Liberal Arts – What Does the Term Mean?

Coaching Call Info

Join SCL President, Eric Cook, as he discusses creating a workable definition of the liberal arts with Christopher Schlect, Ph.D., a long-time expert in classical education.

The term liberal arts is widely used but seldom defined. What are its distinctions? Join us as we discuss:

  • What is an art?
  • How are arts different from sciences?
  • How are liberal arts different from other arts?
  • How are liberal arts different from humanities?

About our Speaker

Christopher Schlect, New Saint Andrews College

Christopher Schlect, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of History at New Saint Andrews College, where he also serves as Chair of Humanities and Director of the Classical and Christian Studies graduate program. He has worked in classical and Christian education for 30 years.

The Seven Liberal Arts: Liberty and Justice For All

We have heard of the liberal arts – but can we name them? We live in a fuzzy moment in which even college professors at “liberal arts” colleges often cannot name the seven liberal arts, nor tell us precisely why they are called “liberal” and why they are called “arts.” In this seminar, we will name and describe them all. (Hint: They are contained in the Trivium and Quadrivium.) We’ll also learn why they are “liberating” arts and fully-capacitated to do what only humans can do. (Hint: This has much to do with mastering words and numbers.) We will also note the ways that a liberally-educated person can become just and bring about meaningful justice in our world.

Chris Perrin

Christopher Perrin, MDiv, PhD, is the CEO with Classical Academic Press, and a national leader, author, and speaker for the renewal of classical education. He serves as a consultant to classical Christian schools, classical charter schools, and schools converting to the classical model. He is the director of the Alcuin Fellowship, former co-chair of the Society for Classical Learning, an adjunct professor with the honor's program at Messiah College, and previously served for ten years as a classical school headmaster.

The Liberal Arts Tradition: An Introduction

This quick, high-level overview of classical education in Western history serves as a great introduction to the classical tradition or a refresher for those looking to be reinvigorated in their passion for classical education. is talk has three parts: what the liberal arts are; the history of liberal arts education in 10 pictures; and the liberal arts tradition today.

Joshua Simmons

As a 13-year veteran of classical education, Josh currently serves as the Associate Head of the School of Rhetoric at Regents School of Austin. At Regents, Josh has taught various history and literature courses, as well as Christian apologetics, and served as the Humanities Department Chair for four years. He is a frequent speaker on classical education at conferences and school in-services.

In Defense of the Humanities

In the past few years I have noticed three troubling trends with regard to the humanities. I have been an English professor at Houston Baptist University for nearly three decades. During that time, I have seen the number of humanities majors – literature, history, philosophy, Spanish, Latin, classics, etc. – rise and fall, but never in all those years have I witnessed the kind of precipitous decline I have seen recently.

Secondly, in addition to teaching literature I have devoted the last nine years to lecturing for our Honors College, a program that allows students to obtain a full classical Christian Great Books education while also majoring in a field of their choice. In the beginning, a significant number of Honors College students chose a major in the humanities; today, more and more are majoring in the sciences, in business or in the social sciences.

Finally, I have spent the last 12 years speaking for classical Christian schools and conferences across the country. Though the movement as a whole is healthy and growing, I have noticed as of late a slow, but increasing danger. Parents who have been supportive of classical education and pleased by the intellectual and moral progress of their children are feeling the temptation to jump ship mid-stream and move their classically-trained middle school students to a non-classical high school.

What do these three troubling trends have in common? A growing perception on the part of students and their parents that an education grounded in the humanities/liberal arts is somehow impractical and will leave graduates without the resources to find a good college or a good job. “A passion for literature, Latin, history or philosophy is all well and good,” so the current wisdom goes, “but those pursuits will not provide the kind of training that students need to survive and thrive in the modern age.”

I’ve always known in my gut that this knee-jerk, utilitarian response to the humanities is false, but I never dreamed that its falsehood would be exposed by the very business world that the utilitarians invariably point to as their greatest ally and their key source of proof.

Now, before I proceed, I must confess that as a lifelong humanities person I feel an aversion to quoting statistics and current events. I have always preferred, and continue to prefer, time-tested wisdom to the latest trends, the testimonies and experiences of individual human beings to reductive and often anti-humanistic statistics. Still, I will here break my rule (temporarily) since the news and the numbers are punching holes in the current wisdom and letting the true light shine through.

Try typing this phrase into your favorite search engine: “Employers want liberal arts majors.” You will be greeted,  if not deluged, with articles, reports, book reviews and studies asserting that the naysayers are wrong and that companies do very much want employees who have cut their teeth in a good humanities program. You might be skeptical at first, figuring these articles must have been posted by humanities departments or classical schools. If so, you quickly will realize that you are wrong. Here is a brief sampling of what you will find:

