Listening In: Gene Fant

WARREN SMITH: I’m Warren Smith, and today you will be listening in on my conversation with the president of North Greenville University and the author of The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide. That’s Dr. Gene Fant.

Too often today, words take on meaning far different from their origins. Take the word liberal, for example. We often think of this word in its political context and contrast it to its opposite—conservative. If you’re a conservative than liberal is a bad thing, and because today’s secular university is often a hostile place for conservatives and Christians, the idea of the liberal arts generates an almost visceral and negative response. However, the word liberal comes from the same root that brought us such words as liberty. The liberal arts rightly understood are those arts intended for a free person, those ideas that nurture freedom.

My guest today, Gene Fant, believes Christians should recover a sense of the importance of the liberal arts. His book, The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide makes the case for the liberal arts, not just for college students, but for students of all ages, all thinking Christians. Gene Fant comes by his passion for the liberal arts honestly. He has earned degrees in renaissance literature, Biblical studies, English, anthropology, and education. He taught literature at Union University and is now the president of North Greenville University, a college affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and located in the upstate of South Carolina. We had this conversation in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Hey, welcome to the program and I’ve got to tell you that I’ve been a fan of your book, The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide, for a couple of years—the book’s been out a while—in part because it is such a short, succinct but robust, not simplistic, understanding of the liberal arts. And in this day and age, when the word liberal carries so much baggage with it, can you define for us what you mean when you say the liberal arts?

GENE FANT, GUEST: Yeah, absolutely. Working off of a very historical tradition where the idea about being liberal was to be set free. And originally it was to be set free from the self, from the tyranny of the self. And then something happened after the Enlightenment, then after the Age of Romanticism, to where to be liberal meant to be self-empowered or something like that. And it really stands the term on its head.

SMITH: So the liberal arts are those arts befitting a free person or those arts that will liberate us, that will make us free?

FANT: Yeah. The idea behind them is that we’re being prepared for something. So for the Greeks and the Romans that would be prepared to serve the state. So when you read the Aeneid, one of the phrases that they use a lot is that Aeneis was duty bound and the idea was that he was bound to the state, bound to its people. But then when Christians got ahold of it, the idea was that we were to be set free to serve God, set free from ourselves, set free from whatever it is that might ensnare us so that we can serve others.

And so just as the Scriptures prepare us for every good work, equip us for every good work, the idea behind the liberal arts is that they likewise equip us for what it is that God has called us to do.

SMITH: Well, I do want to get to what Christians did with the liberal arts and why Christians should be concerned about the liberal arts and should engage in the liberal arts, but let’s go back to where you started, which is in that classical tradition. You talk about, I believe, seven liberal arts originally: the trivium plus the quadrivium. Tell us what they are.

FANT: So the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium is basically the gateway. And so these are ways that help us to articulate what the world looks like. And so you have basically grammar and rhetoric and so forth. And then in the quadrivium what you have are ways to actually measure the world or to articulate the world. So you have astronomy, and geometry, and math and so forth. When you take those things together, then you are now equipped to handle the higher affairs. The higher affairs are philosophy, and ultimately the queen of the sciences, which is theology.

SMITH: Well, and one of the things that I’ve observed in recent years, the last 10, 20, 30 years, is there’s been a resurgence in classical education. The trivium, classical Christian education, seems to be making a comeback. Do you see that? And I would guess you would say that that’s a good thing.

FANT: Oh, absolutely. In fact, my kids studied for a while at an elementary school that was a Christian classical school. My wife was actually the dean of instruction for that school. And so we really did do that in our household and it prepared our students very well, our kids, as they were going along, we have twins, Ethan and Emily. And so what we found as parents was that this was really a contrarian approach to education in that we were helping our kids to see that this moment is not all that there is, just as this life is not all that there is. And so connecting them very intentionally with history, with ideas and concepts that far outstrip what we have today in terms of historical influence and historical continuity, we felt like that was really important, and a lot of parents are doing that now.

