The point RenMus has been attempting to make—with some success, we hope!—is that a new way in Lutheran higher education can and must be found. Worn out are those attempts to turn essentially parochial institutions into the multi-use, “everything-to-everyone,” institutions we see today. In fact, the success rate for Lutheran colleges that have become everything to everyone if only they might win a few for their coffers is dismally low. The Church’s interest in higher education really cannot be anything other than “a theologically conversant and literate laity and clergy.” All other “objectives” of higher education can be met by large state universities. So let’s leave those objectives to them and attend to our own interests.
Liz Reisberg makes a similar point in today’s Inside Higher Ed in an article titled, “If not a world class research university, then perhaps world class liberal arts?” The piece hinges on two arguments. First, world-class research university is coterminous with big bucks; liberal arts education is relatively much less costly. Second, given the tortuous route of a typcial worker’s “career” these days, liberal arts education is poised today as at no other time to be useful.
Mutatis mutandis, the same arguments Reisberg makes can be directly applied to Lutheran higher education. Chasing the latest professional program is always going to be much more costly than sticking with a solid liberal arts curriculum—and the payoff disappointing to the effort given. And since Lutheran higher education educates for one’s vocation, Lutheranly understood, and not one’s “vocation,” understood as “career,” it uses the human arts (artes humaniores) to that end on the premise that one learns to be a human better by reading Thucydides than by learning the precepts of marketing.
While the first point is one going to the proper management of limited resources, the latter is really a theological, not a merely aesthetic, issue. The Wittenberg Reformers were convinced that the higher education entailment of the Lutheran Reformation was a radical approach to the Western intellectual tradition through the sources themselves. To be sure, other approaches to higher education were wildly popular at their time; Melanchthon could complain with the best of us that students eschewed the liberal arts and chose instead what was “universally more saleable.” But for the Wittenberg Reformers, higher education was a matter of best preparing students to live under God’s call in a world and under orders created by God for men and their benefit. It was not, finally, business prowess or bureaucratic advancement that made for a life well-lived in the Wittenberg way; rather, a life well-lived in the Wittenberg way was one with a deeply cognizant sense of being located in a specific time and place, gifted with a certain wisdom handed down from antiquity and with an eschatological horizon that meant that this world was not all there was. That was the end to which the Wittenberg Reformers put the artes humaniores.
And that’s the end to which their modern heirs should continue to educate. Indeed, Thucydides is still the father of political philosophy, and the eschatological horizon hasn’t changed a bit. It’s only that we heirs of Wittenberg seem to have lost our way between our past and our future. But by approaching things like Wittenbergers, that is, by understanding what we ought to do now based upon where we have come from, based upon what we already know, we can find our way again.