  1. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics: “According to studies from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers often rank skills such as critical thinking and communication – hallmarks of liberal arts training – above technical aptitude as essential for career readiness.”
  2. From the New York Times’ review of George Anders’s You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education and Randall Stross’ A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees: “According to both Anders and Stross, the ever-expanding tech sector is now producing career opportunities in fields – project management, recruitment, human relations, branding, data analysis, market research, design, fundraising, and sourcing, to name some – that specifically require the skills taught in the humanities. To thrive in these areas, one must be able to communicate effectively, read subtle social and emotional cues, make persuasive arguments, adapt quickly to fluid environments, interpret new forms of information while translating them into a compelling narrative and anticipate obstacles and opportunities before they arise. Programs like English or history represent better preparation, the two authors argue, for the demands of the newly emerging ‘rapport sector’ than vocationally oriented disciplines like engineering or finance.”
  3. From the Harvard Business Review: “From Silicon Valley to the Pentagon, people are beginning to realize that to effectively tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges, we need to think critically about their human context – something humanities graduates happen to be well trained to do. Call it the revenge of the film, history and philosophy nerds.”
  4. And, an Investopedia survey of executives – including CEOs, presidents, vice presidents and C-level executives – by the Association of American Colleges and Universities revealed:
  • 93% of executives say “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than a particular degree.”
  • 80% of executives say that regardless of a student’s major, they should have “a broad knowledge” of the liberal arts and sciences.
  • 80% of executives say schools should place more emphasis on oral and written communication skills.
  • 71% of executives say schools should place more emphasis on the ability to innovate and be creative.
  • 74% of executives would “recommend a liberal education to their own child or a young child they know.”

I easily could quote another dozen passages, but I hope these will suffice to show that the humanities/liberal arts are not as divorced from the needs of real-life employers as has been supposed. In taking a non-utilitarian approach, one in which the discipline is studied as an end-in-itself, the humanities end up producing graduates who excel in just the skills that modern companies are demanding from their employees. Furthermore, because the graduates acquired those skills not through direct vocational training, but as a natural consequence of dialoging with the great works of literature, history and philosophy, they internalize them in a way that better enables growth, flexibility and innovation over time.

Quote two above does a fine job listing some of the skills that develop organically from the humanistic disciplines, but I, as a humanities professor, prefer to flesh out the exact nature of those critical thinking skills by looking to the past for guidance, clarity and illumination. When I do so, I discover, to my delight, that all that needs to be said on the subject was said a century-and-a-half ago by a British Victorian sage who lived and wrote in the heyday of the industrial revolution: Cardinal Newman.

In 1852, Newman delivered a series of nine discourses – later published as The Idea of a University – in which he laid down foundational principles for a proposed classical Christian liberal arts Catholic university in Dublin, Ireland. In discourse VII, chapter X, Newman describes, in terms prophetic of the passages I quoted above, the fruits of a liberal arts education grounded in the humanities:

A University training is the great ordinary means to a great, but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power and refining the intercourse of private life. It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them. He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself.

Were my concern here the ability of the humanities to shape virtuous, morally self-regulating citizens who can redeem public discourse and uphold and preserve a deliberative representational democracy, I would zero in on the first sentence. Heaven knows, our modern, fractured society is in desperate need of such college graduates! Since, however, my focus is the link between the liberal arts and the workplace, I will turn instead to the remainder of the paragraph – not to enshrine it, but to explicate, parse and interpret it as though it were a poem or a historical event or a Latin verb. For that is the way humanities majors interact with the world around them; it is as familiar to them as breathing or walking or falling in love.

It is this education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them.

In the language of classical Christian education, such a student has successfully worked his way through the trivium (“three ways”) of grammar, logic and rhetoric. He, like the college humanities major, has learned to “think for himself,” not by parroting the words of others or rejecting all that came before him, but by measuring his ideas against standards of goodness, truth and beauty, synthesizing them into a coherent thesis or worldview, and then sharing that schema with his peers in a persuasive, but irenic manner. A humanities student learns to do this without knowing he is doing it – by wrestling with the timeless issues raised by Sophocles or Plutarch or Aquinas – and he will carry it with him into committee board rooms where such integrative, high-level thinking is required and valued.

It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.

The humanities excel at training students to read a text –any kind of text – and go for the jugular. That is to say, students who spend their college years intensively studying literature or history or philosophy become adept at cutting through what is peripheral to get to the core, to what is most essential, most lasting and most human. The business world very much needs employees who can analyze a situation and identify, quickly and with precision, the root causes of that situation and the consequences it is likely to produce. True, some of that can be gained by studying business case studies, but what those studies lack are the simultaneously particular and universal issues that confront humanities majors in every class.

It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility.

It may sound like a cliché to refer to the humanities major as a Renaissance man, but it should not. The liberal arts strive to produce graduates who can speak intelligently and with passion on a wide range of topics, not because they have memorized a packet of trivial pursuit cards, but because they have spent four years actively participating in the Great Conversation that has been going on since Homer and the books of Moses. Though they are sometimes ridiculed for being jacks of all trades, but masters of none, they are in truth generalists who see and appreciate the connections between all areas of thought. Such employees will be able to connect with clients in a way that goes beyond small talk at the bar or restaurant. Their training will allow them to see the client, not to mention their officemates, as fellow travelers on a  journey of self-discovery.

It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them.

