

I can say now that I am still thrilled to think about these three phenomena, and I am grateful for the University as a place that provided me a relatively undisturbed place to work through these issues. And I was extremely privileged to work through these things WITHOUT the pressure of having to be successful, beyond simply passing my courses.  Neither my parents, nor my friends, nor my Mennonite community pushed me to do anything other than work through these problems.  I didn’t have to achieve anything but to do my education well.  There was no winning or losing involved in the schooling I chose. There was only the awareness of how I would apply my education, what I would learn, and how it would help me to live well. I would think that if I had the pressure to measure social “success”, the outcomes and experience of the university for me would have been undermined.  After all, the moral implications of an Ethiopian famine seem to be something that would not help me climb the social ladder.  There is no social merit in that.  The idea that social mobility is universally recognized as the key benefit of the university… by the students, parents, and the university itself… creates a kind of “dark side” to our education.        

There have been, and remain, a “triad” of interrelated core purposes for liberal education: the epistemic (coming to know, discovery, and the advancing of knowledge and understanding); the eudemonic (the fuller realization of the learner, the actualizing of the person’s potential—classically to achieve individual well-being and happiness); and the civic (the understanding that learning puts the learner in relation to what is other, to community and its diversity in the broadest sense, as well as the responsibility that comes from sustaining the community and the civic qualities that make both open inquiry and self-realization possible).  The complexity of these three inter-related purposes is underappreciated and creates fears and anxieties among students, professors, and administrators. But further, the idea that the University is the key to social mobility, which places the University as the arbiter – the gatekeeper – of such universal striving, creates a kind of pressure on the three aforementioned purposes.  In a sense, they each individually, and seen together, are stressed to the point of breaking.

On one level, we have lost track of this complexity—focusing in the academy only on the epistemic purpose of education. The assumptions driving this trend have been that the best students have come to know MORE knowledge, OR that the MORE correct answers are equal to being MORE educated, OR that what the world needs is MORE information. We can visibly see the aligned value of social mobility of education, in which education is the key to accessing the benefits of higher social status. Social mobility, in regards to “what” we know (the epistemic purpose), happens BOTH in being valued and esteemed professionals like doctors, lawyers, teachers, clergy, or engineers, AND in acquiring our increasing fluency in situations of the so-called “upper” cultural classes such as at the opera, at poetry readings, and even in the box seats at an Edmonton Oilers game.  The value of social mobility, as our more recent definitions of essential services testifies, has become dubious. Inevitably, our universal acceptance of the good of social mobility, which has been unconsciously identified with who contributes the most to GDP, has led to the unreflective prioritizing of the “epistemic” purpose of liberal education at the expense of the other core purposes—namely, fostering self-discovery and well-being, and establishing the relationship between knowledge and responsibility for what is beyond self, the “civic” purpose.

But it has also undermined what we have come to know.  As an English acquisition teacher in Thailand and South Korea, I have taught many-a-student who can ace the test I give them, a key to social mobility in their context; however, they could not find their way through customs or out of the airport in Vancouver, Toronto, or New York.  As a business communication professor, I have taught many a student who could open an interesting and unique restaurant, but because of an over-emphasis on generating a profit, could not understand that the experience of that restaurant was what gave the business its sustaining power. In other words, by unquestioningly adopting social mobility as a universal good, both the knowledgeable English student and the profit-focused restaurateur missed the purposes of acquiring a language or of opening an interesting and unique restaurant. The over-emphasis on the epistemic purpose of education has led to citizens who experience helplessness and suffering filled with fear and anxiety. Michael Sandel, in his book The Tyranny of Merit, has likened this to the over-praising of hard work, while overlooking aspects of our educational experience that are more dependent on our particular lives and experiences like personal character or individual contexts. For example, a person growing up in prairie Canada might experience global warming as 4 or five hotter days in the summer, but one from coastal Thailand will have had their home flooded by rising sea levels. In other words, no amount of hard work over what is in textbooks and lectures can make such knowledge feel real. Liberal Education, then, and King’s University, in particular, needs to remain faithful to the epistemic purpose of education.  It must set up its educational model and practice so that you can come to know the essential aspects of your discipline and the subjects which you study, and to push you to incorporate this knowledge in such a way that you can “get out of the airport”, so to speak.  This knowledge acquired at King’s should help you navigate the world outside of King’s.

