Why the Liberal Arts?

Four scholars discuss why these so-called “useless” arts are essential to preserving ordered freedom, to attuning us to beauty, and to discerning the kind of life we should ultimately pursue.

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“If you want to future-proof your education, a deep grounding in the liberal arts is the way to do so,” said President Tim Gibson in his introduction to a panel on “Why the Liberal Arts?” held on October 29, 2020. Featuring panelists Dr. Zena Hitz of St. John’s College, Dr. Joseph Loconte of The King’s College and Heritage Foundation, and Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson of the University of Dallas, the event laid out reasons the so-called “useless” arts are necessary, from preserving ordered freedom, to attuning us to beauty, and to discerning the kind of life we should ultimately pursue.

[Watch the full October 29 panel on YouTube or download as a podcast to listen.]

Dr. Joshua Kinlaw of The King’s College served as moderator. In his opening remarks, Kinlaw noted that the definition of the liberal arts has long been in controversy. One definition limits the liberal arts to a canonical seven: the Trivium of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric plus the Quadrivium of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. For many of the ancients, liberal arts were “unapologetically about moral education,” teaching a person how to be a citizen and how to be human. Kinlaw quoted the Roman playwright Terence’s line, “I am a human; nothing human is foreign to me.” Plato held a synoptic view, meaning that study should concern not just different branches of learning but also how those branches fit together. For clarity throughout the event, Kinlaw defined liberal arts as broad learning in the arts and sciences, learning that is lifelong.

Kinlaw noted that each of the panelists have taught at large institutions but are now affiliated with small colleges. “We want to pay special attention to these small colleges,” Kinlaw said, because it is there that “questions about what learning is and the tensions that liberal learning presents really come to the fore.”

Dr. Joseph Loconte, Senior Fellow in Christianity and Culture at King’s and Director of the B. Simon Center at the Heritage Foundation, focused on the history of education in the United States to argue that defending ordered freedom, constitutional government, and national prosperity depends on the right kind of education. Loconte described how in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville found that most Americans of all classes were literate and well-versed in principles of self-government. The nation’s educators emphasized grammar, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, and theology, drawing from the Western canon and especially the Bible. Although fewer than four thousand of the country’s 13 million inhabitants advanced to college, most Americans were well-educated.

In the colleges that did exist during the American revolution and founding, the liberal arts were also crucial, Loconte explained. While the nation’s earliest colleges primarily offered theological education, the momentum toward revolution increased the need for leaders who could speak and debate. Loconte detailed how John Witherspoon, who was president of Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) during the revolutionary period, adapted the college curriculum to meet the needs of the day. The only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon was fluent in both theology and politics and “sensed that America was on the brink of great cultural change.” In response, he restructured the curriculum to focus on the liberal arts, expanded the college library, purchased scientific equipment, and started a program to teach oratory with the goal to prepare statesmen who would work for the glory of God and the good of others and their country.

Loconte closed with a passage from John Locke describing students beginning their studies as “travelers newly arrived in a strange country, of which they know nothing: we should, therefore, make conscience not to mislead them.” Loconte concluded, “A liberal arts education, rooted in the classical Christian tradition, is a safe haven for these travelers, a bulwark against the false and degraded ideologies of our day, a pathway to grace and truth.”

Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson, Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas, spoke on the meaning and the value of teaching the classics, using truth, goodness, and beauty as the structure for her remarks. “The goal of education is to teach someone to love what is beautiful,” Wilson said, quoting a Socrates line from Plato. On the theme of truth, Wilson shared how reading the classics and living in a society that allows free discourse enables us to take in a “polyphony of voices, and not just one monologic perspective” to discern the truth. Quoting Flannery O’Connor—“Truth does not change based on our ability to stomach it”—she argued that we should seek out the truth even when it’s uncomfortable.

On goodness, Wilson explained how piety is the starting place for learning, and the Bible a foundation for every other book we read. Studying the liberal arts can’t guarantee that one becomes good, but it can aid in moral formation. Even those without a “bedrock of piety” can still cultivate a taste for the good by seeking out things others tell them are good. As we fill our minds with great literature and poetry and not just whatever’s popular, those lines will be there for us “when we’re facing crisis, when we’re facing isolation or despair. These are the songs that bring out the virtues in you that you want to cultivate.”

Finally, the liberal arts free us to love and desire what is beautiful, Wilson said. “Culture is going to try to get you to love what is ugly. It’s low and it’s easy, and it can be briefly satisfying. . . . Things that are beautiful require more from you.” Yet these disciplines, whether poetry, or science, or mathematics, or any of the other liberal arts, while requiring more from us also give us more and open our eyes to beauty.

Dr. Zena Hitz, Tutor at St. John’s College, Annapolis, presented the case for why we should choose liberal arts learning over practical learning. While there will always be excellent and persuasive arguments for practical learning, she shared lesser told reasons we might choose to study such “useless” things as philosophy, logic, and the arts. Practical learning will teach you how to build things, but you need the liberal arts for the questions that follow. “Why do we build those things? What are we building them for? What’s the vision for those projects?”

Hitz presented status as another example. “If we’ve grown up in poverty or as a member of a marginalized group, or in any way alienated or on the outside, we often want, more than anything, respect, power, status.” Practical learning can yield us such power, but liberal learning addresses the question, “How are we going to use that wealth and power?” Once you’ve attained all the practical goods like health, justice, and financial security, you need to discern what kind of life you will pursue. Liberal learning teaches you to seek a vision for a good and happy human community.

Even in the absence of justice, Hitz said, the liberal arts sustain us. When imprisoned, Soviet dissident Irina Ratushinskaya wrote down poems she had memorized and passed them to other prisoners. She composed poems of her own writing with matchsticks onto bars of soap. “Intellectual life, learning for its own sake, isn’t just the sort of crowning of all achievements,” Hitz said. “It’s also a refuge when we lose everything else: in failure, in imprisonment, in circumstances of terrible oppression, in decline, in despair of any kind, the liberal arts are there for us, in a way that nothing else is, apart from art, or music, or worship, or our love for one another.”

Audience and moderator questions elaborated on different senses in which the presenters spoke of “education for freedom.” While we might speak of freedom in a political sense, Hitz described another sense of freedom as “something inward, that belongs to an individual, that in principle cannot be taken away and that’s deeply connected to one’s dignity.” Loconte mentioned how the liberal arts and history in particular help us to make sense of the present. He quoted C.S. Lewis: “the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

Another question touched on whether the classics are just for certain people groups or demographics or classes of society. Wilson mentioned Anika Prather and Angel Adams Parham as contemporary educators of color who argue that “this conversation belongs to everyone.” Hitz continued, “Working people in Britain and the US, Black Americans, enslaved people, Native Americans, people from every walk of life and all over the world, have picked up these old books and made something from them that was theirs.” Citing Prather for the insight, Hitz listed the great Black American authors—Douglass, DuBois, Baldwin, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou, Huey Newton, Malcolm X, King—all of whom were educated in the classics.

Should we feel hopeful or discouraged about the future of education in America? Loconte answered with the example of the Inklings, who met every Tuesday and Thursday night for twenty years and made an out-sized impact through their writing. He said,
What’s encouraging is when you think about the capacity for these small liberal arts colleges, these beachheads of sanity and grace and beauty and truth, we can’t know what the ripple effects are going to be a generation or two down the road. . . I’m sober about the challenge and also hopeful about what men and women of good Christian character can accomplish by the grace of God.

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