Does a liberal arts education make any difference?

Apr 5, 2011 | Blog

 Nazarene Student Government Association Leaders

As Education Commissioner I often hear the question asked in the title of this article. Recently, I had the opportunity to respond to the question with the following article. I trust it is helpful to you.

Very early one September morning in 1960 a group of recent high school graduates from southeastern Florida departed from Ft. Lauderdale First Church of the Nazarene on a church bus headed for Nashville, Tennessee.  It was a very long trip to Trevecca Nazarene College. Those were the days without interstate highways throughout Florida, Georgia, or Tennessee.

My father was an alcoholic, and I did not have a happy home life.  In fact, it was quite miserable.  I remember saying to myself as a teenager, “My life is going to be different, and my family is going to be different.”  I don’t really think I knew what I meant by the statement, except it expressed my deepest desire.

The years at Trevecca turned me around for which I am still profoundly grateful. I met my wife to be, Anne, during our first week on campus!  We were nurtured in our faith and cultivated a deep appreciation for the arts.  A fascination with people and the societies in which they live was ignited. Lifelong friendships were developed with the TNC class of 1964.

In this liberal arts context, I learned how to think and to study.  During those undergraduate years, I developed an insatiable lifelong desire to learn.  I continue to read the books of my theology professor, Dr. Willliam Greathouse and reread sections of our three volume theology text by H. Orton Wiley.  I will never forget our philosophy professor, Dr. John Allen Knight, requiring us in a summer school class to read Frederick Copplestone’s six volume, History of Philosophy text on the subject.

In the midst of my theological studies, I took the required courses in psychology, sociology, music, art, and science.  US History was my college minor due, in part, to my fascination with the frontier life in the “new” United States of America.

I was challenged in and out of the classroom, in word and deed, to live a life of integrity. Deep within me a passionate pursuit of Christian character development was planted and cultivated.  Call me a “forever” student!

Something very significant happened to me spiritually in my sophomore year.  I remember the date, January 17, 1962.  Revival services were being held on campus.  I remember going to my room following the service.  I made a little altar out of a box.  That night I was sanctified through and through. I came to the point of saying to God, “If I am going to be a Christian, I want to be the best Christian I can. I don’t want to play games. I don’t want to go halfway.  Here’s my life.”  From the depth of my heart, that night, I spoke a “forever yes!” to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A biblical passage came to me during this spiritual encounter that has truly been my life verse.  “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will find it.”  (Matthew 16:25).

Little did I know that the collective experience of the small liberal arts college in Nashville with a distinctive Christian commitment would, in some measure, prepare me for graduate schools and enable me to appreciate museums throughout Europe, Asia, Africa,  Central and South America.  The perspective gained at the undergraduate level somehow prepared me to appreciate the cultural diversity I found while living in Busingen, Germany, Manila, Philippines, Mount Vernon, Ohio and while traveling to more than fifty countries worldwide.

My theological grounding enabled me to express my faith and critique dominant religions found in regions throughout the world.  I was sufficiently oriented in classes to relate reasonably well with beautiful people in economically developed countries and in economically developing countries.  Anne and I learned so much from individuals who had so little of what we call “wealth” and so much of what we call, “gratitude.” 

During the fall semester of 1999, I was granted a sabbatical by the Mount Vernon Nazarene College Board of Trustees.  I was accepted as a Research Fellow for my sabbatical at the Yale University Divinity School.

Since the Yale Divinity School library was at that time the repository of the writings of the late Henri Nouwen, I planned to study Nouwen’s material for insights into spirituality and leadership in the context of a Christian community, specifically a Christian university.  I spent many hours that fall in the library.

However, the big surprise of God for Anne and me during those several months in New Haven was living in a multi-cultural, international housing facility of the Overseas Ministries Study Center located close to the Divinity School.  What a blessing!  A Roman Catholic priest, two Koreans, a Chinese professor, and an Indian couple all living in apartments on our floor! Seminars, lectures, prayer groups, worship times, and meals together with dynamic Christians from around the world! What a blessing … a beautiful surprise … a magnificent gift to us by God for which we are still profoundly grateful.

Dr. Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist was held prisoner by the Nazis for several years. In prison camp he was stripped of his dignity, clothes, personal belonging and all material wealth. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes the loss of all but one dimension of life.  “They could not take from me,” he concluded, “the attitude I would choose to accept toward what they were doing to me.”

Frankl in his writings helped me to see that circumstances around us in life may rob us of those things which others around us deem important.  But, if our lives are invested in people, who will live on eternally, our lives will be filled with meaning and significance.

This investment in people who will live eternally is the call of my life verse to which I referred earlier, and at the heart of my studies at a liberal arts Wesleyan holiness college.  Does such a college make any difference?  It did in my life and, based on my work with 53 Church of the Nazarene colleges, universities, and seminaries in 35 countries globally, continues to do so profoundly.

LeBron Fairbanks
April 4, 2011

Recently published in Mount Vernon NOW Spring 2011


Professors John and Leah Marangu during my recent visit to Africa Nazarene University

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