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Education Reporter

Restoring the Liberal Arts
By: Bradley G. Green

"Non est consenescendum in artibus."

"One ought not grow old in the study of the arts."

Any true recovery of the liberal arts will be very difficult, at least any recovery on a grand scale. Having taught in elementary, middle school, high school, college, and seminary settings, I am pessimistic that we will see any meaningful restoration of the liberal arts in our day. It is not impossible. But before we consider the hope we should still have for the recovery of the liberal arts — even acknowledging we are hoping for nothing less than a miracle — let us understand the dire situation we face.

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I have taught in a Christian college setting for the last thirteen years. And for some time I have been struck by an unsettling reality: the liberal arts seem to have little or no home in the contemporary university. That is, while one often hears the language and talk of "liberal arts," it has become increasingly obvious that the liberal arts - at least in any sense that is meaningfully connected to those words — have no real place in the contemporary college or university. At present, the duty of those who believe in the value of the liberal arts is not simply to try and improve upon the practice of the liberal arts; rather, our duty is to work to recover the liberal arts. It is not overstating the case to assert that the liberal arts — on the whole — have disappeared from the contemporary college or university.

It is almost like some sort of odd science-fiction movie. The various characters are all using a certain lingo (i.e., they speak of the "liberal arts"), but none of the characters actually know what they are talking about. They may have some vague notion of "learning" or of reading certain books. But the characters certainly do not mean "liberal arts" in any way which is meaningfully connected to the historical and traditional meaning of the term.

One of the tragedies of the loss of the liberal arts itself is that we Christians are — on the whole — not versed in the ways in which the classical/Graeco-Roman world was disrupted by the Christian understanding and vision of the world which emerged in the first century and the centuries following. This transformation entailed, at times, the rejection of certain practices (say, human sacrifice), or the co-opting and Christianization of other practices. This latter approach is probably the category in which we have to understand Christianity's transformation of educational practices. Traditions such as teaching grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric (the trivium — or the first three liberal arts) certainly precede the Christian era. The really interesting questions are those that ask how the reality of the Christian movement led to a reworking of the things like grammar, dialectic and rhetoric in light of the fundamental realities of the gospel.

When we think of recovering or rehabilitating the liberal arts, it is essential to begin with the most basic and fundamental of questions. In particular, we must ask: what really are the liberal arts? Are they really worth recovering? And how might they be recovered? We need especially to think through what a Christian brings to all of these questions, first by asking in what way the Christian movement might re-shape and reconfigure educational practice (i.e., the liberal arts) in light of distinctively Christian commitments and convictions; and second, by considering the ways in which key Christian commitments and convictions serve as the intellectual basis for the liberal arts.

When we speak of the "liberal arts," we are speaking about the traditional seven arts usually grouped into the trivium and the quadrivium. While in the history of Western culture there have been different ways of construing and organizing these arts, we will work with what has become the "received" construal: the trivium ("three ways"), what we often think of as "language" arts, of grammar, dialectic or logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium ("four ways), what we often think of as "mathematical" arts of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Sister Miriam Joseph could write: "The liberal arts denote the seven branches of knowledge that initiate the young into a life of learning. The concept is classical, but the term liberal arts and the division of the arts into the trivium and the quadrivium date from the Middle Ages." While these arts have been grouped differently at different times by different persons, for our purposes here we will take the seven arts as grouped under the trivium and quadrivium as "the tradition" in this essay.

Thomas Aquinas is a good example of how the liberal arts flourished and developed in Western Christendom, and of the way in which the liberal arts were brought into a coherent Christian educational tradition. Thomas consistently speaks of a certain sequence of learning — although this could vary:

  1. logic ("which transmits the method of the sciences")
  2. mathematics ("of which even boys are capable")
  3. natural philosophy ("which, because of the need of experience, requires time")
  4. moral philosophy ("of which a young man cannot be a suitable student")
  5. divine science ("which considers the first causes of beings.").

Let us tweak Thomas slightly, simply using language that is a tad more familiar and traditional:

  1. Trivium — or, the traditional "language arts" of grammar, logic/dialectic, rhetoric
  2. Quadrivium — or, the traditional "mathematical arts" of arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy
  3. Science — or, here, the study of nature
  4. Moral Philosophy — or, ethics
  5. Theology

With Thomas' schema (and my slightly edited version of the schema) before us, we can see that the liberal arts (and here we take Thomas as an exemplar of the broader perspective of Christendom), were part of a larger educational vision and its attendant set of practices. And once this larger educational vision began to crumble — as it most certainly has — it became virtually impossible coherently to make any sort of meaningful case for the necessity of the liberal arts.

The liberal arts must be recovered, not simply attended to or refurbished. And central to the recovery of the liberal arts is the recovery of a certain understanding of what it means to be human and the place of mankind in history.

The liberal arts flourished in a cultural and theological framework where education was seen first and foremost as the formation of a certain type of person. More important than this or that detail on exactly how one construes the nature of the liberal arts is the larger cultural and theological backdrop against which the liberal arts make sense. This would include such basic affirmations as: the created order is real, good, and able to be explored; man is a being able to grasp the "nature of things"; there are such things as truth, goodness, and beauty — and that it a right, proper, and worthy goal to want to form persons in accord with such transcendentals.