One thing that the humanities are particularly good at fostering and strengthening in their students is a sense of what I like to call, after Percy Shelley, the sympathetic imagination. To open oneself to the joys and sorrows, passions and fears, convictions and foibles of people from various ages and cultures – as humanities majors do every week in their classes – is to gain, by slow osmosis, the ability to see the world through different eyes. Although the characters that humanities majors meet in their studies share with them a common humanity, they all have unique struggles that draw students out of their comfort zones and cultural bubbles. Whether they be fictional (Achilles, Antigone, Aeneas, Elizabeth Bennet) or non-fictional (Alexander, Caesar Augustus, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I), poets (Dante, Shakespeare, Milton) or philosophers (Plato, Augustine, Kierkegaard), their intense reality forces those who encounter them to get inside their heads, to understand their actions and motivations, to sympathize with rather than stand in judgment over them. Needless to say, a company that employs workers who possess these skills will attract clients and customers who feel that their needs, desires and apprehensions have been understood and respected.

He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself.

To immerse oneself in the literary, historical and philosophical records that have been passed down to us over the last three millennia is to be confronted at once with our great potential and our profound limits. The humanities present man at his best and his worst, as a noble and glorious creature created in the image of God who is yet broken, fallen and depraved. Not until a student comes to grips with the good he is capable of – and the bad he is equally capable of – will he gain both the confidence and the humility to serve his fellow man. Only then will he know when to speak and when to remain silent, when to voice his own opinion and when to listen to the opinions of others. Employees who are firm in what they believe, yet open to correction and new ideas, are a rare and precious commodity in the business world. Employers are eager to hire such people!

It thrills my heart that the business world has finally caught up with what Newman wrote 150 years ago. Now, if only students (and their parents) could read and interpret the signs of the times. There are now, and always will be, students who do not feel drawn to classical schools or humanities majors. That is fine and as it should be. But for those students who are passionate about an education that immerses them in the liberal arts, please rest assured that the skills such an education fosters in them will serve those students well in whatever career they choose to pursue.

The Enchanted Cosmos: Mathematics Among the Liberal Arts

This session will introduce a curriculum and pedagogy for mathematics grounded in the classical Christian tradition. It will give special attention to 7th through 12th Grades (or pre-algebra through calculus), though many topics will be of interest to K-6 teachers. This classical approach, which is under active development for release through Classical Academic Press, will demonstrate the possibilities opened by thorough attention to the traditional categories of the Quadrivium, including
1) a pedagogy of puzzle, proof and play; 2) a curriculum of wonders; and 3) mathematics for the sake of wisdom and worship. Everybody will leave with a preliminary packet of new pedagogical models, a sheet of great math quotes and an overview of the classical math curriculum envisioned. Join us to consider how we can recover for students the wonder of an enchanted cosmos that God has spoken — or perhaps sung — into being.

Ravi Jain

Ravi Jain graduated from Davidson College with a bachelor’s degree and interests in physics, ancient Greek and international political economies. He worked at various churches, received a master’s degree from Reformed Theological Seminary and later earned a graduate certificate in mathematics from the University of Central Florida. He began teaching calculus and physics at The Geneva School in 2003, where he has developed an integrated double-period class called The Scienti c Revolution. In this class, students read primary sources like Galileo and Newton in order to recapitulate the narrative of discovery while preserving the mathematical and scientific rigor expected of a college-level treatment. During his tenure there, he co-authored The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education. He has given over 100 talks and workshops worldwide on topics related to education, mathematics and science. He has two young boys, Judah and Xavier. After the duties of the week have been discharged — usually by 8:53 on Saturday nights — he enjoys his few remaining hours with family, friends and his wife, Kelley Anne, whom he met in Japan.

A Practical Introduction to the Liberal Arts

As the tools and seeds of learning, the liberal arts of language and math have important implications for teaching and learning in the classical classroom. This session introduces the basic logic of liberal arts teaching through concrete examples.

Kevin Clark

As the tools and seeds of learning, the liberal arts of language and math have important implications for teaching and learning in the classical classroom. This session introduces the basic logic of liberal arts teaching through concrete examples.

Mathematics in the Liberal Arts Tradition

While today math teachers often struggle to convince their students of the usefulness of the discipline, the tradition famously advocated the study of mathematics for a completely different reason. The ancients and Medievals believed the study of mathematics to play a crucial role in developing wisdom and the faculty of human reason in students. But in order for this study to truly develop the mind, it must be taught in a soul-shaping manner and not merely as a collection of useful algorithms. This session will explore how teachers in 7th–12th grade mathematics can teach in a richer manner that cultivates the soul through a pedagogy of puzzle, proof, and play. In the light of these themes we will reevaluate the role of the Cartesian coordinate system, the interface between geometry and algebra, and the role of models and manipulatives in higher math such as Calculus. We will also explore how a properly resituated mathematics naturally opens to questions of transcendence and even God as it did for Plato, Augustine, Pascal, and Descartes. Join us to delve more deeply into mathematics in the liberal arts tradition.

