What’s So Liberal about the Liberal Arts?

In the middle of the phrase “liberal arts education” is the important word “liberal”. But how are these arts liberal? Some say it is that these arts are liberating; they free men and women who study them. Others say they are the arts suited for an already free person. Colleges describing themselves as liberal arts institutions often use the word merely to distinguish themselves from technical schools.
At the core of the liberal arts is a crucial notion in Christian thought: the freedom of conscience and worship. When Thomas Aquinas explains the meaning of the phrase liberal arts he grounds it in the statement, “man as regards his soul is free.” Josef Pieper echoes this notion saying, “Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with the cultus, with divine worship.” The term leisure in Greek is schole, the origin of our English word for school.
How do you teach math or read a book so that students experience these as leisure, as schole? What role do discovery and demonstration play in the liberal arts for persuading students of the beauty, truth, and goodness of a poem or pendulum? We will discuss not only the philosophy behind the liberal arts but particular ways this affects pedagogy and content in classrooms ranging from grammar school literature to upper school mathematics.

Ravi Jain

Ravi Jain graduated from Davidson College with a B.A. and interests in physics, ancient Greek, and international political economy. He worked at various churches, received an M.A. from Reformed Theological Seminary, and later earned a Graduate Certificate in Mathematics from the University of Central Florida. He coauthored “The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education,” now translated into Chinese, and the forthcoming, “A New Natural Philosophy: Natural Science and Christian Pedagogy.” He began teaching Calculus and Physics at the Geneva School in 2003 where he has developed an integrated double period class called “The Scientific Revolution.” In that class students read primary sources like Galileo and Newton in order to recapitulate the narrative of discovery and explore its deeper meanings while preserving the mathematical and scientific rigor expected of a college level treatment. He also teaches AP Calculus BC, in which the students strive to discover and demonstrate the “most beautiful theorem in mathematics,” and AP Physics C where they encounter Faraday, Maxwell, and Einstein. He has given over 150 talks and workshops throughout America, Africa, and China on topics related to education, theology, mathematics, and science. He has served as a deacon in his church and is a founding Alcuin fellow. He enjoys spending time with his two boys, Judah and Xavier and his wife Kelley.

Teaching Christian Rhetoric with St. Augustine

Given that Rhetoric itself is a disputed term–variously defined by different practitioners, theorists, and philosophers in different time periods–adding the adjective Christian to the word Rhetoric only serves to further muddy the waters. Nevertheless, as Christians, it is incumbent upon us to make sense of the world using reason illumined by faith.

St. Augustine, in De Doctrina Christiana, says “In a word, the function of eloquence in [Christian] teaching is not to make people like what was once offensive, or to make them do what they were loth to do, but to make clear what was hidden from them. If this is done in a disagreeable way, the benefits reach only a few enthusiasts, who are eager to know the things they need to learn no matter how dull and unattractive the teaching may be. Once they have attained it, they feed on the truth itself with great delight; it is the nature of good minds to love truth in the form of words, not the words themselves. . . . [but l]earning has a lot in common with eating: to cater for the dislikes of the majority even the nutrients essential to life must be made appetizing.”

A master of Ciceronian rhetoric and a devout and learned Christian bishop, St. Augustine takes what is best in classical Greece and Rome and commends it to his readers as an aide in the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus. Let’s join him on the journey.

Greg Jeffers

Greg Jeffers holds a B.A. in English and Biblical Theology and an M.A. in English: Composition and Rhetoric, all from Abilene Christian University. He is in his eighth year of teaching, the first two being in the university and the last six being at The Covenant School of Dallas. He currently teaches eighth grade Logic and Bible as well as tenth grade Rhetoric.

In the Fullness of Time

“In the Fullness of Time” (Gal. 4:4) describes how God prepared his world to grasp who Jesus is and to receive him as the divine savior. God used the Jewish Diaspora, hellenization spread by Alexander the Great, Roman roads, the pax Romana, and history, philosophy, and myth to prepare for Christ. A common objection to the biblical account of Jesus is that the Bible’s story of him was plagiarized from previous myths of dying and rising gods and heroes. While it is true that there are stories like this prior to Jesus, seen in the figures of Osiris, Odysseus, and Aeneas, his story is unique because it isn’t merely a story but, as the Bible claims, it actually took place in history. This talk explores the evidence that Jesus came at just the right time in history and how he is, as C. S. Lewis said, “the myth made fact.”

Matthew Heckel

Matthew Heckel teaches history, Latin, and apologetics at Heritage Classical Christian Academy in St. Louis, MO, where he has taught for nineteen years and served as interim headmaster, and is an adjunct instructor of history at Missouri Baptist University. He has a Ph.D. in Reformation Studies from Concordia Seminary St. Louis and an M.Div. from Covenant Theological seminary. He has been published in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Presbyterion, Church History, and contributed to the T & T Clark Companion to Reformation Theology. Matt and his wife Tammy have three children and are members at Covenant Presbyterian Church. He enjoys following Cardinal baseball, reading, watching films and documentaries, traveling, and is always up for a round of golf.