And this leads us to our reflection on the civic purposes of education, and why blind acceptance of the good of social mobility undercuts the promise of the liberal university. Social mobility is the idea that we can climb the social ladder, that we can become a success, and do so because of our own doing.  Social mobility is not only a life of affluence, of wealth but also a life of esteem. The social story along this civic ideal is that we experience the best of the world (or the worst) because it is the deserved outcome of our efforts or lack thereof.  The best and worst of the world is not only material purchasing power but also preferential esteem. And the ones who succeed on the ladder of social mobility have had an unchecked tendency to believe that they deserve it and that it grounds their belief that they are a cut above the rest. Not only does this contribute to radical economic and racial inequality, but it has also acted as a justification for entrenching inequality. 

That the University has been a gatekeeper at certain points on that ladder, whether that be admittance and graduation of undergraduate, Master’s or Doctorate levels, or in a variety of professional certifications, without questioning the basic assumption which is the structure of the social ladder, has pressured and undermined the civic purpose of education. Universities teach us about inequality, about discrimination based on religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, and other communally derived identities. However, without dismantling the ideal of social mobility and the preferential honor conferred by it, the University can and does undercut its very own civic purpose.

The King’s University then has a responsibility to explicate this civic purpose. Jesus says, “I give you peace, but not as the world gives.” The world tells us of ONE social ladder that we climb by our effort. But in actuality, we experience diverse individuals and communities; we experience different subject matters and expertise.  We see this among our student population, and we need to see this diversity even more in our faculty and staff.  There is a significance in understanding that the one social ladder does not exist. The peace that Jesus gives will be radically different from the one offered by the one social ladder. And there is a model of civic purpose already in the life of King’s. In your education, you will indeed take on the responsibilities for living with diverse others, for learning with the world in mind, for listening to each other, and from taking in many perspectives from across cultures and disciplines, from across religions and sexualities, from across natural, social, political and spiritual perspectives in the development of your own. The civic purpose then is to not only educate yourself to develop your own identity, skills, and knowledge but also to use that knowledge to bring about a more just, prosperous, and peaceful world. It begins on our campus, extends into Edmonton and our local communities and neighborhoods, throughout Alberta and Canada, and into other parts of the world.

This is one side of the civic purpose of education: the integrated relationship of the educated student with the world around them.  However, the other side of the civic purpose of liberal education is breaking down the structure of elitism, derived from the preferential esteem granted by the attainment of a University degree and its associated model of social mobility.  The civic purpose of liberal education is then to make us aware of dignity and respect of the whole, a diverse range of our community lives including those NOT successful as measured by the model of social mobility. Liberal education, as modeled generally by interdisciplinary studies, should, at its best, mitigate the tendency to become silos of knowledge incapable of approaching each other in community.  Natural scientists need to be able to communicate the impact of their work and research for the life of scientists and non-scientists as well; philosophers and theologians need to integrate underlying metaphysical and spiritual realities with biological, historical, and physical phenomena; and psychology and sociology need to contribute together with political and educational efforts to improve the world.  We all need to understand that it isn’t doctors and nurses only who are sources for, and carry the responsibilities of promoting health, but also garbage collectors and janitorial staff who prevent disease.    

The last purpose of liberal education is the eudemonic, which means our ability to thrive. Now I also realize that apart from the inherited wealth you may have (ironically derived from increasing inequality), you may have little reason to believe that you will experience thriving in a material sense.  Millennials, whom many of you are, are rightfully aware of how dubious and doubtful the social ladder story of “you can make it if you try” is.  Home ownership, on your own efforts, is at least 20 years away if it is accessible at all. But more than that is the experience of constant fear and anxiety mentioned earlier. 

But liberal education, especially at King’s, holds a purpose and promise to tap into your present potential as learners, and your present power as human beings, and as currently loved as children of God.  By engaging in your studies, not only are you be able to engage in knowledge with energy and insight, you impress upon others the exact meaning you wish to convey, and you will impact those around you with authority and precision.  You will also ask questions under-considered by your professors and classmates. You will integrate connections between a philosophy course on one side, and a theory of biological evolution on another. And in those interactions within and around you, you will partly participate in and partly forge, the environment and space in which to be your best.  As Christians, we will experience this as stepping into God’s plan for our lives.  More bodily, we will experience this as being full of energy and passion.

But that is without putting on the pressure of being socially mobile.            