Ravi Jain

Ravi Jain graduated from Davidson College with a BA and interests in physics, ancient Greek, and international political economy. He worked at various churches, received an MA from Reformed Theological Seminary, and later earned a Graduate Certi cate in Mathematics from the University of Central Florida. He began teaching Calculus and Physics at The Geneva School in 2003, where he has developed an integrated double-period class called “The Scienti c Revolution.” In this class the students read primary sources such as Galileo and Newton in order to recapitulate the narrative of discovery while preserving the mathematical and scienti c rigor expected of a college-level treatment. During his tenure there, he co-authored The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education. He has given more than 100 talks and workshops throughout the country and overseas on topics related to education, mathematics, and science. He has two young boys, Judah and Xavier. A er the duties of the week have been discharged (by 8:53 Saturday night), the few remaining hours he enjoys spending with family, friends, and his wife, Kelley Anne, whom he met in Japan.

The Liberal, Common and Fine Arts

Over the past three decades, Christian classical schools have championed the recovery of the liberal arts and discovered lost wisdom in the Trivium as the arts of language and the Quadrivium as the arts of mathematics. But while unearthing these treasures, many have also noted C.S. Lewis’ warning in The Abolition of Man. If we do not reimagine our contemporary approach to technology, we should shudder to think what applied “modern science threatens to do to man himself.” Wendell Berry and Matthew Crawford likewise have challenged us respectively to recover the Art of the Commonplace and revision Shop Class as Soul Craft. As it turns out, neither the liberal arts nor the common arts can be recovered in isolation, but together they “form the articulation of a joint.” Josef Pieper has not only described this but also how the fine arts must be joined to these others because they remind us “how to see.” This session will explore how the Christian classical curriculum authentically holds together the Liberal, Common, and Fine Arts through its cultivation of wisdom and virtue in the context of Christian worship and liturgy.

Ravi jain

Ravi Jain graduated from Davidson College with a BA and interests in physics, ancient Greek, and international political economy. He worked at various churches, received an MA from Reformed Theological Seminary, and later earned a Graduate Certificate in Mathematics from the University of Central Florida. He began teaching Calculus and Physics at The Geneva School in 2003, where he has developed an integrated double-period class called “The Scienti c Revolution.” In this class the students read primary sources such as Galileo and Newton in order to recapitulate the narrative of discovery while preserving the mathematical and scienti c rigor expected of a college-level treatment. During his tenure there, he co-authored The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education. He has given more than 100 talks and workshops throughout the country and overseas on topics related to education, mathematics, and science. He has two young boys, Judah and Xavier. A er the duties of the week have been discharged (by 8:53 Saturday night), the few remaining hours he enjoys spending with family, friends, and his wife, Kelley Anne, whom he met in Japan.

Only Natural: Poetic Resonance between the Common and Liberal Arts

The lengthy split on its well-worn seat and the obtuse cant of its wobbly back attested to two things. First, the frequency of its use, and second, its immanent consignment to the dumpster. A note prominently attached to the pitiful figure read: “Can anything be done to save this?” The old footstool had shown up in my lab, part science space and part old school shop, with a heart-felt, hand-written hope for help.

In no time, the old footstool had become a lesson. It was brought back to the kindergarten classroom from whence it came, where the students gathered around its decrepit form to hear a tale of what it would soon become. Glue was applied, along with some speed clamps. Sanding took place, followed by some spot fixes and buffing. Strategic woodscrews placed tension here or there where it was needed most. To top it off, a new candy coating of bright yellow paint. The restored stool re-entered service within the week, but it occurred to me that the functionality of that stool far surpassed that of its physical form alone.

For these kindergarteners, and more than a little bit for their teacher, that stool was a model of redemption, and of the liberating power of the common arts. Without a little knowledge, hope had been lost. Brokenness was beyond repair. But with a little shop savvy and some elbow grease, what was lost was made anew, and in the process, changed the way these students understood their relationship to the physical world around them.

The liberal arts were named at a time when the most important skill for freemen was to be able to participate in civic matters, which required moving beyond the concerns of simple crafts to the art of statecraft. There is no debate about whether or not the liberal arts are important for us to impart to our children today, but what if our culture has moved us so far from the experience of the real that a driving need of our children today, particularly our youngest learners, is to balance their experience in the liberal arts with a return to learning about the non-virtual world through their hands and their senses? And even more pressing: what if their education for the Kingdom demands this paradigm shift as much as their education for the world of men?
Richard Louv, in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, coins the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the increasing lack of natural experience that children face today as their entertainment becomes centered around electricity-driven virtual realities1. In losing touch with the natural world, the very world which Jesus uses to frame up so many parables, our students are losing touch with the source of their physical and metaphorical daily bread. They are losing the ears by which they could hear. Jaron Lanier, pioneer of digital media, in his book You Are Not A Gadget laments that “A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become” due to the de-humanizing effects of recent technological saturation2. In losing touch with a real social landscape and pursuing the fruits of vainglory, our students are placing themselves first and their neighbors second. And perhaps the most quoted of all, C.S. Lewis laments in the third chapter of The Abolition of Man that the modern aims of applied science are more akin to that of the medieval magician, who sought to bend nature to his own desires, than to the wisdom of the men of old, who sought to know nature that they may be in resonance with wisdom, with God3. In losing our humility and recasting our place in the natural world through the social imaginary of a detached, omnipotent science, are we training our students to be the wild vines in the vineyard?

