Faculty Perspective on the Liberal Arts

The following guiding document, prepared by the faculty at Wheaton, defines "liberal education" and "liberal arts" as these terms emerged in the West, and discusses the ways in which a liberal arts education is shaped by our evangelical Christian faith.

We begin by defining liberal education and liberal arts as these terms emerged in the West and as they are understood in our society today. We affirm much of this inheritance and then discuss the specific ways in which its meaning is shaped by our evangelical Christian faith.

Liberal education began with the ancient Greeks. It was the education designed for boys who were not slaves and whose families were wealthy enough that they did not need to apprentice their sons to a trade. Thus liberal education was the education of an elite, for those who would become citizens of the society they inhabited, debate laws and actions in the assembly, lead their society in peace and in war, and become the arbiters of aesthetic values. Liberal education was an education in culture. These boys were given the incomparable gifts of time and freedom from financial pressure that enabled them while they were young to study for the sheer pleasure and excellence of doing so, and for the cultivation of intellect, taste, and virtue. The root meaning of the Greek word σχολή (scholē), from which we get the English word school, in fact is rest or leisure. Leisure is the freedom that makes this kind of education liberal.

Many people today recommend a liberal education by proposing that it develops intellectual freedom, understood as the ability to apply one’s critical faculties to the formation of accurate judgments. In taking this approach, they are not entirely out of step with the original conception: we have only to think of Plato’s myth of the cave, in which one leaves behind the bondage of mere opinion and emerges into the light of actual knowledge, to find such a metaphorical use of liberal justified. But we must understand that historically this form of education was called liberal because it was the education of those who were politically and economically free.

By this reckoning, every undergraduate student at Wheaton College today is kin to these young men of ancient Greece. They are here because God has blessed them or their families with the financial resources necessary to undertake four years of undergraduate study for its own inherent rewards, not only to train for employment—and this is true even though almost all Wheaton students, unlike their ancient counterparts, go on to pursue a paid occupation of one sort of another. (For this difference we praise God, since the freedom of some in ancient Greece was dependent upon the slavery of others. We also note that the early Christians developed a positive theology of work that was at odds with the Greek heritage.) As a community, we ought to emphasize what a gift these years are, thank God for this blessing, and seek actively to make this experience possible for a wider range of potential students.

Thus liberal education refers to a kind of study—it is not occupational training, nor research training (although it may include these purposes when they are undertaken in a liberal spirit), but training for life itself. As an education in culture, it is an education in what makes human life, considered in this-worldly terms, most pleasant and meaningful. The companion term liberal arts describes the possible subjects of this study. The seven subjects of the post-classical and medieval trivium and quadrivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) have expanded into the much greater number of subjects now offered here at Wheaton and elsewhere. These subjects are liberal when they are taught and studied in a spirit of liberality, that is, for their own intrinsic beauty and excellence, unconstrained by the pressures of application. In a well-known story told of the ancient geometer Euclid, a young man watched Euclid demonstrate a beautiful proof and then asked, “But what will I get by learning such things?” In reply, Euclid turned to his servant and said, “Toss this man a coin, for he must profit from what he learns.”

Perhaps more important than the choice of subjects is the choice of materials by which each subject is conveyed. A liberal education will seek out those materials in any subject that are most excellent, most beautiful, most exemplary, most significant, most replete with meaning, most inexhaustible. Such materials are most worthy of study by free men and women.

More recently, the phrase liberal arts has been used in reference to the intellectual skills that the educated person possesses or ought to possess, such as the ability to follow and evaluate discursive argument, speak and write clearly and persuasively, and reason numerically. We conceive of the liberal arts as those capacities or practices that are necessary for discovering and reflecting wisely on knowledge and shaping one’s actions. We suggest also that a course of liberal study should cultivate those intellectual virtues that shade into moral virtues, such as awe, thoughtfulness, modesty, and clarity. Over their four years, students should become more interested in and open to the ideas of others, more wide-ranging in their interests, more desirous of truth, more self-aware, more conscious of their surroundings, more filled with gratitude, more humble, and more confident. We who are faculty members should seek consciously and prayerfully to exemplify these qualities ever more fully.

We have referred to the political dimension of liberal education. It must be emphasized that we are not speaking here of American or any other parochial political categories, but of political life as such, of human life lived in relation to others. Like their ancient Greeks counterparts, modern Americans recognize that democracies must have citizens who are liberally educated if this form of government and the societies it governs have any hope of prospering. What began as an education for the elite is now urgently needed as an education for as many as possible. So while liberal education is occupied with what is worthy of study for its own sake, it has become clear that such study has a purpose, even an urgent purpose. As long as we understand this, we need not fear the mistaken notion that liberal education is useless. Liberal education is practical education in its most serious form.

Liberal education has its origin in a pre-Christian world, but Christians later became its primary transmitters. These Western Christians shaped and interpreted liberal education and the liberal arts in the light of divine revelation. In more recent centuries, this work has been joined by fellow believers from every corner of the world. Here at Wheaton we seek to continue this work within our context of evangelical Christian faith and practice. In so doing, we assume a specifically Christian anthropology regarding the nature and meaning of human life.

While this-worldly education is concerned primarily with the mind, at Wheaton we seek to guide students’ formation holistically, in mind, heart, soul, and strength. While this-worldly education may question or deny that truth exists or can be known, at Wheaton we seek to know the Lord Jesus Christ, who told us that he is truth. In addition, Jesus modeled complete trust in the Holy Scriptures as the true and inspired word of God. This means that truth may become known to us personally, through the self-revelation of the Holy Trinity, our careful study of the whole body of special revelation, and the Church. The knowledge that comes from studying the natural world is also a source of truth given to us by the Creator. A truthful understanding of human culture, and of the physical world in which human beings live, depends upon and is made evident by the doctrines of creation, sin, and redemption. It is in light of the knowledge these doctrines bring of God, self, others, and the world around us, that we can seek our true freedom as redeemed children of God.

In reflecting upon the political nature of liberal education, we note both that our true citizenship is not of this world and that we are called to exercise our whole being in faithful, skillful service to our fellow citizens within the kingdoms of this world. We want the education offered at Wheaton to provide training in the practices, habits, and skills needed for both of these forms of citizenship. The emphasis on service in the kingdom of God is one of the distinctive aspects of evangelical Christian faith, and it is properly grounded in the Church, the blessed company of God’s faithful people.

We noted earlier that liberal education, as an education in culture, makes human life considered in this-worldly terms most pleasant and meaningful. While we seek the excellence of all subjects in the college curriculum, we depart from the view held by some members of our society that culture is the final purpose of human life. The exercise and understanding of culture, for us, find their true standing as occasions for the worship and honor of Jesus Christ. We affirm that the greatest worldly sophistication is not worth the merest glimpse of the vision of the Lord in humility and simplicity of heart.