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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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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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.

Late to read? Why that’s not always a problem.

I would like to tell you something about my mother and about me. Homeschooling mothers have to be self-sacrificial, hard-working, and patient. I want to share how these qualities in my mother blessed my life in a particular way. For whatever reason (some people would affix a three or four letter acronym to this), I was just not ready to read when most boys and girls normally learn to read.

New Saint Andrews Freshman with the Freshman reading list

Some classmates standing beside the Freshman reading list at New Saint Andrews College

It wasn’t that she wasn’t trying hard enough, or that she was not qualified (truth be told, she graduated Summa Cum Laude from Gordon College, and taught at Winter Park High School – she is over-qualified!). For whatever reason, I simply wasn’t ready–I was just not grasping the careful and articulate lessons she taught me. She patiently continued to teach me from 6-10 years old. When I was about 10 years old everything suddenly clicked into place. I was ready to read, and took off!

Years later, I now have BA in Liberal Arts and Culture from New Saint Andrews College, a particularly vigorous program in terms of reading, requiring an estimated 20,000 pages of reading in Freshman year alone. The pile of required books every Freshman reads reach higher than the average student when stacked. And I loved it. I thrived. I am a voracious reader.

Donna Foucachon

My wonderful mother, Donna Foucachon

The amazing thing, however, is not that I was late, but that I never knew it. It was only years later that I looked back and realized that most kids learned to read earlier than I did. I had no idea. And that’s when I realized just how much love and care and patience it took my mother to continue teaching me, worrying about the delay, and yet plodding on. It turned out, nothing was “wrong with me.” I was perfectly normal, and just needed time. Had I been in public school I would have been acutely aware of my “slowness.” It wasn’t easy for my mother to homeschool all 5 of us kids in 5 different grades, while also being a pastor’s wife overseas. But it was an incredible gift to me. Thank you!

Now married to another bibliophile, we are inundated with books. We have more books than our bookshelves can hold. Piles of books on every subject: fiction, history, philosophy, literature, theology, how-to’s, The Great Books, classics, etc. And we’ve read the majority of them!

If you are a parent with a late reader, don’t assume there is a problem. Obviously sometimes there can be true issues, ranging from physical, physiological, or even just plain old laziness. But I believe many children are cast into a mold that simply doesn’t fit them. When we force them into that mold, we are hurting them, not helping them. Sometimes they just need time. I did!

Daniel Foucachon,
Founder and CEO, Roman Roads Media
January 8th, 2013.

family - squareDaniel Foucachon grew up in Lyon, France where his family was church-planting with MTW. He was homeschooled for most of his education, attending a Classical Christian School for two years in Lyon. He then moved to Moscow, Idaho in 2005 to attend New Saint Andrews College, and graduated with a BA in Liberal Arts and Culture in 2009. While finishing school and working in his father’s French restaurant, “West of Paris,” he ran a local media production company where he sub-contracted with Canon Press to create CanonWired. In 2012 he founded Roman Roads Media with the desire to bring quality Classical Christian Education to the homeschooler. He now lives in Moscow, Idaho with his wife Lydia, and four kids (Edmund, William, Margaux, and Ethan).

late to read