The Liberal Arts: A Student's Guide

The Liberal Arts: A Student's Guide


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Lays out the Christian vision behind a liberal arts education that carefully prepares students to pursue their calling.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433531231
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 05/02/2012
Series: Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition Series
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 747,431
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Gene C. Fant Jr.(PhD, University of Southern Mississippi) serves as the eighth president of North Greenville University in South Carolina and previously served as the chief academic officer at both Palm Beach Atlantic University and Union University. A sought-after speaker and prolific writer, he also serves as a board member and curriculum developer at the Impact 360 Institute, a leading worldview and leadership development program, and has been an evangelical influencer fellow at the Acton Institute. He and his wife, Lisa, have two adult children.

David S. Dockery (PhD, University of Texas) is thechancellor of Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, following five years as president. He is a much-sought-after speaker and lecturer, a consulting editor for Christianity Today, and the author or editor of more than thirty books. Dockery and his wife, Lanese, have three sons andseven grandchildren.

Read an Excerpt



God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt.

— 1 Kings 4:29–30

Education is one of the basic functions of both family and culture. While the vast majority of human cultures have lacked a formal means of education (professional educators or institutions dedicated to the intellectual development of children), the process of passing to the next generation a culture's values, information, and traditional roles has always been of primary importance to the sustaining of every society.

The family was the primary place of education and acculturation. Girls were prepared to take on the responsibilities of adulthood in the company of women, who taught them the domestic arts. Female literacy was late in coming to most cultures, the world of reading and writing being the realm of men and even then only a certain portion of that population. Women raised boys to an age where they were introduced to the crafts and responsibilities of their fathers or other male family members. Occupational stratification was a genuine reality for most families: daughters became mothers while sons followed their fathers into work as shepherds, farmers, butchers, or smiths. Geographical mobility was likewise a factor that circumscribed most persons, as travel was dangerous or costly, and outsiders were not particularly welcome in most cultures, making employment difficult.


History confirms that influential cultures have always enjoyed intellectual flourishing. The biblical record itself includes an amazing panorama of cultures: Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and many others. Every populated continent's dominant cultures have produced advancements that continue to be studied. While what we call "liberal learning" in the West is directly connected to the Greco-Roman and Christian traditions, many cultures have produced incredible epics, works of art, scientific and engineering advancements, and philosophical breakthroughs. The world has teemed with the amazing creativity and curiosity of humankind since the earliest days of human experience.

In ancient Greece, however, a new development impacted how education was perceived by the aristocracy in particular. The sons of freemen, the leading citizens of the day, were often taught by household slaves who specialized in education. These teacher-slaves, called "pedagogues" (a term which derives from the phrase "to lead or guide a child"; the English word pedagogy comes from this term), were more than mere tutors of information; they prepared young men to become leaders whose skill sets moved beyond the practical trades, allowing them to deal with civic matters that required more abstract thought and focused reflection. These children of free citizens undertook learning that was directly connected to their citizenship status. The term we now use to describe the legacy of these pedagogues is liberal learning, liber being the Latin word for "free."

Liberal learning, sometimes called the liberal arts (as distinct from the practical arts), aimed at a breadth of knowledge that included a wide range of subjects that trained the mind to analyze challenges and formulate solutions or to anticipate future opportunities and strategies. The Romans substantially codified their inheritance from the Greeks, and then early Christians updated the pagan approaches in ways that reflected their theological distinctiveness. In all cases, liberal learning used extensive readings, memorization, dialogues, and emulations of great works (called exempla) to prepare thinkers for effective leadership. The foundational outcomes fostered by liberal learning emphasized critical thinking and rational analysis, as well as an aptitude for reflective thought. In this way, future actions would be informed by rigorous pondering and hindsight analysis of past events. The learning process, then, was conceived of as a living stream connecting the past with the future through the education of the very leaders who would one day shape their eras. The Greeks sometimes called this fulsome view of the nature of knowledge the enkuklios paideia, the "circle of scholars" (from which English derives the term encyclopedia), that produced knowledge both fulsome in scope and communal in methodology. An additional characteristic of this approach was intellectual humility, because scholars saw their work in the context of many centuries' worth of thought.

