Classical Liberal Arts Major

You may not yet know it, but one of the fastest growing movements among believers in the last thirty years are the many Classical Christian Schools which have been springing up all over America, and indeed all over the world. The Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS) now has hundreds of member schools and its conferences attract thousands of attendees and internationally known speakers.

The movement back to Classical, Christian education began with the work of Doug Wilson and the founding of The Logos School in Moscow Idaho in 1981. Wilson’s 1991 book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning 1991, (in part a response to Dorothy Sayer’s classic 1947 Oxford lecture ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’), continued to fuel the fire. But how does one school in the pastoral Idaho countryside lead to hundreds of similar institutions in just a few decades? And how do these schools produce so many graduates who score at the top of standardized testing and who go on to win major scholarships at the finest colleges and universities?

First of all and most importantly, these schools are theologically grounded in the tradition of Reformed and Evangelical theology.

The boards, leadership, and faculty are believers committed to God’s Word. Scripture is the final authority and ultimate interpretive grid in all academic subjects. But Classical Christian schools do not take the ‘monastic approach’ to education K-12 students, functioning merely as shelters from the secular public schools. Teachers lead their students through a very deep and broad academic curriculum and challenge them to think biblically through all intellectual and cultural and scientific content.

Why though are they called ‘classical’ schools? Do they just throw in some Latin courses and hang a nice print of Raphael’s School of Athens on the walls of classrooms?

The word ‘classical’ comes from the Latin word classis which means ‘standard’.

Yes, Classical schools do teach Latin (and often Greek as well) but they go beyond mere slavish imitation of ancient culture. Truly classical education makes use of a dialectical approach to teaching, often called the socratic method, which involves leading students through a world of ideas by question and answer and dialogue instead of simply lecturing to deliver content which is later regurgitated for a test. Learning is a process of growth and exploration, not the dumping of information. But these standards of great content and demanding pedagogy are not random or subjective—they are standards because they have been shown over generations to be worthy of attention to those who will learn what it means to be human.

A common (and valid) question believers often ask about this kind of education is “What about all that pagan material—the works of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Cicero? How about Plato and Aristotle? What possible value could there be in studying the pagans?”

This is the age-old question posed by the Church Father Tertullian, “What has Athens to say to Jerusalem?” The question was answered by John Calvin and the other Reformers, all of whom were classically educated themselves, and deployed that learning in service of the Church. God’s common grace sheds wisdom and knowledge and goodness among all men, not just believers. Christians can gain certain kinds of knowledge (though not perfect theological knowledge) from pagans. Thus the pagans can be read to some profit, but must be read discerningly with Scripture as the final arbiter of meaning and value. Hebrews 5: 12-14 speaks to the absolute centrality of discernment in all of learning, and indeed all of life. Calvin and Luther constantly cite Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and even their own theological opponents in the sixteenth century, agreeing with them when they are right and critiquing them when they err. Furthermore we should consider the examples of Moses, who was well-learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22), Joseph and Daniel who became powerful leaders in their pagan cultures, and Paul, who could cite pagan poets at will (Acts 17:22-31) to prove a theological point and demonstrate God’s sovereignty over all things—including pagan art itself.

In other words—the best cultural critics should be Christians.

But this doesn’t come naturally. Naturally, people are pagans, and rebels against God and His Truth. They must be converted, and then educated in His ways. Education is in fact a deeply biblical concept: the Latin educere means ‘to lead out from.’ Lead out from what? From our natural state of ignorance into a state of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

The modern American educational system has become, since the middle of the twentieth century, a deeply secularized, politically leftist, intensely atheistic factory for producing non-thinking, obedient citizen-workers. All you have to do to see this is read education theory texts from the period—or you can save the effort and look at what we now produce in America. Philosophy, aesthetics, a deep understanding of history, theology, and human nature are all avoided. The realities of the human past, the power of aesthetic experience, and Western culture, and especially Christianity, are minimized, caricatured, attacked, even erased. British and American Pragmatist philosophy, secular progressive atheism, and social engineering behaviorism have replaced an ancient system of education which produced many of the greatest minds of human history, as well as some of our greatest advances in culture, technology, science, and medicine. Questions about Values and Character are trivialized and made to be subjective, mutable, and entirely personalized. The highest goals became the mutually incompatible ideals of personal satisfaction and pleasure alongside social conformity for the greater good.This led one of best public education systems in the world to decay into what we now see.