History as the Pursuit of Wisdom: A Case Study

The study of history in classical Christian schools often mirrors the model taken by our non-classical counterparts. Students read a textbook filled with a variety of facts that attempt to condense the progression of history to a few “high points” and key facts. Teachers use class time to lecture on the facts and connect them to a timeline that traces the “change” and “progress” of human existence through the generations. Often, activities and video presentations are brought in to help make history “come alive” for our students. Students are assessed in a manner that asks them to recall dates and facts and reproduce them quickly and simply. Rinse and repeat. What if, instead of this model, we rooted our students in an understanding that history is not the study of human progress, but rather a study of wisdom? If this is the case, it behooves us as classical educators to give our students the opportunity to both see this wisdom for themselves and to have the skills to mine the wisdom of those that have gone before. In this presentation, I will articulate an approach to medieval history that may help to not only train our students to read primary historical texts well, but also to consider that history goes beyond the study of what human beings did in the past. In this approach, primary texts all but replace the textbook and the teacher goes from a connector of facts to an advocate of historical wisdom.

Adam Roate

Mr. Adam Roate currently serves at Westminster School at Oak Mountain in Birmingham, Alabama as a teacher of medieval history and the upper school's humanities department chair. His "road" to classical education includes learning on military bases as a child, encountering the Great Books in a small undergrad program in Montgomery, Alabama, and taking on the responsibility of a long-term high school mathematics substitute as a college sophomore. While originally designed to be a temporary solution to the age-old money problems of a college undergraduate, this substitute role turned into 17 years as a math and humanities teacher in Alabama, Texas, and Idaho. While in Alabama, Mr. Roate helped to plan, organize, and implement a Great Books program at his first school, believing his efforts were unique in the educational movement as a whole. When he was contacted by a classical school in Texas, he quickly realized that what he was building in his two Great Books classes was actually fundamental to the foundation of many classical schools throughout the nation. This initial encounter with other classical educators led to 7 challenging but fruitful years in classical schools, leading to his current role at Westminster.

“I Doubt, Therefore I Believe?”: Why The History of Doubt Matters for Christian Educators in a Secular Age.

Adam Stevenson

Adam has been involved in classical Christian education as a teacher and administrator for eleven years. He currently teaches Logic School History, Literature, and Latin at Seattle Christian Classical School. He has a B.A. in Biblical Languages from Moody Bible Institute, and he has M.A.'s in Biblical Exegesis and Historical & Systematic Theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife and four children.

Erasmus and the Future of Education

Drawing upon Desiderius Erasmus’s most important contributions to the Western canon, this workshop explores essential virtues and perspectives that college freshmen and sophomores are often lacking when they walk into his classroom. This workshop will use Erasmus, the prince of humanists, as a guide to rethinking what it means for students to be “college ready” and what we can do to better prepare them for the world after they are done with their formal education. Rather than bodies of knowledge, test-taking tactics, discipline proficiencies, language skills, etc., we will reframe the conversation around the way that students think about learning, the way they approach lectures/discussions/seminars, the place of education in their larger lives, and what teachers can do about these things. While education, and higher education in particular, continues to experience various sea changes, Erasmus presents certain virtues of learning that transcend alterations to things like discipline content, standardized exams, technology, course modality, and academic assessment, and it is these virtues, Erasmus is convinced, that students need to find fulfillment in their lives.

Dr. David J. Davis

Dr. David J. Davis is Associate Professor of History at Houston Baptist University. He specializes in early modern religious culture and intellectual history, and his publications include two books on early modern religious images as well as numerous articles, chapters, and essays on the English Reformation and the history of the book. At HBU, he teaches courses in European history and is a faculty member in the Honors College. He is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The New Criterion, and The American Conservative, where he writes on a variety of topics from the Great Books and Western science to Renaissance art and the history of Texas. His forthcoming book The Culture of Revelation in England (published with Oxford University Press) examines a variety of sources from the Western tradition, demonstrating that experiences of divine revelation, both biblical and contemporary, were central to late medieval and early modern devotion and epistemology.

Uncovering Milton’s Classical Pedagogy

John Milton had considerable sway in the political discourse of his day, often writing at the intersection of philosophy, theology, and public policy. In fact Milton was the kind of public intellectual that classical educators hope to foster–one rooted in sound reasoning, connected to the past, able to influence ideas in the present, all the while having the courage to confront the spiritus mundi, and doing it with works of subtle beauty. His letter to Samuel Hartlib, in which he lays out his ideal program of education, is perhaps less familiar among classical educators than it should be. This may be because, in spite of the clarity and urgency of the first page of his letter, the rest is encumbered by difficult sentences, unfamiliar vocabulary, and a chronologically disoriented presentation of his program.
This talk will rediscover the familiar by uncovering the structure of Milton’s educational program that lies at the heart of his letter. His program involves a movement through what Milton calls “languages,” “solid things,” “experience and tradition,” and “sensible things.” The students’ destination is “knowledge of God,” a point so central to the project of repairing the foundations–first and foremost for Milton, England’s own. Along the way Milton addresses questions that remain relevant for modern classical educators in a way that is refreshingly unconventional–questions like “what is the role of language learning?

