Raising the Bar: Christianity and Liberal Arts in the University

I fear we Christians have lived so long in the shadow of the Enlightenment that, in our apologetic mode, we sometimes forget something we should undoubtedly remember:  that in an earlier time, the question was not (as it so often is now) “Can a great university be Christian?” but rather “Can a great university be anything other than Christian?”

But let me be clear about the question.  I’m not asking whether it’s possible to have some sort of vague collection of departments brought together under the auspices of a common financial administrator and with a common devotion to a central heating and cooling plant.  I mean would it be possible to have a uni-versity — an educational project integrating all wisdom and learning, as opposed to, say, a multi-versity, a place where many different disciplines are taught, united only by being taught in a relatively proximate location — if not for the intellectual challenges posed by faith in the divine, creative Wisdom who revealed Himself though the incarnate Word of God made flesh?  To be honest, the prospect seems increasingly less likely, with the fortunes of the classical “liberal arts” largely falling by the wayside in tandem with the Catholic/Christian character of universities, both of them losing any vestige of legitimacy in the face of increasing disciplinary specialization.  As institutes of “higher education” have increasingly turned away from the moral and religious principles that animated their founding, they have at the same time (and probably unavoidably) increasingly turned themselves into training grounds for the highly-paid technocratic elite, whose concern for “ethics” and “social welfare” remains little more than a token after-thought, as it is for the institutions from which they graduate.

It is important to remember that it was not always thus.  There was an earlier time, when the idea of the university was being conceived, that a somewhat different educational ideal was animating the creation of a new sort of institution.  Allow me to offer a visual example of what I mean.

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Undoubtedly one of the most profound visual statements of this educational ideal — the integration of the various disciplines of human wisdom in the light of the divine Wisdom incarnate — is the sculptural design in the tympanum over the right door to the main entrance of the Cathedral at Chartres. Chartres, as is well-known, was the sight of a tremendous intellectual renaissance in the twelfth century, which witnessed not only the construction of this magnificent cathedral, but also the founding of a remarkable academic institution, the Cathedral school:  an institution which brought together in one place for the purposes of research and teaching many of the most able scholars of the day: an institution which would later serve as a model for the development of the first university in Paris.

For the great scholars and visionaries at Chartres, their challenge was to create an educational framework in which the disciplines of human wisdom might be married to the revelation of divine Wisdom in the person of Jesus Christ.  Indeed, this portal sculpture is an artistic expression of precisely that intellectual vision.

In the middle of the tympanum, you can see the famous Sedes Sapientae, or holy “Seat of Wisdom.”  Surrounding it in the archivolts are personifications of the seven liberal arts: on the bottom right, grammar, who is teaching two boys to write; moving then to the bottom left, we find dialectic, in whose right hand is a flower and in whose left hand is the head of a barking dog (I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about that); proceeding around clockwise, we find rhetoric, who is pictured proclaiming a speech; geometry, who is shown writing figures on a tablet; arithmetic, whose attributes have been effaced over the centuries, so no one is exactly sure what she is doing (although perhaps that is significant in itself: I mean, who really knows what mathematicians do?); astronomy, who is gazing up at the sky; and finally, moving to the inner archivolt, music, who is playing two instruments: the twelve-stringed harp and some bells.  Underneath each of the Arts is a representation of the thinker classically associated with that discipline: Priscian for grammar, Aristotle for dialectic, Cicero for rhetoric, Euclid for geometry, Boethius for arithmetic, Ptolemy for astronomy, and most likely Pythagoras for music, about whom Cassiodorus had related the story that he had “invented the principles of this discipline from the sound of bells and the percussive extension of chords.”

Here at Chartres we see in concrete, visible form the artistic record of an attempt to integrate human wisdom, as exemplified by its instruments — namely, the seven liberal arts — with Wisdom incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.  The visual movement of the image, moreover, goes in both directions.  The arts and disciplines of human wisdom are seen as a preparation for an increased understanding of faith: they surround and support the image of Wisdom Incarnate in the center.  By the same token, the Seat of Wisdom is pictured at the center, as both the source and summit of all human wisdom.  Thus Mary sits at the center of the arts as a paradigm, as the “Seat of Wisdom,” because she is a model of one who obediently responded to God’s word, thereby giving birth (in her case, quite literally) to God’s Wisdom Incarnate.

Indeed, this point is emphasized in the two friezes below the Seat of Wisdom, both of which illustrate the events of the Christ’s birth. In the bottom frieze, we see the Annunciation, the Visitation, and in the middle, the birth of Christ, with the angel leading the shepherds in from the right, sheep in tow.  In the top frieze, we see Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus at the altar in the Temple.

Scholars tell us that these images were carved in response to a Eucharistic controversy that was raging at the time, in which certain groups were emphasizing the presence of the Risen Christ of heaven in the Eucharist, perhaps to the detriment of an understanding of the Eucharist which might include the living Christ who lived and walked the earth.  Here at Chartres, we see very clearly an attempt to correct that potential misunderstanding by including within the Eucharistic imagery scenes from Christ’s birth.  This theological and historical context helps to explain why the artist pictures the child Jesus on top of an altar rather than in Mary’s arms or in a manger.