SMITH: Well, let me drill down a bit into those seven classical disciplines, the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium, which is grammar, logic, and rhetoric, are thought of probably most commonly in the study of what we would call today grammar and rhetoric or composition, English, that sort of thing. And maybe the quadrivium might be more closely associated with the study of the sciences. I realize I’m being overly reductionist and simplistic in that, but let’s just break it down that way for a minute and sort of move forward into the Christian era. Using that breakdown of sort of literature and the sciences, why should Christians care about studying those disciplines and not just sort of, if it ain’t in the Bible, I don’t care about it.

FANT: In fact, when my book came out, that was something sort of a family member said, well, I have the Bible, why do I need your book for? Which was a great compliment since I just spent a year writing it, of course. But what we find when we go into these things is that it really is preparing us for a kind of intellectual empathy. And so as we’re looking at the trivium, what we’re doing is learning how to communicate with one another as humans. And so I think that it really does cultivate an empathy that really is something that the Christian tradition took over and really took advantage of in terms of helping us to understand that we are connected with one another as fellow humans. And then on the quadrivium, it really helped us to understand God’s revelation of Himself through what we call general revelation. So we have special revelation through the incarnation of Christ and through the Scriptures themselves. But then God has revealed Himself and revealed His love toward us and other ways as well. And that quadrivium really helps for us to be able to explore that revelation of God.

SMITH: Well, that was one of the things that I think, Gene Fant, I enjoyed most about your book was that differentiation between general revelation, special revelation, and making the case that the study of the liberal arts really does, if we do it honestly, and we do it with discipline, reveal something of the character of God because God has revealed His character to us in His creation.

FANT: Well, and this is the idea as we get in the Scriptures that none is without excuse. And so it’s one of the reasons why I love to say—and I have a little section in the book on why math matters for Christians—and that is when you get into the quadrivium, what you discover is that right and wrong exist, and that math works across cultures, across time, across languages. It’s one of the magical things, the supernatural and powerful things about math is that it does communicate that there’s something more than the subjective. And so anytime somebody argues about that truth doesn’t really matter and all that, I always want to say, well, then let your boss gave you the wrong amount on your paycheck and they can assert that they’ve given you the right amount, but math will tell you they have not. And so you can argue about your truth is the same as my truth and neither of them are prioritized. But the reality is that math teaches us that right and wrong do exist. And then you have to ask the question, well, where did that come from? What is the meaning behind that that’s hardwired into the universe?

SMITH: Well, I thought that was one of the more powerful ideas in your book, which of course you didn’t come up with that idea, but you articulated it in a plain way. And that is that even if we or the students that we teach, our children for example, don’t pursue higher math, just pursuing math at even a basic level or as far as we can, does teach some powerful non-mathematical lessons, like for example, that lesson that there is such a thing as right and wrong. That two plus two does equal four and it always does, whether you believe it or not. And it does as you say, force you to think about, well, why is that? Where did that idea come from, that two plus two equals four and not five or three.

FANT: Well, and of course George Orwell picks up on that in the novel 1984. This is the statement that Winston Smith is forced to say is that two plus two does not equal four. And so if the government, if a potentate has the power to force you to lie and then to force you to alter your actual understanding of reality, than what that means is that there’s too much authority that’s been located somewhere. And this is a powerful message to our culture as well because our culture does want to often assert that, well, truth doesn’t matter, or you get to say whatever you want to. I get to say whatever I want to. And really what that means is let’s detach ourselves from reality. And math is the reality that helps us to understand that there is a person outside of reality who’s created reality, created the material world and that we can learn about that person, about that creator through the created word.

SMITH: Gene Fant, we’ve been sort of talking around this and much of what you say implies what’s in my next question, but can you answer explicitly, therefore, then why should Christians study the liberal arts?

