A Case for the Classical Liberal Arts

By Dr. Grant Horner, Director of Classical Liberal Arts

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the June edition of The Mustang Connection, TMU’s official magazine.

What does a classical education have to do with modern-day life?

Well …


There is an ancient commonplace — that is, a phrase of wisdom often repeated by thoughtful scholars and well-read persons — which has been variously attributed to several of the greatest medieval theologians. Its origin is unknown. The line is brief and beautiful, exemplifying classical rhetorical devices such as parataxis and asyndeton and tricolon. But beyond fancy linguistic terminology, the beautifully balanced line is a pearl of wisdom in three parts: “Numquam negare, raro affirmare, semper distinguere.”

Never negate, rarely affirm, always distinguish.

A few years back I had an opportunity to give a talk at New College Oxford, and enjoyed the astonishing blessing of meeting and spending some time with Walter Hooper, who had been the best friend of the aging C.S. Lewis, and later the executor of his literary estate. Hooper had come from America to Oxford as an undergraduate, and I asked him to tell me his favorite C.S. Lewis story.

When he arrived for his first year at Oxford, he happened to meet Lewis and told him of his planned studies in English literature. Lewis enthusiastically invited him over to his home for tea and conversation. Hooper imagined that he would arrive as a minor guest at a large party of distinguished academics, the recipient of a pity-invitation, and was quite terrified when he entered Lewis’s home and realized this was to be a one-on-one with perhaps the most famous writer of his time. Lewis brewed a pot of tea, and began by asking the nervous Hooper, “Which of my books do you think is the best?”— rather an awkward opening moment, as Walter told me that day in Oxford! Hooper the googly-eyed freshman responded, “Well, uh, sir, my favorite is …” but the Oxford Don responded with his hand in the air, “No, no, I didn’t ask you which one you preferred — I asked you which was the best.”

Realizing the young student was befuddled, the brilliant professor went to brew another pot of tea, and the conversation picked up in a similarly literary and erudite vein. It went on through a good part of the afternoon, and pot after pot of tea was consumed. Hooper then told me that the inevitable, embarrassing moment came to pass: he needed to use the toilet. He nervously stood up, interrupting Lewis, and asked, “May I use your bathroom, sir?” Lewis responded, “Oh yes, yes of course, right this way,” and took him upstairs, opening a small white door which the student entered, and saying quickly, “There you are — fresh towels, soap, and the tub. Enjoy your bath.” And closed the door with a distinct click. The horrified young man looked around. There was indeed a tub, with soap and towel laid out, and there was a small sink. And nothing else. Minutes passed as he mulled over all conceivable options. None were appropriate to the situation. This was C.S. Lewis’s home! He desperately needed to go to the bathroom, but it was not possible in that little room. He was too humiliated to go back downstairs and tell the famous literature professor of their mutual miscommunication. He was absolutely paralyzed with grief and shock — what a first impression! “What does one do? What does one do in such a nightmare scenario?” Hooper told me. I was bursting with suppressed laughter at his story, wondering how it would end.

Finally the faltering young American student, who did not understand the crucial British distinction between a “bathroom” and a “water closet,” gave in, as he could bear it no longer — physically or emotionally. He opened the door to find the intimidating professor still standing right there, almost 10 minutes later, himself trembling with suppressed laughter and a bright red face.

That will cure you of those bloody American euphemisms!”

And that day Walter Hooper, Oxford freshman from North Carolina, learned the crucial distinction between making necessary distinctions … and failing to do so.

I have been asked many times, “Why in the world would you create a major in classical liberal arts?” The idea sounds absurd in the twenty-first century. It is retrograde, backwards-thinking, useless. What do you do with that?

Well, there is both a practical and a personal reason to pursue classics. One of the fastest-growing movements in the church for the last four decades is seen in classical Christian schools: there was just one in the early 1980s, and now there are hundreds of schools across the U.S., with tens of thousands of students and as many as 8,000 seniors graduating each year. These schools use an ancient approach to discussion-based learning, grounded in the Christian faith, and with a curriculum built on the Western canon, the sum of learning in Judaeo-Christian culture. They do not work at all like public schools, or traditional Christian schools, themselves modeled on public school pedagogy.

The classical liberal arts major at The Master’s University just had our first graduate, Tate England, who was actively recruited as a teacher by more than one school and had a faculty contract offered before she finished. Numerous classical schools are already actively pursuing next year’s graduates. The number of students majoring in CLA has doubled each semester since it began. These are great markers of success for a major that is only two years old.

But beyond gainful employment is the real reason behind a classical liberal arts education: to cultivate the ability to think with precision; to recognize, pursue, and enjoy goodness, truth, and beauty; and in those things — things both human and divine — to seek and love and serve God more fully. This has been a significant part of the experience of Christians through the ages, from Augustine to C.S. Lewis, by way of Boethius, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and countless others.