We need to ask ourselves: if we teach our students in the purely modern, secular way, are we foregoing
the opportunity to show them nature in light of charity, holism, and thanksgiving? Can we develop a pedagogy that maintains the rigor necessary to become world-class scientists while also preserving a vision, not only of creation but of the practice of science itself, that is deeply in dominio Dei?

Fortunately, John Milton had an answer to these questions in 1644. Speaking squarely from the middle of the time period in which our modern paradigms about science were being formed, Milton advocated a holistic educational experience based upon the liberal and the common arts working in concert:

And having thus passed the principles of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and geography, with a general compact of physics, they may descend in mathematics to the instrumental science of trigonometry, and from thence to fortification, architecture, engineering, and navigation…. To set forward all these proceedings in nature and mathematics, what hinders but that they may procure, as oft as shall be needful, the helpful experiences of hunters, fowlers, fishermen, shepherds, gardeners, apothecaries;…. And this will give them such a real tincture of natural knowledge, as they shall never forget, but daily augment with delight.4

Milton is advocating nothing less than a meeting in the middle between the liberal and the common arts. The trivium and quadrivium form the academic foundations, while the common arts form the “tincture of natural knowledge”, the experiences in real application, that will allow the student to become not only fully functional, but fully charitable, in the world. The lessons of the book are not detached from the lessons of the heart through the hands, and in so doing, the head, heart, and hands are united in a holistic education.

Consider this list in light of typical school settings, and it becomes clear that every discipline could be refracted through a common art. Warfare is generally precluded, but the skills of hunting could just as easily be taught by switching one set of optics for another: trade rifle scopes for cameras by creating a photography elective, and teach students how to set up for shots in the wild. Medicine makes its way into PE/Gymnastics through training in First Aid and CPR. Simulations in history class can lead to excellent experiences in trade: could your school develop an internal economy that honors the biblical admonitions to love your neighbor and avoid usury?

However, the easiest of all applications is in the science classroom. Each of these arts involves a rooted, real-world, applied understanding of physics, chemistry, biology, and/or earth science. Framing instruction in science could be as simple as hinging your curriculum on these arts and letting the information fall into place within the context of formation: as each is practiced, the science that undergirds each is explored and experienced first hand.

Three examples of applied common arts in our science program at The Covenant School are the Skills of the Tracker, multi-generational gardening, and the Ancient Technology Project.

Skills of the Tracker: Hunting Without Hunting, for Children

Our youngest learners are literally primed to make sense of the world by using their senses. These God-given gifts, meant to be used in an orderly way, are there to help them perceive the world all around.

They are also primed for narratives. Stories impart wisdom, and through them, students learn to make sense
of what they experience. Narrative frameworks set the interpretive frameworks by which future experiences can be understood.

Imagine if our youngest learners learned science not in the lab, but in the garden, where senses and story are the gateways to a whole world of experiences, and you have the essence of the Skills of the Tracker units.

These experiences run progressively through grades 1-3. At the first level, students start with a story: Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen. This beautifully written and illustrated story about a father and daughter out on a winter’s night calling in an owl frames the experiences to come. Students learn that they need to be silent, to be brave, to “make their own heat”, and to follow the lead of a mentor who knows what to do in order to be successful. Students are taught how to walk silently, how to extend their hearing with “deer ears” and to use blurred vision to capture animal movement in the visual clutter of the leaf canopy. They practice hearing bird language, and interpreting the calls that our local birds make as they forage, call companions, and flee from danger. They learn the rudiments of natural history by taking time to sketch what they see outside, and not just the big picture: sometimes they are called to pay careful attention to the tiniest objects, which reveal their complexity when not quickly passed over. Through this experience, coupled with Scripture readings that highlight and place what they see in context, students learn rigorous scientific observation without learning to see the world as something to be dominated. They graph their findings, use field guides, keep field journals, and use the tools of science, but they do not catch the narrative that says that science is there for us to dominate nature. Rather, they learn that science is a way to see God smiling back at us from the garden no matter where we turn.

In the later grades, students continue to hone their basic skills while also exploring tracking pits, the movement of the sun (and its relation to timekeeping), observing from a single spot through all the seasons, and more. As they engage these experiences, they learn the scientific facts and processes within a context that is larger than the information itself. They also learn within a framework that is inherently cross-curricular: history plugs in at every step, as well as reading, writing, mathematics, and the fine arts.

Multi-Generational Gardening: Agricultural Mentorship

In keeping with the Christian practice of hospitality and the building of community, we are taking steps towards a multi-generational approach to gardening. In a chapter of his book The Dumbest Generation called “Betraying the Mentors”, Mark Bauerlein laments the loss of mentorship in a culture of self-expression. Mentors are seen as getting in the way of expression, rather than as guides who have already walked these paths before, and are here, in charity, to share their wisdom.5

In seeking to actively undermine this cultural paradigm while also building our school community, we have asked not only parents, but grandparents, to share their expertise with our young students in our box and field plot gardens. From vegetable whisperers to flower powerhouses, we are drawing our constituents into our common space to share knowledge and to cultivate beauty. We are also actively breaking the standard school year cycle by asking our end-of-year 2nd graders to plant the corns, beans, and squash they will share with next year’s 2nd graders in their annual 2nd-3rd potlatch supper.

