In her own delightful and resilient way, the quadriplegic Joni
Eareckson Tada commented, without a hint of self-pity: ‘Perhaps I cannot stand on the shoulders of great saints, but I do sit on them.’ Not only do we stand or sit on the shoulders of great saints, but we do so with all who have gone before us. As Patrick Collinson has pointed out: ‘Everything is the cause of everything.’ This implies that only God who is the sovereign cause of everything can teach us anything, not exhaustively but truly. In modern times, we have collapsed a liberal education into sociology, rather than literature, history or theology; and the result is that what is taught is not a subject but an agenda.
Emmanuel Liberal Arts College hopes to draw on a distinguished tradition. Athens had its Academy in Plato’s day, and the church of Alexandria was renowned for its Catechetical School in the second and third centuries. Nevertheless, the earliest recorded university, or something like it, was at Bologna, Italy in the late 1080s. Students were gathered for instruction in Roman Law. Students ran the school at first, and took up a collection to give to their instructors. The liberal arts emerged over a century later.
The present state of education
The news is disturbing, and has long been so. Early in 2021 a high school teacher in Massachusetts boasted on social media that she was very proud to say she had succeeded in having Homer’s Odyssey removed from the curriculum. She is not Robinson Crusoe – if that is not a sexist and elitist comment. In 2017 Sydney University launched an Unlearning campaign, which might have struck some old-fashioned pundits as somewhat odd. It is small wonder that I once faced a determined twelve year old in a Scripture class who was convinced that Jesus never existed. I began my reply by asking her whether Julius Caesar existed, but she had never heard of him. Frustrated, I mentioned Adolf Hitler, but she had not heard of him either. Modern education tends to teach being critical before it provides students with the equipment with which to be critical.
As a secondary school teacher, I was taught in my teacher training not to worry about grammar or spelling in English classes, and to forget about dates in history classes. This was supposed to increase a student’s enjoyment of those subjects. In fact, it has worked in reverse by reducing understanding and taking away a sense of delight in working deeply into a subject. In one memorable exchange with a final year student, I was informed that the fact that Jesus is not mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls was only my opinion. She presumably felt the same way about the multiplication table.
Referring specifically to the United States, Salvatore Babones has summed it up in his warnings against the new authoritarianism and the tyranny of experts:
Education, too, is a liberal preserve. Elected leaders may hold the ultimate responsibility for funding schools, but they have little say over what is taught in the classroom. Parents have even less influence. Textbooks are written (and vetted) by academics and school curricula have passed from the oversight of local school boards to state and national committees of educators. As a result, old-fashioned civic ideals of patriotic education have long since given way to a liberal agenda focused on multiculturalism, the celebration of diversity, and sensitivity training. The teaching of “Western civilization” has come to be stigmatized as code for institutionalized sexism and racism. And the mantra that all children should be university-ready has decimated technical education and apprenticeships in favour of liberal indoctrination at all levels.
By the age of ten, C. S. Lewis had read Milton’s Paradise Lost; by the age of twenty, the modern humanities student is weighed down with Deconstructionism and Gender Studies. Lewis aimed to remember what he read, and largely succeeded; the modern humanities student aims to know how to look things up on Google.
All of this can be overstated, but the humanities are in serious trouble, and have been for many decades. Too many students have not gone into technical and trades courses, and instead have been subjected to what can only be referred to as propaganda. Parents might be grateful if their children emerge from years of education assured of their own gender. A course in the liberal arts is not salvation, but with a Reformed underpinning, it can help us to love God with our minds, as we are bidden to do in the First and Great Commandment. At the moment, that is not the goal in many places at all.
A warning: liberal arts are not the gospel
In the second century Justin Martyr referred to Christianity as ‘the true philosophy’, but not all were convinced that that was the right approach. In his most eloquent moments Tertullian saw no common ground between philosophy and faith: ‘What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic and dialectic composition. We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no research after enjoying the gospel! With our faith we desire no further belief.’
The message of the cross is indeed foolishness to unbelievers – more specifically it is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. A crucified Lord reveals that the foolishness of God is greater than the wisdom of man (1 Cor.1:18-25).
Edwin Judge is one who sees a continuing tension between classical and biblical values. We need to guard our Christianity first. C. S. Lewis asserts the Christian perspective: ‘the Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world’. Literature is a wonderful gift from God, but it finds its meaning in something higher than itself.
But the liberal arts have been used of God to advance His kingdom
C. S. Lewis’ testimony is worth contemplating: ‘I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity.’
There are moral aspects to education. Lewis’ words are well worth contemplating:
In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
Reading will not necessarily make us more gracious or loving, but it does take us outside ourselves. Some of the benefits can be quite unexpected and not easy to detect. To Lewis, for example, Mr Badger in The Wind in the Willows gives valuable into human psychology. Talking animals can achieve what ponderous tomes cannot.
Clear thinking, logic and rhetoric are used by God. Discernment is to be sought from God (Phil.1:9). We are to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us (1 Pet.3:15). We are to seek use arguments to tear down the strongholds of Satan (2 Cor.10:3-5). The Bible can help us to understand the liberal arts, and the liberal arts can repay the compliment.
For example, let us look briefly at our four courses:
1. Literature. In the Bible there are a number of literary genres. There is history, wisdom literature, songs, poetry, prophetic works, letters, strange apocalyptic books, and the four Gospels which tell us of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. To understand the literary genre helps to understand the message. Furthermore, Paul cited pagan poets in dismantling paganism (e.g. Acts 17:27-28). To understand pagan literature helps to proclaim the gospel.
2. History. The Bible is not just about Church History, as it were. God is the Lord of all history. The Bible refers to secular rulers like Sennacherib, Augustus, and Pontius Pilate, to name just a few. The Apostles’ Creed anchors Christ’s death in Roman history – Christ ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’.
3. Philosophy. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22). Solomon was said to be wiser than all the wise men of the surrounding nations (1 Kings 4:30-31), which still seems to concede that they possessed some real, albeit not saving wisdom. In the New Testament Paul needed to know something of the philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism in order to present the gospel to the philosophers on the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34).
4. Historical Theology. We read old theologies partly or the same reason we go to Bible studies – to interact with other minds and experiences. C. S. Lewis speaks of this in his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word. Hence: ‘It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.’
But perhaps the last word should belong to Augustine who wrote of ‘seeking the truth in a way that is humble yet confident that truth exists.’
– Peter Barnes