Monday, 12 June 2017

What Makes an Education "Christian" in Quality and Character?

A Christian Liberal Arts Education

The term "liberal arts" has entered the scrapyard, and  is awaiting the crusher.  It appears to be following the course of the dodo.  But for Christians the matter is urgent, pressing, and thoroughly modern.

The first hurdle in coming to understand why the study of Christian liberal arts is vital is to parse "liberal" correctly.  The common understanding of that particular adjective these days refers to something without bounds, limits, or controls.  In today's parlance, a liberal is someone who confronts controls or limits as something to be smashed.  The social conservative might argue that marriage is a sacred life-long institution between a man and a woman.  The "liberal" would rise up against that notion as an affront to human fulfillment and self-realization.  For the liberal, marriage is whatever you might want it to be--a term referring to a relationship between both genders or between a man and his pigeon, or whatever.

But the meaning of "liberal" in the phrase "Christian liberal arts" is something of another order entirely.  It derives from the classical world and refers not to breaking down order and restraint, but the exact opposite.  According to Wikipedia,
The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (Latin: liberalis, "worthy of a free person") to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that (for Ancient Greece) included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service.  [Emphasis, ours.]
In this usage, "liberal" means to live and act in a disciplined manner, so as to take up the roles and responsibilities of citizenship.

Fast forward to the beginning of the Modern period.  In the sixteen hundreds, Christian liberal arts schools and curricula and education abounded, particularly under the influence of the Puritans in England and New England.  But, at the same time, these institutions and schools were drawing upon Luther and Calvin and the earlier Reformers.

According to Leland Ryken, Luther had written to the councilmen of Germany:
If I have children and could manage it, I would have them study not only languages and history but also singing and music together with the whole of mathematics. . . . The ancient Greeks trained their children in these disciplines; . . . they grew up to be people of wonderous ability, subsequently fit for everything.
To which Ryken adds:   "Fit for everything: this has always been the goal of liberal education, as distinct from vocational training."  [Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Academie Books/Zondervan, 1986), p. 164.]

The goal of a Christian liberal arts education was to mould the student into a capable and qualified person, able to fulfill a variety of callings and roles.  Milton said it most succinctly:
I call therefore a complete and generous education that which  fits a man to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously, all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.  [Cited by Ryken, op cit., p. 169.]
To which Ryken appends: "a liberal education is comprehensive.  It prepares a person  to do well at all that he or she may be called to do in this life. . . . Learning a certain amount of information will not by itself constitute a liberal education.  Such knowledge becomes worthwhile only as it is instrumental in forming a qualified person; . . . .  education influences people in their personal lives, and it makes them productive members of society."  [Ibid.]

As Nehemiah would have said, it's time to start building, folks.

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