Why You Need a Liberal Arts Education & How to Give Yourself One

A liberal arts education, especially from a Christian perspective, consists of learning from both general and special revelation, or nature and the Scriptures.  These are, as it has so often been said, God’s two books.  More generally, we can think of a liberal arts education as an education in wisdom.  It seeks to understand the composition, function, meaning, and end of things.  Or, put more simply, it seeks to understand the nature of things.  The Christian liberal arts curriculum must faithfully consist of material from both of God’s books.  It could be said that the Bible is the meta to nature’s physics.  A Christian liberal arts education is therefore an education in the arts and sciences in the context of the rich and unifying theology of the Scriptures.  Theology, far from being an afterthought in the pursuit of a liberal arts education, is the queen of the sciences.

A Liberal Arts Education vs. Specialized Education

A liberal arts education not only prepares one for the complexity and diversity of life, it is to be a life-long endeavor.  As Christians, we must never stop learning about God through His word and His world.  Unfortunately, today’s emphasis is on learning a particular skillset for the purpose of employment – specialization education.  While being skilled in something is not in-and-of-itself a bad thing – it’s good to be skilled for a particular job – this pragmatic approach to education only stunts the individual’s intellectual development (i.e. wisdom), essentially producing what is a cog in a machine.  Is it any wonder so many come home from work only to watch a few hours of t.v. before going to bed to start it all over again tomorrow?  In their minds, they have one task – their job.   Instead, a liberal arts education teaches people to live life with a view to the meta-narrative or grand scheme of things.  For the Christian, this meta-narrative is God’s story in the person and work of Jesus Christ, consisting of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.  Apart from this, people’s particular skill is detached from the larger world.  They may be very good at writing code to develop apps, for example, but they remain largely detached from the world of things, the kind of things that a healthy culture is built upon.  They don’t know what constitutes good literature, much less see the need to read any of it.  The wisdom learned through the ages is lost to them, greatly inhibiting their ability to live life wisely.  By the way, a little reading on American history will reveal the roots of this specialized approach to education go back to the Progressive Era, especially with John Dewey and the Teachers College.  By contrast, a liberal arts education exposes the learner to classical works in the areas of philosophy, theology, science, art, and literature.  This kind of education, far from being opposed to specialized skillsets, lays the foundation for such specialization.  Specialized learning may help you do something well, but a liberal arts education helps you to understand the meaning of wellness and beauty and purpose.

Education as Instruction in Truth

Some view education as the solution to society’s ills. There is certainly some truth to this. The problem, however, is not so much with the notion as with what passes for education. Education, after all, implies information, and information implies truth — that which is according to the reality of things. So, if students are being educated in things contrary to truth, then they’re not actually being educated. Information is actually being withheld from them; or in some cases, taken away from them. It’s like a software program. If the information (i.e. the code) is as it ought to be, then the program runs smoothly. If however, there is an error in the code, information is lost and the program fails to run properly. Jesus Himself said, if you believe My word then “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:32). Jesus is especially speaking of freedom from bondage to sin. To be free is to live as God intended — the software program is properly functioning, so to speak. The information of life is ultimately oriented around Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). Here we see the metaphysical nature of information, and therefore of education. So, going back to the original point, the solution of education typically fails because it lacks the proper metaphysics. The more a society distances itself from the nature of things, the more uneducated it becomes, and the more it fails to run properly.  A liberal arts education, especially one rooted in the Christian tradition, helps orient a society around the true nature of things, thereby encouraging the flourishing of society, rather than the decadence of society (as we are seeing today).

Giving Yourself a Liberal Arts Education

At this point you may be wondering, “This sounds exciting!  How can I give myself a liberal arts education without going back to school?”  I can answer this question in one word: Books!  Read good books!  I know how nonconformist that sounds nowadays.  “Books?  Read?  You’ve heard of the invention known as the television, right?”.  Well, yes, interlocutor, I have.  And have you heard of how dull-minded the television can make you?  Try reading the book, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.  In the book he laments the passing of what he calls “the Age of Exposition” with the arrival of “the Age of Show Business”

The name I give to that period of time during which the American mind submitted itself to the sovereignty of the printing press is the Age of Exposition.  Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression.  Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.  Toward the end of the nineteenth century, for reasons I am most anxious to explain, the Age of Exposition began to pass, and the early signs of its replacement could be discerned.  Its replacement was to be the Age of Show Business.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (NY: Penguin Books, 1985), 63.

Postman’s overarching point in the book is that the medium of communication matters, and the best medium of communicating information resulting in genuine knowledge is print (i.e. books).

So, what books should you read?  Well, there’s different ways you could go about this.  Some may recommend getting right into the original sources.  I recommend starting with general, introductory reading, so as to familiarize yourself with the landscape – key figures, ideas, and books.  You can then build upon this foundation with more advanced reading from more specialized books, and of course the classics themselves.  Below is the liberal arts curriculum I put together for myself.  Yours doesn’t have to contain the same books, though.

Of special note are the 101 series, which covers numerous subjects, the Contours of Christian Philosophy series (black spined books), and the Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition series (thin white books).  As you can see, I’m also reading several books on science (some from a Christian perspective and some from a non-Christian perspective).  I’ve also accented my list with classics like Confessions by St. Augustine and Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.  I have other books in mind to read after these, but this selection does a thoroughgoing job.  Another recommended series, although one I do not own, is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Guide to the Major Disciplines. Perhaps a good starting book would be The Liberal Arts from the Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition series. Also, while I have not read this myself yet, a good friend of mine has and he highly recommends it: The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education (Kindle version for a less expensive option). Lastly, How To Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren is a must read. This, too, would be a great book to begin with, laying a foundation for approaching books of different genres and importance.

If the thought of reading dozens of books overwhelms you, take your time with it (one book at a time). You’d be surprised at how quickly you can get through books by reading 15-30 minutes a day. If you read just one book a month, you will have read more than the average American. This is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. Keep in mind, too, the goal is not to become a genius in any of these subject areas.  The goal is to better understand God’s world and your place in it, to the praise of His glory.  Or, as Johannes Kepler, the 17th Century German astronomer and mathematician, put it, “I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after Him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.”