By the Christian Middle Ages, the liberal arts were a fairly codified set of educational guidelines. Seven basic "arts" dominated this understanding and were arranged in a very specific order that proceeded toward the goal of higher learning. The first three subjects included grammar, rhetoric, and logic, called the trivium or "three roads" or "paths"; the next level was the quadrivium or "four roads": arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry. These two groupings provided a progressive sequence for the learning process. The trivium's grammar prepared students to grasp the functionalities of language itself; logic (sometimes called "dialectic") cultivated skills in analysis of thought; rhetoric combined the other two arts by training students to communicate effectively with others. Mastery of those subjects initiated the learner into the quadrivium's advanced subjects, which explored how the universe itself functioned and was ordered, with mathematics providing the primary tool for this exploration. Mastery of the physical world then led to the higher forms of exploration, the world of ideas themselves (philosophy) and of the supernatural or divine (theology). Indeed, the latter field, theology, was once termed the "queen of the sciences," the purest form of thought and abstraction.

The late Middle Ages saw a retreat of some of liberal learning's energies (though certainly less so than is widely thought), but the Renaissance brought a world-shaking resurgence of intellectual pursuits. Fueled by the religious passion of the Reformation, the liberal arts pursued a theological goal as never before, providing an explosion of innovation and thought throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In England in particular the Christian humanistic tradition took root in intellectual circles through the work of men such as Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), Roger Ascham (c. 1515–1568), Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Isaac Newton (1643–1727), and many others who viewed the divine order of the universe as the highest intellectual discovery possible. It is no coincidence, then, that English letters saw a profusion of writers who reflected a distinctively Christian view of the world, writers such as Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), William Shakespeare (1564–1616), Ben Jonson (1572–1637), John Donne (1572–1631), and John Milton (1608–1674). Taken as a whole, this incredible intellectual movement formed one of the pinnacles of the Christian intellectual tradition, a view that the pursuit of truth is, in fact, the pursuit of God himself because all truth flows from the Author of all that is true.


In the wake of secular-leaning thinkers, notably the inheritors of René Descartes (1596–1650), liberal learning struggled to maintain a connection with divine truth. For many Enlightenment thinkers, religious faith contradicted or was irrelevant to the rational inquiry of scientific empiricism. In particular, the biblical text itself was increasingly viewed as merely one of the great literary works of human culture, a viewpoint that deepened under the influence of nineteenth-century German higher criticism. Christian liberal arts education shed the first part of its identity, Christian, and moved steadily toward a secular view of knowledge before eventually leaving behind the liberal arts with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, which held such idealistic education to be an impractical holdover from a more romantic era. A fierce pragmatism that merged with a distinctly practical strain of American self-identity further weakened liberal learning, propelling the professional and vocational arts into a much-strengthened position in the late nineteenth century.

While most American universities continued to offer degrees such as the bachelor of arts (emphasizing languages, fine arts, or humanities) or bachelor of science (emphasizing mathematics or science), professional degrees moved to a new level of prominence. The more traditional arts and sciences degrees prepared students for further education in graduate or professional schools, and professional degrees prepared students for careers immediately following their college years. The liberal arts tended to move into a diminished role, part of a core curriculum that forms the general education component of a student's degree. For many students, the only portion of liberal learning left in the college experience is the increasingly small general education core.

Secondary education has suffered a similar loss, with liberal learning's more traditional subjects such as reading, writing, and arithmetic subjugated to the practical arts. Perhaps the most common goals placed on secondary education are either the production of educated citizens for a democracy (which hearkens somewhat back to the original goal of liberal learning for the Greeks) or, perhaps more likely, the production of an educated workforce for the economy. The latter viewpoint tends to produce students with a much more vocational bent, where students prepare for specific jobs. Indeed, this has been reflected in the proliferation of magnet high schools focusing on careers in technology or health care, as well as vocational tracks that provide paths to licensure in fields such as cosmetology, auto repair, and service industries, or even business.

