What do we mean by “Liberal Arts”?

As Christians recover classical Christian education, they are unearthing old treasures, once the possession of every educated man. Some of these treasures are words and descriptions–terms like “Trivium” and “Quadrivium,” “paideia,” and “liberal arts.” Of all these terms, “liberal arts” lays at the heart of what classical education is all about. So what did our forefathers mean by “liberal arts”?

“Liberal”

The word liberal has nothing to do with our modern use of the word in politics and culture. Liberal means “free,” and historically described the kind of education expected of a freeman–especially one in a position of leadership, like nobility. Our culture has so alienated itself from a historic education that it’s very difficult for us to think of education without thinking of jobs and vocational training.

Dr. Roy Atwood, founding President of New Saint Andrews College, was once asked by a student, “Who are you”? His automatic response was to give his profession: “Uh…I’m a professor.” But the student responded, “No, I don’t mean what you do, but who are you?”[1. Dr. Roy Atwood, Educating Royalty, Reformed Perspective: A Magazine for the Christian Family, Vol. 33, No. 6, April 2014.] We are programmed to answer that question with what we do, with our job title. And we likewise think of education in terms of answering the question, “Will this education prepare me for a job?”. The modern definition of education has the effect of not only defining the education process in terms of pragmatic usefulness, but also defining human beings themselves in terms of usefulness. Like in the world of Thomas the Train which our children didactically watch, our identity is wound up with our usefulness. “Who are you?” asks the modernist? “I do this job” we reply catechetically.

Christians of previous generations viewed education, and themselves, differently. The opening lines of the Westminster Shorter Catechism would have been familiar to nearly every child in early America: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” That is who we are: worshiping beings, who delight in God. Or to use Dr. Atwood’s conclusion to the question “who are you?”, we are royalty, heirs of Christ. And we should educate our children in that light.

Some may object that this identity is a fine thing, but has nothing to do with education. “How does it help you get a job? How is it useful?” In 1646, the founders of Harvard College defined education in their “Rules and Precepts” in this way:

“Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.”

Christ is both the source and the goal of education.

“Who are you?” We are liberal (free) Christians, pursuing wisdom and virtue through the interwoven arts of theology (study of the knowledge of God) and humanities (study of ourselves and of mankind). “Knowledge of God and knowledge of self” is how John Calvin sets the stage for his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and is also how Harvard and other universities in the United States prior to the 1900s set the foundation for education.

So the term “liberal” points to the purpose of education and our identity. But what precisely does this looks like.

“Arts”

If the foundation of education is knowledge of self and knowledge of God, how might the liberal arts help us in this endeavor? The Liberal Arts are an education in first principles–in the foundations of things. The Western heritage is the cultural soil into which Christ was made flesh, and the common inheritance of all God’s people. This specifically means recovering an education which includes Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas and Dante, Augustine and Boethius, Cicero and Plutarch, Homer and Vergil, Milton and Shakespeare. These and many others are so much woven into the fiber of ourselves and our culture that we cannot truly know ourselves without knowing them. It includes the classical study of logic, rhetoric, grammar, and language. These disciplines inform our understanding of the written and spoken word, the means God gave us for understanding Himself and ourselves.

We may have only recently re-discovered this birthright, but it is not presumptuous to receive this rich heritage as our own. Our culture is in full-blown identity crisis. The liberal arts educate our children in their identity, giving them the tools to understand the world around them in wisdom and virtue. And with this education in first principles–these freeing, liberal arts not defined by usefulness–our children will possess tools of learning that are surprisingly useful in a confused world.

This article is an adapted excerpt from chapter one of A Better Admissions Test: Raising the Standard for College Entrance Exams, published by the Classical Learning Initiative and Mudhouse Press. 

family-square-360x360Daniel Foucachon grew up in Lyon, France where his father was an evangelist and church-planter with Mission to the World. He moved to Moscow, Idaho in 2005 to attend New Saint Andrews College, where he graduated with a BA in Liberal Arts and Culture in 2009. In 2009 he founded a media production company, and was the producer of Canon Wired (the media branch of Canon Press) until 2013. His love for classical education and desire to publish curriculum designed for home education led him to found Roman Roads Media in 2011, which has since produced and published award-winning liberal arts curriculum for high school students. He and his wife Lydia live in Moscow, Idaho with their three sons and one daughter.
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A Better Admissions Test: Raising the Standard for College Entrance Exams

a-better-admissions-testIt was a real privilege to contribute to A Better Admissions Test: Raising the Standard for College Entrance Exams by Classic Learning Initiatives! It was especially delightful when my search for a primary source brought me to the University of Idaho special collections, and the inaugural address of Frederick Kelley, President of the University of Idaho in 1928. Kelley, the original creator of the standardized exam in 1915, changed his views with age and wisdom, and spent the latter part of his career advocating for classical liberal arts.