All of these practices refine the sense that mentorship is valuable. It can come at many different levels and in many different forms, and as such, it forms cross- connections within our community and timeframes that might otherwise go unnoticed, or simply become lost, in the hustled pace of modern living.

Ancient Technology Project: History Meets Science Meets Shop Class

Our 6th grade students finish a History unit on Ancient Greece and Rome at about the same time they finish a Science unit called Awesome Architecture, which deals with the basics of atomic physics, chemistry, and mechanics. Bringing these two units together is as simple as asking one question: How would a modern understanding of materials help us to recreate ancient technologies using authentic materials? The answer to this question involves applied science, history, and power tools.

After picking an artifact to create, say a Roman lorica segmentata, students research a historically-accurate design, trace its history, and prepare a list of materials necessary to build a working model. Students render complete rough draft plans on paper, including all measurements and expanded diagrams of engineering challenges. While they are doing so, they alternate class days between the library and the shop, where they learn the basics of tool safety, selection, and technique. Students prototype portions of their design, test them, and make improvements upon their design before crafting a final artifact for presentation to parents and other school constituents at our annual STEM Night. Their presentations not only involve their craft, but also a refinement of their eloquence: students are provided a list of questions ahead of time that they must prepare to address.

There are plenty of success stories and failures along the way. Students realize, not just by instruction but through their hands, that wood has a grain or that metal is microcrystalline by working these materials themselves. They apply their knowledge of chemistry and mechanics to devise ways to craft, solve problems, analyze failures, and improve designs, all the while cultivating the virtues of fortitude, prudence, patience, and careful observation.

Students also acquire a skill set and disposition that is lacking in our disposable culture: things can be fixed, and we have the capacity, if we have the knowledge and the frameworks of understanding, to fix. This is as liberal as you get: it frees the self from being utterly at the whim of those who know how, while coupling the knowledge of the hands with that of the heart and of the head.

This is also STEM at its best, while mitigating its worst. There are no pre-fabbed materials, virtual problems, or even the simplicity of telling a machine what to do. This is craft. It requires all the logic, all the problem-solving, plus an additional embodied element of craftsmanship that is lacking in many modern, boxed programs.

Doug Stowe, a blogger who writes “Wisdom of the Hands”, posted the following quote. It was subsequently quoted by Matthew B. Crawford as an opener for the first chapter of his 2009 book Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into The Value of Work.

[I]n schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving
of their full attention and engagement…. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.6

Contained within this quote are all the reasons why the common arts are resonant with the liberal arts. Without a context, we run the risk of decontextualizing what we teach, and in so doing, unwittingly perpetuating frameworks which allow for scientism to become a force within our culture. If we can reclaim some ground by re-instituting the common arts within our programs, we not only foster the best of the head, heart, and hands within our students, but we also give them a freedom that cannot be had simply by the exploration, no matter how broad or how deep, of a world of abstract ideas alone.

The Liberal Arts and Human Flourishing

One encounters any number of reasons for the importance of a liberal arts education, both from within the Christian classical renewal and in the broader educational culture. In Christian classical circles one is likely to hear an emphasis upon the potency of the liberal arts as tools of learning, while in the broader culture the emphases one often meets range from vague notions of well-roundedness to pragmatic claims of employability. Thus the thesis advanced in the present article may appear to some as bold and somewhat surprising.

The best reason for pursuing a liberal arts education is not that it produces well-rounded persons, though the breadth of human experience it affords is expansive. Nor is it that the liberal arts foster or engender the kind of written, verbal, or critical thinking skills sought after by some employers, though the skills of persuasive writing and speaking and of interpretive reading and analysis indeed lie at the core of the liberal arts curriculum. Rather, the most compelling reason for pursuing a liberal arts education is the distinct claim that the historical, aesthetic, philological disciplines of the traditional liberal arts curriculum
cultivate the qualities of moral judgment, common sense (sensus communis), and taste.1 It is not only that the Western tradition has understood the distinctively human element of civilization to consist in the acquisition and exercise of these qualities, but also that they actually constitute the pre-critical conditions for human rationality itself. Put most simply, then, the best reason for pursuing a liberal arts education is that it cultivates the qualities necessary for human flourishing, both in terms of human reason and of human moral being in the world. It is also the most compelling because it is perfectly attuned to our own cultural moment.