The core curriculum's liberal learning foundations reflect a tepid view, however, of the core's origins, particularly in secular settings that eschew the former capstone of liberal learning: theology. The term core itself derives from the French couer, "heart," which is related to the Greek cardia and Latin cor. The core curriculum, taken historically and literally, eschews education that limits discussions to the head and the hands but rather includes matters of the heart: the conscience, the soul, and even the psyche. The core curriculum's heart is a kind of symbol for students' entire lives, including their minds. In this way it hearkens directly to Scripture: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30).

Education as a whole was once thought to be a formative process that sought students' moral and spiritual refinement, which was linked directly with their theological formation. Indeed, at many campuses, the university's president often taught a senior course in morality or ethics each year. The development of the intellect was never detached from the development of the conscience. Even pre-Christian education typically emphasized a clear link between the head, the hands, and the heart, cogently arguing that a fully developed person maintained a sense of balance. The Christian assertion of distinctively theological contexts for this enterprise provided a means through which Christian principles have yielded the bulk of Western civilization's intellectual achievements since the Romans.

This balanced approach to education protected against the production of morally handicapped individuals lacking in conscience. C. S. Lewis called these kinds of persons "men without chests." Martin Luther King Jr. likewise viewed such persons skeptically: "The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals." Liberal learning sought to prepare morally wholesome persons according to the appropriate culture's standards.

Intelligence and morality do not automatically go hand in hand, of course. Certainly the criminal justice system has not lacked for brilliant criminals, and the need for an educational system that addresses morality has not diminished. Further, the need to place that moral development into the context of a Christian viewpoint is also undiminished. Christian colleges that emphasize the historical triumphs and the contemporary opportunities of the Christian intellectual tradition distinctively engage culture with both the hope of the gospel and the edification of our fellow persons.


In the United States, college curricula presumed a moral and spiritual dimension until well into the twentieth century. Prior to the Civil War, most colleges and universities were built on the liberal arts, including at least a token foundation in Christian thought. The first college in America, Harvard, had as its motto Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, "Truth for Christ and Church"; Princeton and Brown both had very specific connections with Christian sects, as did most of the smaller colleges scattered across the American frontier.

A distinct drumbeat led a more secular course for many religious institutions, even as a more practical bent undermined the liberal arts perspectives of the same institutions. For Christian colleges, however, a fairly unique challenge to their role as shapers of society came from within the religious community, with the rise of early-twentieth-century religious fundamentalism. American culture has always held a persistent suspicion toward formal education, but the rise of post-Enlightenment viewpoints and other staunchly anti-religious philosophical stances created a particular skepticism among religious leaders who embraced a conservative viewpoint theologically. For these leaders, the term liberal was associated with those anti-religious thinkers who had "overtaken" American institutions. In our own time, the term liberal has specific political connotations that create misperceptions about the content of liberal learning and reinforce the suspicion that politically and theologically liberal viewpoints dominate the American higher education system.

Liberal learning, however, predates all of these objections, and when it is carried out in a Christian context of faithful orthodoxy, it strengthens one's faith in God and dedication to high views of both Scripture and tradition. The key is the definition of the term liberal, and for Christians this must occur within the context of theological faithfulness. It is, however, a struggle that has unfolded throughout the history of the church, as thinkers have wrestled with the Scylla and Charybdis of paganism and emotionalism on either side of the path toward the education of the believer.



And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.

— Acts 7:22

As a fiery old layman from a fairly rural church in the South completed something of a rant against the loss of traditional values in American society, he began to praise a particular politician and declared, "He's a Christian! He's conservative!" While this man never would have claimed that all political conservatives are Christians, he definitely would have proclaimed that all faithful followers of Christ must be, of a theological necessity, political conservatives. His thoughts reflected a typical understanding of the dichotomy between cultural progressives, who often tend toward a secularist bent, and cultural traditionalists, who often embrace at least a nominal sort of religious framework. His thoughts also indicated a very recent understanding of the term liberal that reflects a definition that the ancients would have found unrecognizable.