The Classical Christian school movement has exploded because it has rejected what we have just described.

These schools teach the great works of Western culture (and indeed critiques them when necessary) and all academic subjects within the framework of the oversight of a good God who sovereignly rules over all things.

The seven Classical Liberal Arts are grounded in the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric) and the Quadrivum (Mathematics, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy). There have been varying formulations over the centuries of these disciplines, but the basic idea is a foundational grounding in language followed by development of abstract thought through study of the quantitative arts. This leads eventually to the highest disciplines: Philosophy “the handmaiden of theology” and finally Theology itself, the “Queen of the Sciences.” Learning in this fashion was based upon close readings of important texts and intensive discussion of the ideas produced by the great thinkers of history.

So how do we know that a Christian education focused on deep discussion of the classic literary and philosophical works, art and architecture, and mathematical and scientific thought of our Western heritage actually works?

Consider the evidence: this is the system that produced Aquinas and Dante, Shakespeare and the great geniuses of the Renaissance, the leaders of the Reformation—Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, Knox, the great scientists and philosophers of the Enlightenment, and the 18th century thinkers who designed the American Republic. This form of education was still in place through 19th century: just look at the entrance requirements of any college of that time, or its curriculum. But in Europe and America the post-WWII educational theorists began replacing the tried and true with something ‘new’ and ‘progressive’. We can see where that has led us. Classical Christian education is thus very conservative while not being slavishly so, because Scripture critiques everything.

There is however one real difficulty in this revival of education that is Classical and Christian: finding qualified faculty. Very few people in the current generation got such an education themselves. As a result, these schools must engage in constant retraining of newly hired faculty. The movement now has national and regional conferences bringing in speakers like Robbie George from Princeton and Al Mohler from Southern Seminary, hundreds of schools with tens of thousands of students, and produces between 5000 and 6000 graduates per year. But it is still comparatively new, and the major challenge is sustainability in the face of rapid growth. Everything hangs upon faculty who know the content, are trained to teach socratically through a dialectic of questions and discussions, and are theologically grounded in Reformed and Evangelical theology. Where will they come from as these schools continue to grow explosively?

This is why Dr. Macarthur asked Dr. Grant Horner of the Master’s University to design and lead a new degree program in the Classical Liberal Arts—the first of its kind in the United States. While there are classics and Great Books programs at both secular and Christian universities, as well as various teacher education departments, there are no programs dedicated solely to training future teachers in socratic pedagogy, classical content, and Biblical theology—a program designed to train the next generation of game-changing teachers for the Classical Education movement.

Professor Horner is already a nationally recognized leader in the CCE movement. He is a classical scholar and a National Alcuin Fellow with the Society for Classical Learning, and the newly appointed head of the Alcuin West Fellowship (the think tank leading the intellectual work of the CCE movement). He has worked with and trained faculty at dozens of CCE schools, and been a speaker at both ACCS and SCL conferences regionally and nationally. His PhD work was in Renaissance and Reformation Culture and he specializes in studying the ways that Renaissance cultural works intersect with Reformation theology. He also is the founder and Director of The Master’s University in Italy program. He was instrumental in starting the Rhetoric School at Trinity Classical Academy in Santa Clarita California, which has become one of the largest CCE schools in the US.

The new BA in Classical Liberal Arts is the first undergraduate program of its kind in the United States.

It is designed specifically to train students in both the content and pedagogy of the classical liberal arts in order to prepare them for teaching positions in the rapidly growing Classical Christian Education movement, and or/to pursue graduate work in the Humanities. Students are trained in the content of the Western Classical heritage beginning with Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, and continuing to the present day in history, literature, art, philosophy, and theology. This is augmented with continual training in Socratic pedagogy, providing intensive practice in leading rich and invigorating discussions instead of lecturing on an academic topic. Students study the classical languages and master the classical arts of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric while pursuing the studia humanitatis (‘study of the human things)’ through a fully articulated theological framework in a manner similar to Medieval and Renaissance universities, the Geneva Academy started by John Calvin in 1559, and the church schools envisioned by Martin Luther.\ This new program will be announced officially at the ACCS National Conference in Dallas June 20-23 by Dr. Macarthur and Dr. Horner, who are the opening and closing plenary speakers this year.

To learn more about the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Education click here

To learn more about the ACCS Conference, click here. To learn more about CCE, check out this brief video.

Nick Nichols

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