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    A Waste of Time?

    I thought liberal arts classes would be boring—until I started finding God in every one of them.

    by Steve Lansingh

    Staring at my 12th-grade class schedule, with all its AP classes and impressive electives like economics and sociology, I wondered how I was going to survive the year. A hefty workload was nothing new to me, but high school was just about over, and I wanted a chance to slow down and enjoy it.

    I had always focused on getting good grades. Maybe it started in preschool when I got check-plusses for learning my colors. Maybe always being a year younger than my classmates made me want to excel. Or maybe when my parents started expecting me to do well, I didn't want to disappoint them. Whatever the reason, I dutifully memorized what I was taught so I could succeed later—junior high would prepare me for high school, high school for a good college, college for a high-paying job.

    But during my last year in high school, I started thinking about these impressive subjects I'd signed up for. Would I really need calculus, for instance? Would it help me in college or my job? I was planning to become a journalist, and I didn't think I'd be writing too much about big math equations. So, I figured, there was no reason for me to take math in college. I dropped the difficult class and replaced it with my first-ever study hall.

    Instead of trying to do well in every class, I started appreciating only the ones that seemed valuable to me as a writer. Later, when it came time to look at colleges, I wondered if I should escape boring subjects entirely by attending a journalism school. My best friend was going to a one-year broadcasting school to prepare for a career in radio. I was tempted to follow suit and skip all that "well-rounded education" nonsense.

    Still, a four-year college sounded like a lot more fun than a one-year professional school. And even if the general-education courses would be a pain, I decided the social life at a Christian liberal arts college would be worth it. I figured I could speed through my gen-ed classes and then enjoy the rest.

    Into the trap

    My freshman year at college was a whirlwind of changes as I learned to live without Mom and Dad, tried to get used to the cafeteria food, puzzled over finding all my classrooms without looking clueless, and worked on making new friends. In the midst of so many adjustments, my gen-ed classes at least were familiar. I signed up for economics and sociology, figuring my experience in high school would help me coast through the classes with minimal effort.

    In both of these classes, I barely listened to the lectures and zipped through my homework. I memorized only the parts of the books that would be useful for the tests. With those study habits, I forgot what I'd learned the minute I handed in each exam. I was wolfing down my gen-ed classes like the cafeteria food I swallowed without really tasting.

    One class I did enjoy was Freshman Experience, in which our group would sit in a circle and just talk about our new life at college. I now realize the class was designed to combat the typical freshman trap I had fallen into—treating coursework like something to get through, putting the absolute minimum effort into a class instead of really thinking about it.

    As part of Freshman Experience, the professor introduced our class to the idea that all our academic experiences were searches for truth in the world around us. And every truth we learned about the physical world or the human race would give us insight into our relationship with God, who created everything we study. Saint Augustine (one of the many old guys whose work I read at college) put it this way: "Wherever we taste the truth, God is there."

    Since writing, art and literature interested me, I first began to "taste the truth" in these classes. The creativity I was able to put into my writing and art showed that I truly was made in the image of a creative God. Learning to understand literature of different cultures and eras gave me insight into the Bible, a very ancient and richly cultured book itself.

    I had always wanted to serve God as a writer, but I started to see that my career would also teach me a lot about him. But it would be another year before I would understand that all of my college courses—even ones I wasn't naturally interested in at all—could reveal God to me.

    A real history lesson

    Sophomore year, I began to feel guilty about slacking off in my gen-ed classes. Counting up all my required course hours, I figured out that in my four years of college, I would spend more than one year, total, taking classes in subjects I didn't like. Given the huge price tag of a college education, just scraping by in all those classes seemed like an awfully big waste of money.

    So when I entered my History of Civilization class, I was looking for a way to make the information useful to me. I remembered that my older brother had majored in history, and he thought and talked about God all the time. There must be something of God in history, I realized, if it appealed to my brother. Maybe my major wasn't the only one that could help me understand God better. So I started the class by asking God to help me see him in the material.

    Lists of names and dates and wars didn't seem all that fascinating to me, but eventually my searching uncovered an insight. By looking at human history and the Bible side-by-side, I could see how God had been influencing society all along.

    Old Testament laws and experiences prepared people for Jesus. New Testament ideas laid the foundation for the church, which in turn shaped the values of Western society. Our modern concepts of fair trials, marriage by consent and the value of human life flow directly from God's directions for ancient people. When I looked at history this way and saw God on every page, I finally felt my time spent in class was worthwhile.

    Finding God everywhere

    It took a little more work to find God in other subjects, and it didn't necessarily make the memorization (or the tests) any easier. But having a purpose in the classroom made it a lot easier to pay attention. I spent astronomy class marveling at God's ordered universe. In my physical education classes, I started to really appreciate the amazing body God built for me.

    My most difficult hurdle was French class. In my intro-level courses, I was subjected to endless exercises in vocabulary and verb tenses and everything else boring. If I had any hope of becoming fluent in French, it might have seemed worth it. But I'd been taking the language for three years, counting high school, and something about the way my professor shuddered when I tried to speak in French made me think I had little chance of ever mastering the language.

    Then one day I remembered that the whole reason God created languages, according to Genesis 11, was to humble the cocky builders of the Tower of Babel. Certainly, French was a humbling experience for me. But finding out my limitations was helping me grow. I realized that French class was doing the job God wanted it to—I was quickly learning to be realistic about my abilities, to continue despite difficulty, and to rely on God when things were just too hard for me.

    Still learning

    God's work in my life often doesn't make sense to me while it's happening, but it becomes clear later. I'd be lying if I said that once I got a handle on the purpose of liberal arts education, I suddenly loved every lecture and term paper. But it's true that without some concept of why I was studying so many different things, I would have missed out on all that God wanted to show me.

    Even with a first-class college education, I don't have an incredibly high-paying job. So if God hadn't changed my mind about the worth of an education, I might have concluded that I'd wasted four years of my life (and a lot of money) at school. But I've realized my education taught me how to live, not just hold a job, and I'm so glad I chose a liberal arts school.

    Now that college has ended, I still look for God in my everyday life. When I'm watching movies, reading books, talking with friends, working late or serving at church, I try to see God in action. I'm not sure what kind of grades I'm getting, but I'm enjoying the class.