FANT: Well, God created us not just as spiritual beings, but as rational beings as well. It’s part of the way that He designed the world was so that we will be able to understand about Him through the world. And so as we begin to study through these kinds of approaches to the world, we understand God better. We understand our fellow persons better. We also understand ourselves better. It’s one of the things that I’m very excited about in terms of what’s happening in Christian higher education right now is not just a recovery of this, but really an emphasis of this. A few podcasts ago, you had Karen Swallow Prior on, and she talked about the idea of orphans in the 19th century, as far as literature is concerned, being a metaphor for what’s happening to us.

And that is when we’re cut off from our past, which is what happens when we no longer study the humanities and no longer study liberal arts, we become cut off from the past. We become cut off from our identity. And what happens is we become orphans who are basically almost in a platonic sense, wandering the earth trying to figure out some meaning or some connection or something.

SMITH: Well, you said you were excited because you’re seeing some of that happen, I’m assuming as the president of North Greenville University, and I want to talk to you about that in a minute, that I’m hoping that you’re implementing some of this there. We’ve talked about a resurgence in classical Christian education at the elementary and secondary school levels. But I think you would have to admit nonetheless that this approach to education, this emphasis on the liberal arts and understanding the world as, if you will, the fingerprint of God, that we as Christians should study closely to understand something of the character of God, that’s not always what you see in the academy these days, is it?

FANT: Well, we stand in a really interesting place because in the academy, the larger more secular academy, a lot of times you put Christian in front of a phrase and automatically it means the lesser than. But we have on the other end of the scale an entire Christian tradition, which is if you put academic in front of something, then that means it’s going to be worldly and therefore dangerous. I had a pastor one time who made a really bold statement, and that was, I’ve heard you’ve given your heart to Jesus. Have you given your mind to Jesus? And I love embracing that idea that when we have the mind of Christ, which is a Biblical phrase, what that means is that we are going to be equipped to understand and interpret reality, really better than anybody else on the planet. And it also means that we’re going to be able to translate reality to the people who are around us, the people in our lives who are searching for meaning and significance.

SMITH: Well, in fact, your book, The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide, is actually part of a series of books which is called Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition. And you make a point in your book of talking about that intellectual tradition. You go back, for example, to Erasmus and you differentiate between Christian humanism and secular humanism. Once again, like the word liberal, humanism has gotten a real bad rap in this era. Can you say a few words about why Christian humanism is different from secular humanism, and why it is worth Christians embracing in the 21st century?

FANT: Well, I think your colleague John Stonestreet talks about we use the same words, but we have different dictionaries. And this is very common with phrases like humanism. What originally happened with the Renaissance humanists was they looked to God and they said, how can we understand God better. And then they looked at the revealed world, the created world, and they said, well, if humankind is above the animals but below the angels, then maybe we can learn something about God by studying people. And so the focus was still on God and then also on the created order. And what happened then, by the time we get to the end of the Enlightenment, is that they take God out of the picture and what was first a vertical perspective now becomes a relentlessly horizontal perspective. And that’s what’s happening with the reclamation of the Christian intellectual tradition is that we’re realizing that there are people a whole lot smarter than most of us who’ve gone down these paths before. It’s one of the things I tell parents if they’re wondering about a college education. I love to remind them that what we have are faculty members in Christian academic communities who’ve wrestled with the great ideas and they’ve come on the other side trusting God and adoring the faith, enduring in the faith what they have seen through history, and realizing that we have a great cloud of witnesses that stand behind us.

SMITH: So, just to kind of bring this part of our conversation to a close Dr. Fant, if someone’s listening here and maybe they’re a parent or a grandparent and they’re saying, you know what, I’ve been sending my kids to school, paying a lot of money, in some cases, to colleges and maybe in private schools, you know, so they get a good job or have a nice career. But I’m feeling convicted about wanting to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord that includes this understanding of what it means to be a Christian humanist. Someone who is truly free in Christ to pursue their vocation and to learn about God in, as they go out in the world. What should they do?

