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 knowledge, and knowledge 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. Knowledge 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 knowledge, 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).
There are enough books in the world to occupy us for what seems like eternity. You can’t possibly read them all, nor should you if you could. So, what books should you read? Determining this is easier than it seems. The reason for this is because the hard work has already been done for you, in large part due to men like Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren. These men are advocates of what is known as the Great Books canon or tradition. So, in short, read the Great Books and read them well. To learn more about the Great Books and how to go about reading them, see Adler and van Doren’s classic book, How To Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. They include an appendix with a comprehensive list of Great Books, to include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Bible, Plato’s Dialogues, Aristotle’s Works, Augustine’s City of God, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jacques Maritain’s The Rights of Man and Natural Law, etc.
I used to hold the view that one should first read overview/introductory works about the Great Books before actually getting into the Great Books. I wholeheartedly repudiate this view now. There are at least a few reasons for this. First, sometimes commentators on the Great Books are wrong in their analysis, and you wouldn’t know any better since you haven’t read the books yourself. Second, time is short. If you’re going to spend hours reading, get to the source right away. Third, reading about the Great Books quickly becomes dull and you begin to itch for the Great Books themselves. The real enjoyment of the liberal arts education is reading and interacting with the Great Books, not books about the Great Books. This was especially my experience with Plato’s Republic. I had read about it from various sources and thought I knew it as a result. However, it was not until I actually read Plato’s Republic that I saw it for its true worth and even came to disagree with some of the analysis by others. Now, Plato’s Republic is one of my favorite books and I plan on reading it multiple times from different translations.
The image below is of my classics library. As you can see, I especially stick to buying books from the Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and Barnes & Noble Classics publishers. I recommend them to you. And another word of advice: Skip the introductions to books unless the introduction is by the author. Otherwise, just get right into book and then come back to read the introduction. You’ll be able to understand more of the introduction and even be able to interact with it. You also won’t get bored with it as you itch to get into the actual work.
If the thought of reading dozens of books overwhelms you, pace yourself. You’d be surprised how quickly you can get through a book when reading for 15-30 minutes a day; consistency is key. If you read just one book a month, you will have read more than the average American in a year. This is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. Keep in mind, too, the goal is not to become a genius or master in any of these subject areas; nor are you expected to understand everything you read. Sometimes understanding comes months or years down the road as you engage other works. The goal is to mature and live wisely; to better understand God’s world and your place in it. 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.”