The clash between traditional Christian values and those of non-Christians or pagans is not new. The New Testament documents the struggles of the first-century church to navigate between the legalism of the Judaizers and the hedonism of the pagans. See, for example, Paul's discourse in Galatians 5, where he ponders the castration of those who would circumcise all new believers (v. 12) and then immediately laments the debauchery of the culture that surrounded that church (vv. 19–21).

The Old and New Testaments both made significant contrasts between the learning of followers of God and that of nonbelievers. Moses, for example, was praised as having mastered the knowledge of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22), which provided him with particular power as his people's leader. Daniel likewise learned the Babylonians' best teachings (Dan. 1:8–21). In both cases, though, the tone of the passages seems to depict these activities as being somewhat unusual or even possessing a hint of danger.


Excerpted from "The Liberal Arts"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Gene C. Fant Jr..
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Series Preface,
1 The Beginning of Wisdom,
2 Christian Responses to the Rise of Liberal Learning,
3 What's So Liberal about Liberal Learning?,
4 Wisdom and Liberal Learning,
5 General Revelation and Liberal Learning,
6 Liberal Learning and the Core Curriculum,
7 Current Opportunities for (and Challenges to) Liberal Learning,
Questions for Reflection,
Resources for Further Study,
Consulting Editors,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Attention! The liberal arts are for everyone, especially Christians. They introduce us to all the personal dimensions that encompass our lives from beginning to end. But how is this so since so much of the liberal arts seem foreign to us as Christians? Begin with this book and find the answer. Then live out a rich life of knowledge and appreciation of what makes every life worth living.”
James W. Sire, author, The Universe Next Door and A Little Primer on Humble Apologetics

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The Liberal Arts: A Student's Guide 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Lenow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In his new book, Gene Fant makes the case that a liberal arts education can play a significant part in shaping the Christian community for both the marketplace and the mission field. In an age when many people are moving away from liberal arts to specialization in education, Fant seeks to recover the importance of the liberal arts. He states:"An emphasis on liberal learning is of critical importance to our era, as we seek to engage our culture with the great Christian intellectual tradition that continues to provide a fertile culture for thought and action."Perhaps the most significant contribution of the book comes when Fant demonstrates the connection between faith and several of the core disciplines of a liberal arts education. He connects mathematics, science, literature, and aesthetics to their theological foundations and demonstrates how each provide a link to God through general revelation.Fant also makes some predictions regarding the nature of education in the future particularly as it relates to the traditional church-related vocational enterprises. He predicts:"Fewer 'career' missionaries with theological degrees from seminaries will be commissioned by denominational agencies; rather engineers and chemists will take positions with corporations that will position them in regions where there is little gospel platform. Full-time church employees who supervise inner-city ministries will become rarer; instead, teachers and social workers will target urban areas as places to build careers so that they may serve populations with particular challenges that may be remediated by the gospel. Business leaders and entrepreneurs will find ways to generate profits in ways that reflect their Christian principles and will fund philanthropic activities through these funds. Church planters will target unreached areas, armed with both theological education and practical platforms, where they will run coffee shops, manage arts agencies, and coach athletics while building relationships that may lead to spiritual transformations in the context of local church fellowships. A liberal arts education will be critical to developing skill sets necessary for success in these kinds of ventures."Crucial to the success of these ¿new ventures¿ will be the integration of theology into the various disciplines of the liberal arts curriculum.Fant¿s ideas and conclusions are worth your time to read. He offers plenty of material to think about related to the current state and future of the liberal arts education. Take some time, pick up the book, and read what he has to say.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sets and plays his black les paul stratocaster while listening to Avenged Sevenfold's "Beast and the Harlot."