A Liberal Education: From Athens to Azusa

by David L. Weeks, Ph.D.

We live in an age of obsession — obsession with fame and celebrity, wealth and prosperity, power and influence, image and appearance. These seductive, worldly temptations pervade popular culture. To speak to this culture, Christians must understand it, while retaining a critical distance and a perspective that is not simply of this world.

Can universities help stem the tide of misplaced obsession? How do we instill in the young a predisposition to step back and look anew at the world? That fresh perspective has been historically the product of a liberal education. It remains a source of hope.

Socrates introduced the liberal arts tradition in ancient Athens. Itinerant teachers, the Sophists, taught young men how to become powerful and successful in the fledgling Athenian democracy. Socrates chastised the Sophists for teaching aspiring leaders to seek honor without virtue and power without principle. As an alternative to such hypocrisy, Socrates advocated training the mind to seek truth. Although Athens may have repaid Socrates with hemlock, he had launched a 2,500-year tradition.

Over time, the liberal arts became identified as the "seven pillars of wisdom." The pillars included the linguistic arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Grounded in the liberal arts, one was ready for a truly liberal education, an education extending to a whole panoply of questions addressed by theology and philosophy.

Romans such as Varro and Cicero codified this tradition, and medieval Christian monks institutionalized it in early universities. The scholarly monks adopted this pagan tradition of rational inquiry because it enriched their quest to know God and aided their effort to live faithfully. It did so by fostering both moral and intellectual virtue — intellectual virtue to understand God's truth, moral virtue to abide by God's will.

Today, Christians have a vested interest in retaining a liberal arts education. For it transcends temporal concerns and prepares the mind to inquire into the central human questions: Who is God? Who am I? Why am I here? What is true? What is just? What is good? Only rigorous mental discipline prepares one for such candid inquiry and for understanding God's revelational answers found both in Scripture and nature.

By maintaining a delicate balance between faith and reason, Christians can find some relief for the soul's longing for answers to eternal questions. "The discerning heart seeks knowledge," according to Scripture, because "the truth will set us free" (Proverbs 15:14 and John 8:32). Above all else, believers desire to know God. In seeking to know Him and His truth, the faithful glorify God.

This human effort to seek "knowledge for its own sake" should not be misunderstood; it simply means some things are intrinsically worth knowing, even if there is no extrinsic utility. Believers do not always seek knowledge "to do" something; sometimes they seek knowledge "to be" something, namely free and happy. Knowledge is not an end in itself; it is a divine blessing, pointing the way to happiness and freedom.

In contemporary culture, the liberal arts, "the arts of freedom," are also profoundly relevant. They point toward freedom from that which enslaves and impedes living well. Popular culture is enslaved by desire for pleasure, profit, and praise. Yet, sensual indulgence, affluence, and celebrity never suffice; they lead to neither peace, nor happiness, nor freedom. Only eternal things will satisfy.

Toward that end, APU aims to prepare young men and women for a lifelong endeavor to know better the God we serve and understand the world He created. Undergraduates encounter the liberal arts in a unique 64-unit general studies program, including 18 units studying "God's Word and the Christian Response."

As a comprehensive university, APU's mission extends beyond liberal education to include professional preparation. The former develops intellectual and moral capacities, which are essential to professional success and compel reflection on the purposes of professional endeavor. It enhances one's abilities to compute, speak, write, read, and think. These links connect a liberal education, which emphasizes living well with professional education, which emphasizes making a living by serving others. Professional preparation, in turn, extends those critical skills in a specific arena and bolsters one's understanding of the proper ends of a profession.

While this world touts faddish half-truths and superficial relativism, APU continues to challenge students to hone their intellectual capacities for the purposes of seeking God's truth and serving His Kingdom. Such an education will empower the next generation of believers to live fully, to live intelligently, to live faithfully.