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Home > Semester-long Discussion of Classical Christian Liberal Arts Begins

Semester-long Discussion of Classical Christian Liberal Arts Begins

August 20th, 2007

By Sarah Pride

CONTACT:  David Halbrook
Patrick Henry College
(540) 338-8727


Dr. Veith addresses students on the first day of fall classes
Dr. Veith addresses students on the first day of fall classes

In its emphasis on the classical Christian liberal arts, Patrick Henry College occupies a unique niche among institutions of higher learning. Now students, faculty, and administration are about to embark on a semester-long discussion of what exactly this means, and how best to integrate it across all areas of school life. To this end, every Tuesday morning during the fall 2007 semester, students will gather in small groups led by faculty and administration to discuss the book Wisdom and Eloquence by Robert Littlejohn and Charles T. Evans. The campus-wide conversation will culminate in a day-long seminar by Charles T. Evans, with possible further lectures to follow.

Any discussion of what, exactly, one means by a “classical liberal arts education” at PHC begins with the Christian Philosophy of Education statement composed by Academic Provost Dr. Gene Edward Veith in fall of 2006.

“Johann Sturm, the great Reformation educator, said that the goal of his Christian academy was to instill ‘a wise and eloquent piety,’” he wrote. “To achieve this end, Sturm built his academy around the classical liberal arts.”

In this vein, PHC tries to apply the three elements of “wisdom,” “eloquence,” and “piety” in its academic program through a similarly classical model. Says Veith, who frequently speaks at classical liberal arts conferences and has written books on the subject, PHC is unique among American colleges in its approach to classical learning.

“Christian colleges have been behind the times in catching up to the classical curriculum many K-12 homeschool programs are offering,” he said. “And ‘liberal arts’ colleges today don’t offer anything like the traditional classical curriculum. Instead, they provide a potpourri of miscellaneous classes with no integration.”

The classical model can be traced to ancient Greece and Rome, whose schools educated their students to be free citizens, able to discern truth and to remain untouched by the prevailing winds of fashion. By the 6th century, the church father Cassiodoras developed what came to be known as the “classical” learning approach, ordered around a set series of components: the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and the more specialized quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy).

While both the Christian and the ancient views on the liberal arts strive to develop a well-balanced, discerning human being, equipped to contribute positively to society, they differ in one critical aspect. According to Dr. Veith, the Christian view is grounded in its doctrine that every human being, created in the image of God, has equal value, whereas the ancient Greeks and Romans forged educational “class systems.” In Greek society, for instance, only the upper class benefited from a “liberal or “free” education, while slaves received technical training to prepare them for a life of servitude.

“Servile” education, says Veith, corresponds to the vocational training of today, which teaches little more than technical skills and leaves the human mind in a state of neglect. In contrast, in his Reformation-era “Doctrine of Vocation,” Martin Luther taught that a liberal education prepares a human being for any calling God lays on his heart.

As in Luther’s time, both PHC’s mission to impact the culture for Christ and its motto, “For Christ and For Liberty,” hinge on a proper understanding of the Christian classical liberal arts. The College’s distinctive vision, therefore, springs from the ancient Christian academy’s three pillars of “wisdom,” “eloquence,” and “piety.”

The word “wisdom,” in the Christian classical sense, says Veith, has broader meaning than is typically ascribed, encompassing a deep understanding of God, external reality, and self, all centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. PHC strives to impart these concepts academically through a rigorous, 75-credit core curriculum that spans every major and incorporates all aspects of the trivium and quadrivium.

“I don’t know of anyone else who has such an extensive core,” says Veith. “And we read all the great books too.”

“Eloquence” corresponds to one’s communication skills, or the ability to relate knowledge in ways that make a difference. Here, PHC’s unique apprenticeship program offers distinctive benefits, as juniors and seniors of all majors spend at least twelve credits applying knowledge to real-life internships or mentorships.

Veith explains that the apprenticeship model is also distinctly classical. In medieval times, for example, an apprentice, or unskilled young person, learned a trade under the tutelage of a master.

“It corresponds to the rhetoric stage, that of creative application,” he says. “This is another way in which PHC is unique.”

Finally, the College’s Philosophy of Education statement establishes “piety,” or the Christian faith, as “a framework and a unifying narrative for all of PHC’s classes. Theology at PHC, as at the original classical universities, is the Queen of the Sciences. Far from usurping or limiting learning, God’s Word offers a bigger vision of truth than merely human ideologies can provide.”

Students and faculty of Patrick Henry have debated the meaning and purpose of the Christian classical liberal arts since the College’s inception. The Philosophy of Education document and the upcoming cross-campus discussion, Dr. Veith hopes, will help unite the campus community around the core principles underlying PHC’s mission and the progress being made toward its goals.