The pressures and stresses, the fears and anxieties of liberal education will in a sense be natural and manageable if liberal education stays true to its three purposes. We should understand that we are coming to know information, i.e. our epistemic motive, and that we are applying that information to the world around us, i.e. our civic purpose, and that we are doing so also for our sense of thriving, i.e. our eudemonic purpose.  It is the additional story that we need this education to pursue some future success that adds the unnecessary moral and material fear that, as individuals, IF we fail, we won’t have earned our good life, and worst of all, it will be our fault. The story that we aren’t as “successful” as some as measured by our rising and falling on a fictional ladder of worldly success is EXACTLY the corruption of the human experience that education was meant to help us escape from.

Jesus tells us not to fear or be worried because his peace is given not on the ladder of social mobility, but in a different way.  After all, the message of the gospel is that we cannot earn our way to heaven; rather, it is a gift freely offered.  We are saved by grace, not by our efforts. Thus, King’s University ought to be that different way because as a community, members are to be equipped to learn new knowledge, apply that to the world, and experience the prosperity and abundance God has in store for us.

More than simply pointing out the contrast though, I want us to see the real consequence of it; that by knowing the counter-biblical message of social mobility we are falling prey to the third temptation of Jesus.  You know the story… Satan offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world if he worships Satan. Satan offers Jesus the highest in social mobility, and Jesus tells Satan to go away. There, written in all three synoptic gospels, is the game.  Yet our willingness to play that game, mapped on to the grades at University, mapped into our competing for the love of our parents, is weaved ever so tightly into many of our most important relationships. It brings to light the game we are all familiar with, and we have awkwardly “done University” in a way that has been mapped on to this rather childhood competitive game of social mobility.

If you are going to play this game, you can make mistakes or not make mistakes.  Even worse you can fail or succeed. It tells us, “YOU MUST DO THE RIGHT THING”; THERE IS CERTAIN CONDUCT THAT IS APPROPRIATE HERE; THERE IS CERTAIN CONDUCT APPROPRIATE THERE. And it alienates us from ourselves and from God. As long as we are stuck in the game we never really grow up, and in fear and anxiety, we sin by playing the game.

This childhood game of social mobility dictates that there are three kinds of people: top people, middle people, and bottom people – or as we call them in University: “A” people, “B and C” people, and “D and F” people. And there can’t be middle people with bottom people. And there can’t be top people unless there are middle people. And so it goes on…

Everyone is trying to be in the top set, and if that is going to happen then there has to be someone in the bottom set. The ones at the top do the right thing; the ones at the bottom do the wrong thing. We have this game in Edmonton, with the wrong ones living in Tent city near the Alberta Legislature, and the transformation of downtown made to exclude the bottom people. In my school days, we had the jock and nerd argument OR the squares and sheltered people compared to the smokers and the ones who consumed weed.  When I studied philosophy at University, we tried to “win” arguments, and the person that lost… really lost. The losers went over to social sciences. But one side couldn’t exist without the other. Jocks needed nerds and vice versa just like the cool people needed squares and vice versa, just like the philosophers needed the social scientists and vice versa. Just like the people in tent city couldn’t exist without the gentrification of downtown. You see, in the game of social mobility, these things go together…. They are coexistent to keep the balance in the game, and fear has the effect of hiding that it is, in fact, a kind of childhood game.

If it is not I am stronger than you, then it is I am wiser than you, I am more loving than you, I am more tolerant than you, I have traveled to more countries than you, I speak more languages than you, I am more sophisticated than you, and …. I am more humble than you.  It is a constant competition, and the thing we fear the most is that we can lose our place. The mistakes we make then are possible, and we confuse the mistakes on the game with sin – with its seeming direction toward our own destruction.

But the person who follows Jesus then is a person who is not involved in the social mobility game. That is the real meaning of not just a monk, or a priest, or a minister —- it is the definition of an authentic community that follows Jesus. It relieves individuals of the burden of becoming a Master (both in capability and in the title) because the idea that a Master is better than a bachelor, or a Master is better than a servant no longer makes any sense.

The idea that you and I are better than others is entirely meaningless.  That doesn’t mean that people won’t still play that game, but now, that’s THEIR game. However, you may be bothered about the game altogether with all the fear that it brings, and that may mean that like a tree, you start growing in a different direction. If King’s does anything in this regard, as a community that follows Jesus in a culture of fear and anxiety, it should foster your growth and give you courage in this new direction.  This growth for you is also new growth for the University.

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