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What do we mean by “Liberal Arts”?

As Christians recover classical Christian education, they are unearthing old treasures, once the possession of every educated man. Some of these treasures are words and descriptions–terms like “Trivium” and “Quadrivium,” “paideia,” and “liberal arts.” Of all these terms, “liberal arts” lays at the heart of what classical education is all about. So what did our forefathers mean by “liberal arts”?


The word liberal has nothing to do with our modern use of the word in politics and culture. Liberal means “free,” and historically described the kind of education expected of a freeman–especially one in a position of leadership, like nobility. Our culture has so alienated itself from a historic education that it’s very difficult for us to think of education without thinking of jobs and vocational training.

Dr. Roy Atwood, founding President of New Saint Andrews College, was once asked by a student, “Who are you”? His automatic response was to give his profession: “Uh…I’m a professor.” But the student responded, “No, I don’t mean what you do, but who are you?”1 We are programmed to answer that question with what we do, with our job title. And we likewise think of education in terms of answering the question, “Will this education prepare me for a job?”. The modern definition of education has the effect of not only defining the education process in terms of pragmatic usefulness, but also defining human beings themselves in terms of usefulness. Like in the world of Thomas the Train which our children didactically watch, our identity is wound up with our usefulness. “Who are you?” asks the modernist? “I do this job” we reply catechetically.

Christians of previous generations viewed education, and themselves, differently. The opening lines of the Westminster Shorter Catechism would have been familiar to nearly every child in early America: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” That is who we are: worshiping beings, who delight in God. Or to use Dr. Atwood’s conclusion to the question “who are you?”, we are royalty, heirs of Christ. And we should educate our children in that light.

Some may object that this identity is a fine thing, but has nothing to do with education. “How does it help you get a job? How is it useful?” In 1646, the founders of Harvard College defined education in their “Rules and Precepts” in this way:

“Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.”

Christ is both the source and the goal of education.

“Who are you?” We are liberal (free) Christians, pursuing wisdom and virtue through the interwoven arts of theology (study of the knowledge of God) and humanities (study of ourselves and of mankind). “Knowledge of God and knowledge of self” is how John Calvin sets the stage for his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and is also how Harvard and other universities in the United States prior to the 1900s set the foundation for education.

So the term “liberal” points to the purpose of education and our identity. But what precisely does this looks like.


If the foundation of education is knowledge of self and knowledge of God, how might the liberal arts help us in this endeavor? The Liberal Arts are an education in first principles–in the foundations of things. The Western heritage is the cultural soil into which Christ was made flesh, and the common inheritance of all God’s people. This specifically means recovering an education which includes Plato and Aristotle, Aquinas and Dante, Augustine and Boethius, Cicero and Plutarch, Homer and Vergil, Milton and Shakespeare. These and many others are so much woven into the fiber of ourselves and our culture that we cannot truly know ourselves without knowing them. It includes the classical study of logic, rhetoric, grammar, and language. These disciplines inform our understanding of the written and spoken word, the means God gave us for understanding Himself and ourselves.

We may have only recently re-discovered this birthright, but it is not presumptuous to receive this rich heritage as our own. Our culture is in full-blown identity crisis. The liberal arts educate our children in their identity, giving them the tools to understand the world around them in wisdom and virtue. And with this education in first principles–these freeing, liberal arts not defined by usefulness–our children will possess tools of learning that are surprisingly useful in a confused world.

This article is an adapted excerpt from chapter one of A Better Admissions Test: Raising the Standard for College Entrance Exams, published by the Classical Learning Initiative and Mudhouse Press. 

family-square-360x360Daniel Foucachon grew up in Lyon, France where his father was an evangelist and church-planter with Mission to the World. He moved to Moscow, Idaho in 2005 to attend New Saint Andrews College, where he graduated with a BA in Liberal Arts and Culture in 2009. In 2009 he founded a media production company, and was the producer of Canon Wired (the media branch of Canon Press) until 2013. His love for classical education and desire to publish curriculum designed for home education led him to found Roman Roads Media in 2011, which has since produced and published award-winning liberal arts curriculum for high school students. He and his wife Lydia live in Moscow, Idaho with their three sons and one daughter.
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Even more reasons to study the liberal arts

The liberal arts are for free people

A classical liberal arts education used to be synonymous with higher education. To study the liberal arts was to study what it means to live and think as people who are free. This required broad understanding of human nature, of theology, literature, languages, history, philosophy, rhetoric, logic, music, mathematics, and science. It required knowing how these various disciplines interact, how they help us understand who we are and where we’ve been, and how they apply to new situations and shed light on current events.


The system of offering multiple majors at the undergraduate level didn’t begin until late in the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution’s demand for well trained—but not necessarily well educated—workers. Universities became extensions of the factory, making employability the highest (and, in most of our current culture, the only) goal of higher education. Yet for all their promises of providing employable skills, university majors simply don’t deliver. In fact, The Washington Post reports that a mere 27% of college graduates are working in a field that even closely relates to their college major. This means that college students across the country are going deep into debt just to be narrowly—and often shallowly—trained for jobs they will never have.

The liberal arts are essential for technology, science, medicine, and business

The liberal arts, on the other hand, have never been primarily about job training. And yet, a liberal arts degree—by virtue of its depth and breadth—continues to prove its enduring value in the workplace and beyond:

• According to Forbes, a liberal arts degree has become “tech’s hottest ticket.”
The Huffington Post, in defense of the liberal arts, cites the president of Harvard saying, “The world needs…scientists and engineers who can think beyond the immediate and instrumental to address the bigger picture and the longer term.”
• With its interview of ten CEOs of some of the world’s top corporations, including YouTube, Whole Foods, Starbucks, Disney, and Hewlett-Packard, Business Insider demonstrates the astonishing career success of students of the liberal arts.
As NPR reports, one of the nation’s top medical schools, realizing that a program full of pre-med students was “producing sub-par doctors,” created the “HuMed” program specifically aimed at bringing liberal arts majors into the study of medicine. It has been so successful, it is now being expanded.
• To quote IT World’s recent article, “Go on and study music, literature, art, philosophy, and everything else that is ‘useless’ but makes you a more well-rounded, critical thinker—the kind that tech companies want to scoop up.”
• And the renowned poet T.S. Eliot sums up the danger of specialization and the need for broad liberal arts education well: “No one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest.”

New Saint Andrews offers undergraduates a single, time-honored, integrated academic program in the classical liberal arts, emphasizing the languages, literature, philosophy, history, and culture of Western civilization from a reformational Christian perspective.

As our alumni can testify, a liberal arts degree is an incredibly practical and flexible degree for a huge range of careers. We also offer internship opportunities that allow students to gain on-the-job career experience during their four years at NSA. We refuse to dilute our classical liberal arts program in the name of vocational-technical pragmatism. Vocational skills are too important to leave to the academy, and narrow career training is a poor substitute for a biblically grounded liberal arts education.