Those who become involved with classical Christian education quickly discover that, as with any specific discipline, there is a vocabulary that usually seems foreign and intimidating to newcomers. Classical educators liberally spice their conversation with words like “headmaster,” “dialectic,” “rhetoric,” “the Great Conversation,” and “trivium.” From context, most pick up some vague idea of what some of these things mean, but even as a teacher immersed in classical Christian education, I’ve found that it can be challenging to succinctly define and explain some of these important terms. One that comes up repeatedly, but is often either unknown or misunderstood, is “the Western liberal arts.” One of Cedar Classical Academy’s stated goals is to “offer a rigorous course of study in the Western liberal arts tradition,” which sounds grandiose and inspiring, but what exactly are you getting your kids getting into?
What exactly are the Western liberal arts, and why are they such a big deal that we would base our course of education around them?
Treatises could be (and have been) written about this concept – its nuances, implications, points of contention, historical use, modern relevance, etc. – but let’s start with the basics of the words themselves. Western refers to not just a geographical direction, but to a cultural tradition. Most moderns think of the “West” as referring to western Europe and the United States, but its cultural tradition is actually rooted in the Middle East and the Mediterranean – in what is often called the Greco-Roman Judeo-Christian ethic. From ancient Greece and Rome came the earliest forms of representative government and the height of ancient artistic, literary, and philosophical achievement; from the Hebrews of Israel (whose later descendants would be called Jews) came the monotheistic religious worldview of the Bible that had an impact disproportionate to the nation’s size. Jesus Christ, born – not accidentally – into the remarkable time and place where these two cultures crossed, would, of course, have an explosive impact on history. For the next two millennia, Christ’s followers would embrace and harmonize both the Judeo and the Greco-Roman cultures and values under the Christian worldview. Christianity, supported significantly by these two cultural bedrocks, would then spread across western Europe and beyond as Christians zealously sought out and evangelized pagan cultures. In very simplistic terms, one might say that the cultural centers of the western tradition have, over time, moved from Jerusalem, to Athens, to Rome, to Britain, to America (and recently, arguably around the back of the globe to Asia).
Through the course of this cultural sweep across time and space, the western cultural tradition has been taken up and built upon by some of history’s most brilliant thinkers, artists, and leaders – Plato, Paul, Virgil, Augustine, Boethius, Da Vinci, Chaucer, Erasmus, Pythagoras, Luther, Shakespeare, Newton, Handel, Bunyan, Edwards, and Franklin, to name a few. These great minds left behind them works of philosophy, literature, science, math, art, music, and theology that, together, form what we call the canon of the western liberal arts. The works of this canon are the mighty pillars of the western culture – those works of truth, beauty, and excellence that have stood the test of time and proven themselves to be both intrinsically worthwhile and historically significant.
Now the next most natural question might be – “yes, but why are we so hung up on the West? We live in a global, international world, and every culture has its own history and value, right?”
The first part of the answer is that we wish our students to pursue a course of study that primarily focuses on the West for the simple reason that we in America are westerners, and our national and cultural heritage is that of the Christian west. Our nation is becoming more diverse every day, and we absolutely affirm and rejoice that those from “every tribe and tongue” are made in the image of God and contribute uniquely to His world and kingdom. Yet it remains true that our language, our history, our political institutions, our fundamental religious ethic, and our basic cultural institutions are all founded upon and still heavily influenced by the western heritage. If we want our students to know who they are and how to operate in their culture, they must understand their history, and that history is one that reaches directly back to Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman roots. America stands in a direct line of historical inheritance with this civilization, and due to Europe and America’s huge global influence, even very different cultures have been influenced by it to varying degrees – pretty markedly, in the case of almost all of today’s major world powers. We believe that our students should know this heritage, both because it is theirs and because it is a key element of understanding the rest of the world.
However, even more importantly, the answer to “why the Western liberal arts?” lies in an understanding of the term “liberal arts.”
It was in the West that the idea of the “liberal arts” developed, originating in ancient Greece and Rome and coming to full flower in medieval Christendom in Europe. Rooted in the Latin word liber or liberalis, meaning free, these formed the course of study that was considered appropriate and necessary to the free man. The slaves, the servants, and the lowest peasants focused on vocational learning – the practical skills of survival and making money to live. But the free man – the one who was to be equipped to be a responsible citizen and leader in his culture – needed much more. He needed an education that raised him to a higher plane of understanding and cultivated virtue, critical thinking, and a broad knowledge of the world. These liberal arts were traditionally organized as the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium – grammar, logic, and rhetoric – dealt with language and formed the foundation of education. The quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music – were considered the second stage of learning that cultivated higher levels of critical thinking and explained the natural workings of the world. Together, the seven liberal arts cultivated both mind and soul and prepared those who were most academically talented for the highest level of pursuit: philosophy and theology.
In other words, the western liberal arts specifically aim to cultivate the humanity of their students. The great thinkers of the liberal arts tradition believed that the true goal of education was to produce one who understood what it meant to be human and who was equipped to function as a wise and virtuous citizen of his community because he had a firm grasp of who he was, how the world operated, and what place he ought to occupy in it. Thus, the material canon of the liberal arts centers around an examination of these ends and instruction in how to achieve them. What better, more ambitious, and more biblical goal for education could there be?
This is what we want for our students: a pursuit of true, virtuous humanity and the well-examined life to which it leads (the Christian life). We believe this to be a right and noble goal because it aligns with what the Bible teaches (and reality demonstrates) to be the purpose for which God has created us. And because this type of education cuts with the grain of who we as humans are created to be, it has proven remarkable successful across the centuries. Modern education is the tale of shifting sands – of a constant chase for new means and methods for achieving “success,” which is, itself, constantly redefined and ever elusive. On the other hand, the western liberal arts are rooted in the right questions and goals, and thus have historically stood the test of time and have been a key element in producing some of the greatest minds and most impressive advancements in human history. We want our students to drink from these sources. We want to give them the best that history and humanity has to offer.
And ironically, once we understand this, it suddenly becomes clear that the “western liberal arts” are actually not just for westerners! God providentially allowed these ideas of culture and education to develop primarily through the course of western history, and there certainly are pieces of this canon that are very culturally specific and would have to be flexible if a liberal arts education were to be transplanted into non-western cultures. Fundamentally, though, the liberal arts education is remarkably universal, because all humans – no matter their culture – are created in the image of the same Creator God, share the same human nature, and carry the same responsibilities and purpose in this world. Thus, our western liberal arts become a springboard to understanding and embracing all facets of the created world as well as all of humanity. And it is all for God’s glory and our good, for such a pursuit, if thorough and honest, must always bring us back – with joy and submission! – to the Triune God, the source and Savior of all. And there is the true end.