Cultivating moral judgement, common sense, and taste

There is perhaps no single aspect in which a liberal arts education is more obviously unique than in its telos— the acquisition of moral wisdom or judgment. Earlier thinkers such as Plato or Aristotle would have called this virtue phronesis, practical wisdom. While our own culture is preoccupied with a plurality of incommensurable educational goals—rational mastery of a subject, technical proficiency, the ability to calculate, to deduce, or to process data—the ideal of a liberal education has always been wise and responsible action in the world. Phronesis thus unites the theoretical and the practical goals of education; we might say that it is the good sense to know what to do with truth. Honed through imitation and continual practice, it is the skill of living a good human life in the world.2

The question arises, however, if the liberal arts are primarily academic in nature, how does such an education cultivate this virtue of practical rationality? The most direct answer is that they do not and cannot do so on their own. Acquiring the skill of living wisely in the world takes practice— real choices, real actions, real consequences.3 However, the liberal arts provide irreplaceable imaginative resources for acquiring this skill. In fact, imagination is perhaps principal among these resources, for the poets and historians have bequeathed to us the great gift of literature—narratives historical and fictional—where one may observe the lives of the wise and the foolish, experiencing those lives vicariously by entering imaginatively into their stories. Through the study of literature the student gains the kind of experience in life necessary for moral formation that his or her young age does not permit. Hence, what one lacks in lived experience he can glean from literary experience. Cicero adds a further dimension to our understanding of this imaginative effect of literary experience in his famous oration Pro Archia Poeta. “All books are full, all words of the wise are full, and all history is full of examples,” he writes; “I have always kept these images in view when serving as a magistrate, shaping my heart and mind after them by meditating on their excellences.” For Cicero the study of history and literature afforded by a liberal arts education not only instructed him but compelled him boldly to act for the common good of his community. The experience gained from the liberal arts provides narratives for making sense of one’s own life and directs one’s affections toward what is good and noble and true. Potent resources indeed for acquiring moral wisdom.

Sensus communis is closely connected to the skill of moral judgement. Although we often render this Latin phrase with the familiar words common sense, it is necessary to recall something of the technical meaning these words carry over from the art of rhetoric in order fully to appreciate their importance.4 Of course, we use the phrase common sense all of the time to mean an intuitive understanding of how to get along in the world, often contrasting it with academic or specialized knowledge.
(In fact, one is at times tempted to conclude that common sense is precisely the one quality many academics are lacking.) Although the ordinary meaning of the phrase is not identical to its technical sense, it happily flows from it. In classical rhetoric, sensus communis actually refers to that shared understanding of the world that a rhetorician can rely on when crafting his oration. It is not something he must prove, nor even that he will often state. Rather, it is that shared body of assumptions that invisibly bind together a group of people and, as writers from C. S. Lewis to Alasdair MacIntyre demonstrate,5 actually make moral reasoning possible in the first place. Since this quality was first marginalized and then suppressed during the Enlightenment, it is difficult for the contemporary reader to appreciate just how important the acquisition of common sense was to educators in the classical world.6 Aristotle notes in the Ethics, for example that the conscious transfer of the culture’s body of shared assumptions is one of education’s primary objectives.7

As a quality intentionally cultivated by the liberal arts curriculum, sensus communis is best characterized as a studied sense of the wisdom and insight (and indeed the prejudices and presuppositions) of previous generations. As such, it awakens us to that indefinably familiar atmosphere that breathes through the pages of the stories, shapes the historical narratives, and inflects the language of a people at a given place and time. It develops a conscious sense for what is commonly, though implicitly, held to be true. Common sense is thus closely related to what Edmund Burke famously coins the moral imagination in his Letter Concerning the Recent Revolution in France, and sounds remarkably like that distinctly human faculty-the chest-whose loss C. S. Lewis laments in the first part of The Abolition of Man. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur also seems to be invoking this sense of the common, when he speaks of the insight into life acquired via the “long detour” among the literary and imaginative works of humanity.8 He argues that what seems to be a detour is actually the obligatory path we must take if we are to understand ourselves and our culture. Failure to take this detour, to run along this path, is to guarantee the short-circuiting of self-knowledge. Interestingly, Ricoeur’s detour among the historical, aesthetic and philological disciplines is actually the well-worn path of the liberal arts curriculum—the study of history, literature, poetry, and language. The liberal arts connect us to our historical tradition by cultivating a sense for what is held in common throughout the history of that tradition.

The development of taste is something of an aesthetic analog to the cultivation of common sense. While it is not only artists who need to cultivate taste, reflection upon their experience is helpful in understanding its foundational importance. For to become a musician, fine artist, actor, or poet, is to take the long detour via the aesthetic achievements of humanity. The cellist works through the instrument’s received repertoire, the fine artist makes master copy after master copy, the actor rehearses the same lines countless other actors have performed for generations. I suppose we grasp intuitively the role tradition plays in the pedagogy of the arts. Lest we fail to recognize its significance, however, it is important to see that the specific claim of the arts in this regard is that creativity and artistic sensibilities are formed by attention to tradition. Picasso, to cite a somewhat dated but brilliant example, is highly original (to many of his time shockingly so); yet, without the tradition of European masters, there would be no blue paintings, no Guernica. Again, we grasp all of this intuitively; but how often do we fail to reflect upon the actual process of artistic formation when we wonder over much that is crass, tasteless, or vulgar in contemporary culture? The development of aesthetic taste, like the development of the adult palate, is formed by experience. As common sense is a studied sense for
the commonly held truths of a culture, taste is a sense for what is fitting or decent that is cultivated over time and experienced in the arts.

The liberal arts are more timely than timeless.