My chapter (Chapter 1) gives a brief history of entrance exams in the United States, starting with an overview of the classical liberal arts, a needed foundation to understand the change brought about by standardized testing.

Robert Bortins of Classical Conversations said it best about this book: “A must read for anyone in education or admissions who is brave enough to admit that things aren’t quite right in higher education any more.”

English and the Latin Question

“We are all—more or less deliberately—students of English; we all recognize the value of accurately expressing our ideas and of exactly understanding the ideas of other. Now, though the notion has never dawned upon the large, good-humored, unenlightened public opinion which indirectly shapes our educational policies, to the serious student of English some acquaintance with Latin is not merely convenient, not merely valuable, but quite literally indispensable. At every onward step towards the mastery of his own language and literature he must use his Latin lamp if he has one, or stumble and go astray in the darkness if he has not. In this position the value of Latin is unique.”

—The Classical Weekly, Vol. V, No. 26. May 1912. Full column HERE (highly recommended!)

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Teaching to Tests

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“If the unhappy day ever comes when teachers point their students toward these newer examinations, and the present weak and restricted procedures get a grip on education, then we may look for the inevitable distortion of education in the terms of tests.”

—Carl Brigham, creator of the SAT recanting his invention, and arguing against its advancement.
From The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, by Nicholas Lemann

Education as a lifelong process

“Education is a lifelong process. How well any of us becomes educated does not depend essentially on how much he comes to know in his school and college years but rather upon how effectively he has come to be imbued with the spirit of study in school and college years so as to assure his remaining a student throughout life. It is amazing how general the notion seems to be that we study only when we have teachers who require it. Learning is the result of study! Teaching is not a substitute for learning but is only a stimulus to it. Teaching, then, should be confined to those fundamentals which serve best as a basis for subsequent learning. College days should not be wasted on those highly differentiated aspects of subjects, the mastery of which will naturally follow if genuine intellectual interests are created or stimulated during college years…College is a place to learn how to educate oneself rather than a place in which to be educated.”

—Frederick Kelly, The University in Prospect, Inaugural Address as President of the University of Idaho, 1928.

Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Aeneid

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“How does Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain echo the main theme of the Aeneid?

The Aeneid describes in an epic fashion the destiny of the Roman people to bring peace to the world through conquering the nations and bringing civilization. Geoffrey directly echoes this idea as Brutus receives a prophecy that his descendants will govern the earth. So Geoffrey depicts the British people as being the heirs of the Roman destiny.

Defense of the Faith student workbook question, from Old Western Culture curriculum.

Could Your Child Enter Harvard In 1869?

What the entrance exam to Harvard university tells us about classical education in America.

In 1646 Harvard University adopted the following words, based on their mission statement, as part of their “Rules and Precepts”:

Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him (Prov. 2:3).

Thoroughly dedicated to Scriptures as the source of all Truth, Harvard sought to equip ministers and laymen with the tools for being effective citizens in the world, to the glory of God. How did they do this? Through classical education.

Some Christians hear about “classical” or “liberal arts” education, and assume it is an ancient, pre-Christian form of education. Historically liberal arts, meaning “freeing arts”, was the education of a freeman or nobleman, while vocational education was for a slave or serf. Some object that it is a pagan way to educate children, as opposed to Christian, and that “Classical Christian” is simply some kind of syncretism or oxymoron. Not only is this untrue, but it is ironically untrue. In order to dismiss “classical education” as pagan, you have to dismiss the entire history of Christianity in regards to education. The founding fathers of the United States provide a clear example. Not only were they classically educated themselves, but they considered classical education to be an important component to being a faithful, educated Christian. The entrance exam below, paired with the mission statement of Harvard, demonstrates this:

The HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY portion of the Entrance Exam for Harvard University, July 1869.