As Christians — and perhaps Evangelicals in particular — we have more that we bring to this discussion. Given that it has often proven difficult to hold together essential Christian convictions and the nature, purpose, and practice of education, Evangelicals should be particularly intentional about exploring and retrieving what there is in our own tradition which can help us articulate a fully Christian understanding of the educational endeavor, and to practice truly Christian education. If we are Evangelicals, what would be better than to ask what the evangel — the gospel itself — has to do with the construal and practice of Christian education which takes seriously the recovery and practice of the liberal arts?

The liberal arts developed and blossomed over time as part of an educational goal of forming a certain kind of person. In short, the liberal arts really only make sense against such a goal. And as that goal — the goal of forming a certain kind of person — began to lose hold or prominence in Western culture, the necessity or coherence or legitimacy of the liberal arts began to be hard to affirm. But as Christians hammered out their understanding of the liberal arts, the goal was not simply "Theology" (or in Thomas' word "Divine Science") in the sense of grasping basic theological axioms (although such "grasping" would be important). Rather, in the best Christian construals of the liberal arts, the goal was the face-to-face vision of God. Augustine and the medieval tradition could speak of the "beatific vision," and Paul could write: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:12).

The liberal arts — at their best — were part of an educational program and vision whereby persons were being formed into the persons they ought to be, and this forming was often articulated in terms like wisdom, virtue, and eloquence. But while persons were being formed so that they might live wise and virtuous lives in the present, the ultimate goal of education was the formation of persons for their ultimate destiny — to one day see God face-to-face. Thus, the liberal arts were part of an educational program whereby persons were being formed for both wise and virtuous and eloquent lives in the present, and for their future face-to-face vision of God.

Yet as Augustine properly asked, how can it be that we poor sinners can expect one day to see God face-to-face (coram deo)? Is it not the height of hubris to think that we could attain to such a grand vision? Augustine's conclusion, worked out in some detail in De Trinitate, is that a person will see God face-to-face if they have been properly "fitted" and prepared for such a vision. But the only way that one can be properly fitted and prepared is for one to be changed (and indeed, cleansed) by the blood of Christ. The key to human transformation - being changed, cleansed, shaped, and formed into the persons we ought to become - is the gospel itself. Indeed, the only way we can become the persons we are called to become, to become "true men" (in C.S. Lewis' terms), is through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

So if the liberal arts are about the forming of a certain kind of person, on a Christian understanding of things, the gospel is a necessary and essential part of reaching such a goal — i.e., of becoming the kind of person we are called to become. Paul could write in his letter to the church at Ephesus (Ephesians 5:25-27) that Christ had died for sinners, and that this death leads to the ultimate transformation of God's people — into a bride that is "holy and without blemish," a transformation rooted in a past event which is the key to our transformation in the present and future.

The liberal arts are good and proper tools which, when understood in relationship to our ultimate spiritual destiny, can well serve such a grand aim and goal. If philosophy has been at times called the ancilla theologiae ("the handmaiden of theology"), the liberal arts might be seen as the proper "handmaiden" of human transformation. The kind of human transformation God desires - by which persons are transformed and prepared to one day meet him face-to-face, to know and adore Him throughout all eternity — is a transformation in which the liberal arts can serve a good and right and meaningful part.

The power needed for this transformation is one which is rooted in and dependent upon the gospel itself. For Christians, education at its best prepares persons for wise and virtuous lives in the present. Yet it is through the death, burial, and resurrection that persons are "fitted" and prepared for such a vision — and the liberal arts can function as an important gospel-fueled means to prepare persons for their ultimate destiny of seeing God face-to-face.

To the extent that Christians have forgotten, lost, or abandoned this larger theological backdrop and grounding of the liberal arts, the liberal arts have been lost. Ironically, while Christians have in the modern age been accused (rightly, at times) of anti-intellectualism, it may be the case that the only real and meaningfully hope of the recovery of the liberal arts lies in the recovery of the gospel itself, and in the recovery of a Christian understanding of God, man, and the world — and with it, a restoration of true education.

The Christian invention of the university in the Middle Ages was not a historical accident, but a flowering of the manifold insights of a Christian understanding of things. While many institutions cannot at present coherently account for traditional liberal arts learning, the Christian is particularly well-positioned to do so. Whenever the gospel has taken hold of a culture, it has been the impetus for learning and the development of educational institutions. As the gospel changed the face of Western culture this included a type of transformation and development of the liberal arts, such that the liberal arts were pressed into the service of ultimate Christian purposes — namely, the preparation of persons for both wise and virtuous lives in the present, and for one's ultimate encounter with God. While other handmaidens may emerge, we would do wise to rescue the one handmaiden — the liberal arts — which has proved so useful and enduring. It is always unwise to spurn good gifts, and when a good gift-giver bestows good gifts, we are wise to attend to them.

Bradley G. Green is Associate Professor of Christian Thought and Tradition at Union University and the author of The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life (Crossway Publishers, 2010) This article first appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of The City, a publication of Houston Baptist University, and is reprinted with permission.
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