I asserted above that the most compelling reason to pursue a liberal arts education is that it cultivates the qualities necessary for human flourishing. To understand why this makes the liberal arts relevant to contemporary culture it is necessary to place our cultural moment within historical perspective. The last century witnessed a series of radical upheavals in the cultural and intellectual life of Western civilization. While one is tempted to think here only of cultural developments—the world wars, the advent of the nuclear age, or the sexual revolution—the intellectual landscape changed forever as well. Most importantly in this regard is the abandonment of what some intellectual historians have termed the Enlightenment project.9

To paint with very broad strokes, the Enlightenment is an episode in the intellectual life and culture of Western civilization, where on the basis of and in reaction to a number of factors—scientific, social, religious, and political—Western thinkers experienced an acute loss of confidence in central elements of human tradition and in the institutions which embodied and perpetuated that tradition. Where Western civilization had been maintained by a tensed harmony (at least in theory) of a number of incommensurable authorities—faith, tradition, reason, experience, community—the Enlightenment project is perhaps best characterized as the attempt to secure the goods of that tradition upon the putatively certain ground of reason. A brilliant illustration of this project
is Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? in which he famously describes enlightenment as man’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity, an immaturity strictly defined as reliance upon such traditional mediating structures and institutions as books, doctors, priests, and judges in human intellectual, physical, religious, and moral life. To be enlightened, claims Kant, is to dare to think for oneself—sapere aude!— and thus his ideal human is a rationally autonomous subject for whom reason is the sole guarantor of human intellectual and moral goods. The notion that human flourishing is dependent upon anything more fundamental than reason is precisely what is repudiated here.

By the mid-twentieth century, when the realization that the European Enlightenment had culminated in the most devastating (and efficient) elimination of human  life the world has yet witnessed—indeed, greater in quantity than all armed conflicts in human history combined—recognition of the Enlightenment project’s failure was widespread. Yet, it was not merely malaise or disillusionment that signaled the end of the Enlightenment. Throughout the twentieth century there was also a succession of insights—notably from the sciences— concerning the role historical tradition and community practices play in forming our philosophical outlook, the influence that religious (or anti-religious) presuppositions have in our reasoning, and the comprehensive effect that language and culture have in shaping our understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. With this succession of insights has come renewed appreciation for the displaced notions of faith, tradition, reason, experience, and community. There has been renewed appreciation as well for the practices and ways of being in the world that gave these notions plausibility prior to the Enlightenment.

It is this new way of thinking about human rationality that provides a renewed context for liberal arts education, and the most compelling case for its contemporary re-appropriation. An Enlightenment view of reason has simply proved too narrow to account for human rationality, much less to secure the goods of human life. The historical, aesthetic, and philological disciplines of the liberal arts curriculum, however, are especially well fitted to the more robust understanding of what it means to be rational in our current intellectual situation.

Beyond the “well-rounded” student

Understanding this historical context also helps us to perceive the problem with the commonplace notion mentioned above that a liberal arts education produces well-rounded people. For it was precisely as an unquestioning response to Enlightenment rationality that the liberal arts were first defended as the means of making well-rounded persons. The rational and scientific disciplines, so the thinking went at the time, set the standards for what it meant to be well educated. The liberal arts are important for making one refined, cultured, humane. Thus, taste, common sense, and judgment were understood to be important subjective or intuitive qualities one should develop while acquiring an otherwise objective and scientific education. However laudable the intention, this notion is tragically mistaken for at least two important reasons. In the first place, rather than maintaining the liberal arts in something of a separate-but-equal status with the sciences, emphasizing their cultural or refining qualities actually served to relegate the liberal arts to educational window-dressing. In the age of science, urbanization, and industrialization, such accoutrement was superfluous—indeed, when it comes to making the automobile, not only history, but art and literature too, are bunk. In this brave new world of progress, the very notion of refinement was seen to smack of elitism and old-world aristocracy. Moreover, in light of the discussion above, it ought to be clear that the relegation of the liberal arts to
the periphery of the curriculum was philosophically naive. It was not apparent in the nineteenth century, but we see now that the qualities the liberal arts cultivate, much more than rounding out a practical, scientific education, actually play a fundamental role in the acquisition of human understanding as such. The liberal arts are thus essential to and not just an accidental element of education.

In The Abolition of Man C. S. Lewis writes: “And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation— we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self- sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity
we remove the organ and demand the function.” He is lamenting the failure of modern education to cultivate
the very qualities we have addressed all too briefly in this essay—moral judgement, common sense, and taste—not, we should note, critical thinking or academic rigor. Modern education rendered the cultivation of these humanizing qualities impossible because it displaced the liberal arts curriculum with what was imagined to be a more practical or more relevant curriculum. Chesterton once remarked that thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world. Perhaps we could adapt his words here and apply them to our discussion: thoroughly practical people never understand what is truly practical. So in its departure from modern education, the Christian classical renewal has come to understand that it is precisely the liberal arts curriculum—that seemingly impractical detour among the literary and imaginative works of humanity— that cultivates the qualities necessary for meaningful human action, and indeed true human flourishing.