When it comes to educational philosophy, the liberal arts are falling out of vogue. Organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Casey Research Institute issue dire warnings about the future if America does not devote more resources to mathematics and engineering. Alex Daley with the Casey Institute even went so far as to write a piece entitled, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Major in the Liberal Arts”, an unsubtle title to say the least. There he argued that American students are “graduating less prepared for the technological future than their peers from around the world – a trend that is already having serious economic effects as jobs like biotech research now head overseas as quickly as manufacturing once did.” No doubt Mr. Daley has in mind countries like Japan, Germany, or China, nations which excel in engineering and research. Or perhaps he has in mind numerous media reports about fledgling American science and math scores or the dire predictions of our economic future if we don’t shed our obsession with the arts. As any reasonable libertarian like Doug Casey, founder of the Casey Research Institute, will tell you, history, literature, dead languages, and theology are really nothing but diversion or a hobby at best. Maybe as well the ironically unscientific anecdote of freeloading Occupy protesters with loads of debt and useless Medieval Literature degrees still rings true in the ears of many hearers. So off to war march the pragmatists and the artists, engineers citing the indisputability of common sense.
As a Christian, however, I am left wondering how Jesus informs this discussion. While I no longer sport a knit bracelet advertising it, I still have to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” (My Sunday School teacher said so.) More aptly in this discussion, what can we learn from Jesus’s pedagogy here in 2013? What can we glean from the famous teacher Jesus Christ, the most influential man who ever lived? I believe that we can see from Jesus a holistic view of education, one which engages the mind with the arts, values the practical life of work and career, and transforms the human heart. Thus, Jesus the liberal artist sees and educates the whole person.
Jesus demonstrates a holistic liberal education in his knowledge not of only of the Scriptures (a decidedly unscientific book, despite our loudest fundamentalists’ yelling). In Luke 4:16-22, Jesus attends the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. In this passage, we read that Jesus opens the scroll of Isaiah and announces the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in the presence of the assembly—namely, that the Messiah had come and was now standing before them. We may note two very significant facts here which may not be apparent to the reader. The first is that Jesus is familiar with the Hebrew Bible. This story takes place in a time before the conventional chapter and verse designations with which we are familiar. This was also in a time before the codex, meaning that the entire text of Isaiah was on a single scroll. Jesus would have studied the synagogue’s copy of the book; it was too expensive to produce individual copies. Further, Jesus was familiar with Hebrew, a language which was essentially dead at the time. Modern Hebrew spoken in Israel today is the only example in history of a revived language. Jesus probably spoke Aramaic as his native language; spoken Hebrew was almost dead by this time. In fact, most young Jews would not have begun any kind of practical job training before learning Hebrew from the local rabbi. Jesus was well-versed enough in the Hebrew faith that he was even able to astound the rabbis in Jerusalem… at the age of twelve!
However, beyond simply knowing the Bible, Jesus the blue-collar carpenter was also familiar with the theological ideas in vogue at the time. In Luke 20, we read an account of Jesus’s time in Jerusalem during Holy Week. The Sadducees approach Jesus and pose a hypothetical example concerning the resurrection of the dead. “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” The Bible tells us that the Sadducees denied resurrection and they also held only the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—as canonical Scripture. The most explicit references to the resurrection of the dead in the Old Testament come in the writings of the Prophets (such as Isaiah and Ezekiel), books denied by the Sadducees.
Jesus is familiar with their theological opinions and meets them on their own terms. He answers their question by refuting their silly example (there is no marriage in the resurrection) and then citing Exodus. He says that God is the god of the living, not the dead. How can he be (present tense) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob if they are dead? While modern-day Jews may dispute Jesus’s interpretation of this verse, we are told by Luke that this completely dumbfounded the Sadducees. Jesus the carpenter quoted passages his opponents considered authoritative, something he could not have done if he hadn’t studied their theology.