The study of classics does not mean just Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Virgil and Rembrandt and Beethoven, all the while being forced to learn Latin and Greek. The idea of the “classical” and the “classics” is a conceptual framework derived from the Latin classis, which means “standard.” Many of the ancient pagans, through what theologians call “common grace,” had a deep sense that there were final and absolute standards of judgment in many areas, such as aesthetics, philosophy, and intellectual cultural production of all kinds. Some things were qualitatively better than others. Rhetorician-philosophers like Cicero believed that aesthetic standards somehow reflected and were linked with moral standards — that both were part of a universe that was built on some final standard, some final absolute judgment of value … or that at least required an attempt to discover such a standard.

While the idea of final or absolute standards is often considered highly debatable among us humans, it is very telling that many great thinkers have tried to work through the related question of objectivity and subjectivity. Claiming that everything is subjective (as seems quite rational to many) is a self-dismantling kind of statement, because it is of course absolutist. Claiming that everything is objective and therefore plain and obvious doesn’t quite seem to work either, as humans have observably different responses in some if not all categories, such as aesthetics. We can’t even agree on moral standards it seems. And yet all of us share a moral sense of some kind. This suggests the existence of a moral framework that we cannot fully articulate or follow that is somehow built into our consciousness — it is hardwired into our very souls. This is precisely what Paul describes in the second half of Romans 1. So what does this have to do with getting an education, classical or otherwise?

The common reason for procuring an education now is to get a good job with excellent pay and benefits. But is that the only reason, or even a half-sufficient motivation for a believer?

If the purpose of education is to be reoriented to the ancient classical “standard” — to “know thyself” through the study of everything under the sun (as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, and as many old pagan philosophers articulated) and by self-knowledge to simultaneously recognize our glorious divine origin and our tragically fallen state (as Calvin argues in the opening of the Institutes), then what might that education look like?

Well for one thing it wouldn’t be merely work, or in the common phrasing, schoolwork.

Our word “school” comes from the classical Greek word schole, which actually means “leisure.” The original idea was that once you had procured your living from the land, if you were fortunate, you had some leisure time for learning. Learning was actually play. It was joyful. The Romans had a similar concept — business and work were called negotium — the negation of otium. What was otium? Leisure, play, enjoyment, fun! Learning, reading, study, and, very importantly, conversation about what you’re learning was the highest form of otium — not what you had to do, but what you got to do, after you’d finished your business “negotiations.”

Schole, otium, doesn’t seem like “work” — it is not drudgery; it is joyful. It is hard work that is pleasurable. That is why we often meet outside for my classes, by the fountain, or at the cafe, or in my garden, by the pond, next to the fireplace, at my home. I want my students to be sad when class ends, and when the semester is over! Real learning, for believers, has a positive, pleasurable effect — and a moral one. It does not pander to narcissism — it dismantles the ego by showing us our ignorance. It does not make you selfish — it expands the mind in empathy toward humans and adoration toward God. It is not narrow-minded — it considers all subjects and disciplines: language, literature, history, philosophy, all the arts, every branch of science and mathematics, and does so through exploratory reading, observation, and discussion, bringing all thoughts captive to the Word of God.

Not only is it not non-judgmental, it is specifically designed to teach right judgment — making right distinctions and proper valuations. It is, in other words, the absolute opposite of what happens in most schools and universities these days. It teaches you to weigh all things wisely and charitably. Semper distinguere.

Most fallen human ideas about most things tend to be wrong, at least in part. And on top of that, we tend to judge poorly. So we must be careful to follow numquam negare — never to immediately negate an idea. It must first be examined, and then judged wisely. Similarly, we must not jump happily and foolishly on the bandwagon for every idea that comes our way — we must practice raro affirmare — rarely affirm. Much of human thought is in error, and we are poor judges, with sinful affections and desires. But our greatest weakness — a terrible result of our fall from perfection — is our inability to make proper distinctions between things; to cite an example by progression, between good and evil, but also between good and better, better and best, best and God’s will, for example.

Semper distinguere.

To consider further the Western linguistic roots of our own learning culture, note that the Latin infinitive verb educere means “to be led out from.” Out from what?

Out from the self.

The worst effect of any kind of ignorance is utter self-focus — the kind an infant has. They don’t know any better, and, as adorable as they are, they are ultimately little barbarians, concerned with no one, and aware of no one, except themselves. This is why we educate them, at every level, from parenting to the playground to school, on how to be a good human. We lead them out from themselves. The worst insult a man can receive is to be called an infant. A real education grows you into a fully formed human.

The best way to do this is to walk the student carefully and thoughtfully through “the best that has been thought and said” (according to Victorian critic and education theorist Matthew Arnold): those works of human culture that have stood the test of time by being repeatedly examined in order to understand their very staying power. This staying power (what I call “cultural tenacity”) is inevitably grounded in a mysterious ability to provoke a response which is aesthetic and moral as well as intellectual — and therefore, at root, spiritual.

But if that education is to be of actual value, true and good and beautiful in the best sense, it must be built upon standards that are grounded and tangible. While the Western canon has many great things to offer (and many that can be critiqued), unless it is further grounded, yes, absolutely grounded, in Scripture and the Lordship of Christ, all it will produce is an erudite, sophisticated barbarian.

To learn more about classical liberal arts at TMU, visit masters.edu/cla.

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