FANT: Well, a friend of mine reminds me that our culture has been teaching students a lie for a generation now. And that lie is they can be anything they want to be. Well, Jeremiah tells us the heart is deceitful and wicked, and so what we try to do in a Christian humanistic context, in a Christian liberal arts context, is to help students to discover how God has designed them and then to discern what God has called them to do. That’s a completely different paradigm because they’re not focused on the self. They’re not looking at the world as a mirror. Instead, they’re looking at the world rightly so as a window on how they can see God, see others, and then they can go and serve God and serve others.

SMITH: You know, Dr. Fant, I’m obviously pretty interested in Christian worldview. I work for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and you know, WORLD Magazine is all about a Christian worldview. What does that mean to you as the president of a Christian college? Is inculcating, is developing a Christian worldview, the language that you all are using these days in any way and in your work? And if so, what does that look like? If not, why not?

FANT: Yeah, one of the things we’re working on is using the language of Biblical Worldview, not in terms of we’re trying to become first century Christians or something like that, but just in terms of the fact that there are many people who call themselves Christian, but getting that merger of a Christian tradition with Biblical faithfulness I think allows us to tweak that a little bit. We also use the language of integration of faith and learning, but we intensify that a little bit, talk about integration of Scripture and learning as well because sometimes that helps us to clarify what we’re doing.

SMITH: Well, I appreciate that. I like the word Christian worldview because it does take into account both Biblical revelation and general revelation and the incarnation. But I deeply appreciate what you’re saying and that is that there are so many people that call themselves Christian without any relationship to what Scripture actually defines as Christianity. So, that makes a lot of sense to me. What are some of the things that you do specifically in your college life? I mean, I’m assuming, you know, if you’re a Christian school, you got chapel and you’ve got other kinds of things and I’m not trying to dismiss or denigrate regular chapel services. But I’ve also discovered that ain’t enough, so to speak.

FANT: Well, I challenge my faculty very frequently to understand that just because you do a devotional in class does not mean you get to teach secularly for the rest of the course period. In other words, baptizing your content with a prayer or devotional does not all of a sudden make it Christian. Instead you have to sit down and wrestle with what are the basic presuppositions of your discipline. And how does your faith change that? As an English professor, my presuppositions that words mean things, that meaning is possible, that human connectedness is one of the core values of literature, that completely changes what I do and is in fact contrary to the predominant paradigm in my discipline. And so I tell faculty members, it takes time to think through that. And I was challenged as a young faculty member to do that. And I love to share those stories with faculty members to urge them on.

We have phenomenal faculty members. Students come back and tell me all the time what a particular faculty member has meant to them. And sometimes I even get grandparents who will do it, which is a lot of fun. But there is a kind of intentionality that’s there. In fact, recently I made a statement kind of off the cuff that I kinda like, in hindsight, and that is, intentionality is actually a very strong Christian value that our world does not have any more. Because we believe the world, or we’re taught now that the world is random and chaotic. It means a lot of times we don’t believe in intentionality. But if providence from the foundations of the earth is not intentional, I don’t know what is. And it’s a distinctive that we can add in our classrooms. We can add in our scholarships, we can add in our relationships that I think really sets us apart.

SMITH: Dr. Fant, before you became a college president, a college administrator, you are a professor. English, you said, was your discipline? So I know reading’s important to you.

FANT: One of the things that was exhibited for me when I worked for David Dockery at Union University was the idea that all leaders needed to be readers. He would put out a reading list about four times a year and challenge everyone on campus, uh, to improve their reading and to increase their reading. And I’ve done that on my campus as well. So at the beginning of each semester I released a list of about 20 to 30 books that I work on. I keep about four going at a time. And so everywhere I go, I’ve got a bag full of books with me in case I get delayed. And what it does is it keeps my mind sharper. And it’s always reminding me of the connections that are possible, because as you read, you constantly are going to be creating that intellectual empathy, and seeing what other good thinkers are thinking and frankly some of them are people I disagree with, but that helps to keep me sharp as well. But I love to model for my community what it means to be a broad and diverse reader.