I. Bound the basin of the Po, of the Mississippi, of the St. Lawrence.

II. Name the chief rivers of Ancient Gaul and Modern France.   Is France later or smaller than Transalpine Gaul? What are the two principal rivers that rise in the Alps? Where is the Mount Blanc?

III. Where is the Source of the Danube? of the Volga? of the Ganges? of the Amazon?

IV. Describe the route of the Ten Thousand, or lay it down on a map.

V. Leonidas, Pausanias, Lysander.

VI. Pharsalia, Philippi, Actium, — geographically and historically

VII. Supply the two names left bank in the following passage from the Oration for the Manilian Law:

“Non dicam duas urbes potentissimas, Carthaginem et Numantiam ab eodem ________ esse deletas; non commemorabo nuper ita vobis patribusque esse visum, ut in uno _________ spes imperii poneretur, ut idem cum Jugurtha, idem cum Cimbris, idem cum Teutonis bellum administraret.” Who was Jugurtha? Where was Numantia?

VIII. Compare Athens with Sparta?

IX. Pericles: —the Man and his Policy.

See the entire exam (all subjects) HERE (PDF).

Students would answer from their knowledge of Julius Ceasar’s Gallic Wars in Latin, Xenophon’s Anabasis in Greek, and from the historians Herodotus and Thucydides. It was this education that enabled the American founding fathers to intentionally reject the (failed) “experiment in democracy” of ancient Athens, and to instead build a Constitutional and representative Republic, which was more like the Republic of Rome. Classical education shaped men like George Washington, and John Adams. But the Founders were not returning to something merely ancient. They were continuing the tradition of classical education as it was handed down from the earliest of Christian history, starting with the Apostles themselves, and going into the early Church, and on into the Middle Ages, and particularly strong among the Protestant Reformers. As little as 60-70 years ago, it was still taken for granted that an educated person would have a classical education. The idea that education would not be classical, or that classical education is opposed to Christian education, is a very novel and modern idea.

Wondering how to give your children the kind of education that would allow them to pass the entrance exam to Harvard in 1869? Roman Roads Media is the right place.

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Open Letter to Every Christian Parent with Children in Public School

Christian, is your child in a public school facing yet another wave of attacks on sanity and religious freedom? Will your daughter be using the restroom alongside a disturbed boy who “identifies” as a girl?

It’s time to opt out!

I’m not going to spend time making the case that you should opt out. I really hope that Christians are seeing that in most situations today, this is the obvious conclusion. But rather, I want to answer the objection “what is the alternative?” How do we opt out?

It may not be easy, and some situations are harder than others, but there are incredible opportunities available today to give your children a CHRISTIAN education. You really CAN opt out! More than ever before in history, parents are equipped with the tools to make this possible, whether books, video courses, online courses, curriculums for every learning style, and of course, private schools. There is a solution for just about every situation, every budget, and every style of learning. All of these scenarios require dedication, but nearly every true obsticle is now removed.

I have dedicated my own career to providing one answer to this question. Through the company I founded, Roman Roads Media, we provide Christian classical curriculum designed specifically for the homeschool, with an emphasis on video and online learning. Our speciality is 6-12 grade classical subjects.

But we are one of many. Let me name you just a few of my friends, all doing their part to answer this question:

For homeschool:

For Private schools:

Can you not afford the education? There are ways: scholarships, talk to your church, or talk to me if you’re interested in our curriculum.
But please, Christian, #OPTOUT! For the dedicated parent, there are always opportunies. And I will help any way I can.

Sincerely,
Daniel Foucachon.

Founder, Roman Roads Media,
publisher of Christian classical curriculum

Photograph: Toby Talbot/AP. Originally appeared as a Facebook Note, and on New City Times

A glimpse at what we lost when we abandoned classical education

Wesley Callihan on the opening lines of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars

Mark Twain is attributed with the saying “Those who don’t read have no advantage over those who can’t.”

We are now a couple generations away from our forefathers who abandoned classical education. We are now the generation that does not even know what it has lost. Wes Callihan gives a  glimpse at the kind of richness we have lost in this excerpt from the Old Western Culture curriculum on the great books of Western civilization. If you don’t study the classics, you have no advantage over those who can’t. Roman Roads Media provides tools to help you accomplish this task! Get started today!


Watch on YouTube.

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Originally appeared on Roman Roads Media blog. Written by Daniel Foucachon.