Josh Wilson

I received my B.S. in Theology from Clarks Summit University (PA), teaching credentials at East Stroudsburg University, MA in English Literature at the University of Toledo, MA in Biblical Hebrew at the University of Michigan. I'm currently finishing my PhD at Columbia University, Teachers College. I teach Upper School English at The Geneva School of Manhattan, where I've been since 2017. Prior to that I taught English in Toledo, OH, and before that, worked as an assistant pastor for seven years. As a pastor I had the heart of a teacher. Now as a teacher, I have the heart of a pastor. I love both roles. My current work at Columbia University is a PhD in English Education. My area of interest is classical education, and I've sought to form my coursework and theses to that end.

R. C. Sproul and the Revival of Classical Theism

R. C. Sproul (1939-2017) was perhaps best known for his teaching on the holiness of God as exemplified in the publication of his classic text, The Holiness of God (1985). This workshop explores the broader context of R. C.’s education and training and the various threads that led to this particular emphasis in his teaching and writing. In addition to Scripture, R. C. drew from classical and Reformed theological sources, from classical and medieval philosophical sources, and from literary sources, such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. This exploration into the development of this idea demonstrates how much potential there is in a truly integrated and classical education. From the time of his bachelor’s thesis in college, R.C. labored to counter what he saw as “the shallow religious views” of both the American church and American culture. Instead, he taught in a compelling way who God is according to what God has revealed of himself. He stood squarely in the tradition of the classical philosophers, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Edwards–and he did so at a time when few were paying attention to the richness of the classical tradition.

Stephen J. Nichols

Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer at Ligonier Ministries. He holds a master's degrees in philosophy and theology and a Ph.D. from Westminster Theological Seminary. He has been teaching in higher education since 1997. Steve is the author of over twenty-five books, including his most recently published book, R. C. Sproul: A Life. He also coedits the theologians on the Christian life series for Crossway. He hosts the podcast 5 Minutes in Church History. Reformation Bible College, founded in 2011, offers theological higher education in the Reformed classical tradition, following a classical model of education that emphasizes theology, philosophy, languages, and a robust curriculum of Great Works courses. Since 2014, Dr. Nichols serves as the second president, after the founder and first president, R. C. Sproul.

Close-Reading across the Canon: Transitioning to Biblical Theology

Heidi H. Dean

Heidi H. Dean teaches Pentateuch and Old Testament historical books at Veritas Christian Academy outside Asheville, NC. She serves as a K-12 Bible Instruction Specialist for Christian Schools International. She holds a Th.M. in Historical Theology (Duke University) and is pursuing a doctorate. She trains schools in implementing a seminar model class built on close-reading and skills of genre, culminating in how biblical motifs become interwoven in other subject areas.

Dr. Peter Leithart

Peter J. Leithart (Ph.D. Cambridge) is president of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, AL and teacher at Trinity Presbyterian Church. He has long ties to classical Christian education and is the author of 25 books on theology, philosophy and literature. He and his wife, Noel, have ten children and thirteen grandchildren.

Figs and Vines: Tending Humble Vocations

Those who tend fig trees like the prophet Amos have a humble vocation. When Amos is told to stop prophesying, he responds, “I’m no prophet. I’m a common herdsman, a sheep breeder. I pick sycamore figs.” In our humble positions as teachers, administrators, and learners, we are also fig-pickers, perhaps even fig-piercers if we break through the tough skin to allow maturity to come in our students. We don’t need a prophet label or wealth or great title to do our work well, to hear from God and obey Him in our everyday walk. But we do need to see our work as gardeners, those who tend, prune, and even burn. In John 15 it is because we remain in the vine that Christ calls us to love each other as He has loved us. In the same breath, Christ bids us to bear fruit that remains, fruit that regenerates much like the fig.

Christine Norvell

"With a Masters in Humanities from Faulkner University's Great Books program, Christine has taught high school English in classical and homeschool worlds for eighteen years, most recently for Regent Preparatory School in Tulsa, OK for the last eleven. She currently teaches American and World Literature online for high school students at Kepler Education. Christine is a senior contributor for The Imaginative Conservative and also regularly writes for websites like The Classical Thistle, Story Warren, Circe Institute, and University Bookman. She is the author of Till We Have Faces: A Reading Companion (2020). (I've been a classical education parent for 18 years and a classical literature teacher for 13 years. I speak at youth retreats, church conferences, chapels, and other academic conferences like The Classical Thistle's regional spring conference. I've presented both workshops and keynotes.)"