SMITH: Well, since you brought that up on, can you give me just a quick sample of some of the books that are maybe on this semester’s or a recent semester’s reading list?

FANT: The four I’m working on now: I have Craig Hazen from Biola’s Fearless Prayer, which is a great little short book. Reading a biography of Pericles, the great Athenian leader. Just finished the autobiography of Nile Rodgers, the guitar player from Chic back in the 70s. And again, I’m all over the place, but always have a number of different things going: poetry, a novel, usually a business or leadership book, something in theology. And then usually a biography.

SMITH: Dr. Gene Fant over the years, I have interviewed a number of college presidents, so whenever I get a guy like you in front of me, I like to talk to you and not just about your individual work here with this book, which I’m obviously, as I’ve said, a fan of, but also to get your take on what’s going on in the higher education world in general, especially the Christian higher education world. And I got a lot of questions, but let me just ask the broadest one. I mean, there’s going to be a lot of changes coming up in Christian higher education. There’s the student loan crisis in this country is likely going to change the financing model. Technology has changed the way students are taught and demographics are going to hit a lot of colleges right square in the face. How are you all dealing with that?

FANT: Well, my university North Greenville, which is in South Carolina, has been preparing actually for this season for some time. My board made a decision about a decade ago that they would no longer carry any kind of long-term interest-bearing debt. So we’re an actual debt-free institution, which means not a penny of our student’s tuition goes to covering our debt service. And we’ve made that kind of a decision because we know that that is part of what drives the financial aid issue with a lot of students is institutions get ambitious and they want to add things and grow things and they go into debt to do it. And that makes them addicted then to growth and growth leads to tuition discounting, which means the institution’s essentially printing it’s own money. And so my institution and others like ours have made the decision that we’re going to be a lot more conservative fiscally, so that we can prepare. It’s a changing market and in many ways it’s a shrinking market. We know as we head into about another 10 years or so from now, eight years from now, the recession of 2007, 2008 has caused the birth rate to decline. And that’s on top of the fact that we aborted at about 1.2 million potential freshman 18 years ago. And the crisis of higher ed of the enrollment pool is actually a function of the crisis of abortion, believe it or not. And so as we look at things like technology and we look at things like debt, it’s a very daunting era. But we believe that we’ve got a path forward that comes from the forethought of some very wise board members we have.

SMITH: Well, let me push back a little bit on some of the issues that you’ve raised. The institution is debt free, which is great and that allows you, because you’re not servicing debt, maybe to keep tuition down at a level that is a little more affordable. But you still probably have a lot of students that are taking out loans in order to pay even a reasonable tuition. What happens when that no longer becomes possible for you and for others? Are y’all making contingency plans for being able to keep the education affordable, even if these government guaranteed student loans, which may come with strings attached in the future, are no longer available?

FANT: Yeah, we absolutely are working on that, and we’re trying to design our systems to where we not only are functioning in a lean manner, but we’re doubling down on fundraising. It’s one of the things that I spend most of my time doing is trying to raise scholarship funds so that we can have those dollars that are there, so donors can help to connect students with those kinds of opportunities. And we have a significant number of students who are able to be completed with their degrees. We want them done in four years. That saves them time and we also don’t want them maxing out their student loans. In fact, the government will actually ding us if we don’t tell students what’s the maximum amount they can get and offer them that before we counsel them not to take out the max. And it’s crazy just how the government entices people to take on debt when they don’t need to and to take on other things. So we don’t take federal dollars ourselves. We do allow our families to choose to do that through federal funds like Pell and so forth, but we are definitely laying down tracks and preparing for what it’ll look like when the rules of the game get more and more daunting.

