Editor’s note: The following essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s issue on the fate of the religious university, with contributions by presidents and scholars from Baylor University, BYU, Catholic University, George Fox University, Wheaton College and Yeshiva University, among others. Read all the essays here.
America’s liberal arts tradition traces back to the ruling class of ancient Greece — free citizens who had the time and leisure to pose and then seek to address basic questions about the good, the true and the beautiful. “Which whole way of life,” asked Socrates in Plato’s “Republic,” “would make living most worthwhile for each of us?”
Christians were early adopters of this model of education. In great cities such as Antioch and Alexandria, they sought its advantages for their children, so that they in turn could provide holistic leadership for the church and society.
By the time that Alcuin of York was setting the curriculum for the courts of Charlemagne, liberal education had been codified into seven learned arts — the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, music and geometry). These varied ways of perceiving reality, understood in Christian perspective, gave students a more complete understanding of the world.
Eventually, liberal arts education flourished in the United States, especially at small Christian colleges across the country. Through what John Milton termed “a generous education,” men and women from all backgrounds explored the wonders of the natural world and the mysteries of human personhood without narrowly directing their studies toward a particular career. They were looking for a way of life, not merely a way to make a living.
Today more utilitarian forms of education are in the ascendancy, and the liberal arts are in eclipse. Of course, we need thriving vocational schools and research universities across the richly diverse landscape of American higher education. But we also need college graduates who have wrestled with ultimate questions in ways that prepare them to address society’s most intractable problems.
Ironically, perhaps, the liberal arts and sciences develop habits of mind and skills of analysis that also prove their worth in the marketplace: reading, writing, creating, collaborating, arguing and persuading. Graduates who have studied academic disciplines across a liberal arts curriculum are better able to see patterns, make connections and solve complex problems. These are some of the many instrumental benefits of a liberal arts education, especially for the long term.
But faculty and students at schools like Wheaton College also prize the liberal arts for their intrinsic value. We follow a rigorous and capacious general education curriculum primarily out of love for God and the world that he has made. Liberal studies become, for us, an act of worship.
Because we believe that all truth is God’s truth, we cultivate curiosity about creation, a love for great books, an appetite for truth and beauty, and a lifelong passion for the life of the mind. In the process, we hope to confirm that the Protestant reformer Pier Paolo Vergerio was right to describe the liberal arts as “these studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom.”
We believe as well that this educational vision is not restrictive but liberating, as the liberal arts were always meant to be. Our religious convictions help give us a coherent view of the world and a compelling vision for our place in it. They also motivate us to serve the common good, so that everyone can live in a better, freer, more beautiful society.
Philip Ryken is the president of Wheaton College