SMITH: Dr. Fant, obviously I’m glad that North Greenville is staying strong around Biblical values, but I think you’d have to admit that that means you all represent a minority in this country because not only there, the vast majority of colleges, secular colleges, but even among Christian colleges, you have schools that are waffling on Biblical values. Azusa Pacific University just last week agreed to have, allow same-sex relationships within the school. I understand that the board overturned that decision, but it just gives you an idea of how much on the brink that even that school was. So, what do schools like yours do to ensure that the culture, forget about money, forget about government money, that just the culture or what’s going on in the world doesn’t unmoor you from your anchors.

FANT: Well, the word that we use on campus a lot is alignment. So our first core value is to be Christ-centered. And so what I tell everybody is if we are Christ-centered, if we’re Biblically faithful, if we’re seeking to have conversations, if we’re seeking to have accountability, if we’re seeking to have a every set of eyes on campus looking to make sure that we are all rowing in the same direction, rowing on the same beat, then that will help us to be able to resist the kinds of temptations that come. Debt gives you a temptation. You lose your mission one financial decision at a time. And then sometimes the Southern culture of nice is an enemy. Sometimes nice is the enemy of excellence, and nice can become the enemy of mission as well. And so we have conversations around these things a lot, just to make sure everybody understands where we are, understands what we believe, understands why we believe it, and that all of us are embracing and rallying around that common mission.

SMITH: I want to pivot once again and talk to you a little bit about leadership. You’re the leader of a school. You have, what? 3000, 3,500 students? 2,500 students at North Greenville. Significant-sized organization, hundreds of staff people and faculty. That’s a significant leadership challenge. You came into the school fairly recently, a lot of great things that happened in the school before you got there, but they wouldn’t have brought you in if they didn’t want to move in a new direction or at least to, you know, kind of take it from here into the future. So what do you do as the new leader of a fairly large organization that’s been around a while, some of the staff probably been there for decades. How do you confirm what’s good about the past, while at the same time fulfilling your leadership mandate to take the institution into the future?

FANT: So I received an incredible gift when I joined the university and that was, I joined it in the 125th year of the institution’s existence. We were started as a boarding school for poor mountain children. And so the churches in the area decided that they wanted for students to have an opportunity to change their lives. And they felt like Christ-centered education could actually do that. And so the first year I was there, we were able to honor the history. We identified some people who had never been honored during some particular pain points in the institution’s history, and we were able to have some dinners and some celebrations to do that. And what that allowed us to do was to define where we had come from and define who we are. And then this next year what we’re doing is going from define to align. And so we’re not only trying to match what our history has been. We’re trying to find ways to a modulate that, to translate that for what the next decades hold. And so we’re putting additional effort into our academic programs, additional effort into scholarship fundraising. But really trying to explore this idea of calling. We talk about calling all the time. That calling is not discovering the authentic voice of your inner self, as I heard a secular person say. Calling is listening for the voice of God, and that comes in a couple of different ways. One is through reading your Scriptures devotionally. Another one is through times of self-reflection, but it also comes more times than not through the insight and advice of an older person who is there to help you. In fact, we call it intellectual discipleship. It’s not just advising, it’s not just mentoring. There’s a Christian element of discipleship that comes from — that helps students to be able to discern what it is that God’s calling them to do.

SMITH: Well, you’ve not claimed to be a prophet nor the son of a prophet. But my final question for you is, look five, 10, 15 years into the future. If you are successful as the president of North Greenville University, what will the school look like?

FANT: Well, our dream is that we follow after Christ. And that may sound trite, but what that means is that we believe that there is a supernatural, superintended, providential plan for us. And what we’re trying to do is to seek after that. And so there’ll be a lot more of our students that are coming through our adult programs. We have a second campus we’ve opened for that. But what I’m hoping is that 20, 30 years from now, we will look back and see that we’ve been a part of the Spirit’s movement, the Spirit’s work in our culture and that we’ve had some small part that’s made a difference.

SMITH: Dr. Gene Fant, thank you so much for being on the program and may the Lord continue to bless you there at North Greenville University.

FANT: Thank you for all the work you do, and we just appreciate the opportunity to visit with you.

(Photo/North Greenville University)

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