Let me stress, moreover, that such details are not merely artistic trivia; for lying behind this entire set of images is a very conscious theology of Incarnation and sacramentality.  If God has created the world and reveals Himself to us through His creation, then we have the possibility (as St. Paul tells us) of coming to know the invisible attributes of God through the visible things of creation.  Just as in the visible, earthly elements of the Eucharist, we are meant to see the real presence of Christ, the Word made flesh, so also, in the visible, earthly elements of creation, we are meant to see the presence of God’s creative Word and Wisdom.

It would be a very similar theology of Incarnation, moreover, that would allow the word and wisdom of God to become incarnate in actual, human language and thus, by extension, present and embodied on a written page.

Thus we must learn to read both the Book of Nature as well as the Book of Scripture, for they are not mutually exclusive.  Rather, on this view, they will ultimately illumine each other because they both have the one God as their Author.  Indeed, on the classical Christian understanding of the seven liberal arts, the trivium (or “threefold way”), which includes grammar, rhetoric, and logic, are precisely the disciplines that teach us how to read and understand the Book of Scripture; while the quadrivium (the “fourfold way”), the arts of geometry, mathematics, astronomy, and music, are those that guide us in our understanding of the Book of Nature.  The portal image makes clear, however that this reading — whether of one book or the other (and notice that each of the classical thinkers associated with the arts is pictured writing in a book, which is the classic medieval pose for the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) — but this reading, whether of the Book of Scripture or the Book of Nature, must always be done in the light of the divine Wisdom incarnate.

In formulating our own responses to the contemporary challenges of the university, consider how fruitful it might be if we would once again hearken back to the tradition embodied in this remarkable portal sculpture at Chartres.

In this regard, let us consider first the disciplines of the so-called “trivium”: grammar, rhetoric, and logic.  By the end of their college education, we should require that our students have these three skills to a measurable degree of excellence.  So, for example, we should be able to promise parents, future employers, and the citizens of this nation that our students have the ability to read critically and understand the essential message of any type or genre of text, and moreover, that they have the ability to write clear and understandable prose.  To make this vague desire more concrete, we might, for example, say something like this: The graduate of a Christian liberal arts university should be able to read and understand a thoughtful article written for a non-specialist in almost any area or discipline.  They should, for example, be able to pick up, read and grasp with some degree of precision any article in a journal such as The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Review of Books, Commentary, The Economist, Forbes, First Things, Commonweal, Nature, or Psychology Today, to mention just a few.  And they should similarly, upon graduation, have the abilities of research and writing that would allow them to produce an article for just such a journal.

Producing a well-argued piece for a serious, public journal, however, brings us to another dimension of the trivium: namely, logic.  Our students must be trained to be able to recognize good arguments from bad; they should be able to carry on a reasonable discussion or debate on a topic of importance; they should understand, in short, all the fundamental elements of informal logic and inference.  And what’s more, they should be able to integrate those abilities with their skills of writing and speaking.  Abilities in each one, I believe, would serve to deepen and extend a person’s ability in all the others.

Indeed, the curriculum I have in mind would take these three important skills – namely, grammar (including composition), rhetoric (including public speaking), and logic (including both logical argumentation and methods of valid inference from evidence) –  and coordinate them together into one core course. By unifying these efforts in one core, interdisciplinary course, I believe we could achieve the goals of each of the three more efficiently and effectively.

So, for example, there are substantial benefits to be gained, I believe, by teaching students writing in the context of public speaking.  One of the problems with teaching writing, I have found, is that students almost never read over their own work.  If we could  systematically require our students to produce written work that would be read out loud and to their peers, this might help motivate them to write more clearly, to think more seriously, and to discuss those ideas both before and after class with those who would have the responsibility of listening to them.

But students need not only writing skills, they need something to write about All departments and disciplines also require critical thinking skills and the ability to make critical and effective judgments in various situations.  We all know the frustration of getting papers or hearing presentations that, rather than making serious arguments, set forth instead the student’s “feelings” about something or another — whether it be literature, politics, or philosophy.  Statements such as “I just don’t like Achilles — he seems mean”; or “Machiavelli just isn’t nice to people” are legion in college writing.

My proposal for a solution to this problem would involve integrating writing and speaking with instruction in logical argumentation. By this, I don’t necessarily mean a course in formal logic; I mean instruction in logical argumentation and methods of valid inference from evidence. Students would give serious thought to questions such as: What constitutes legitimate evidence for a claim? What constitutes appropriate warrant for a conclusion in various types of discussion or in various disciplines?  How can one properly make generalizations or draw conclusions from sample data or from statistical evidence?  We would teach them, for example, why affirming the consequent is a logical fallacy; why ad hominem arguments are not only cheap shots, but invalid; and the relative merits and dangers of slippery-slope arguments.  In such a course, we would have the students watch television news, read magazines and newspapers, or attend public debates, and then analyze, both in class and in writing, the strengths and weaknesses of the various presentations of ideas. If nothing else, if we could get them to understand, for example, that ad hominem arguments are invalid, most of what passes for political discourse these days would, of course, simply pass away as so much smoke.

Thirdly, we should introduce our students to the world of serious but friendly intellectual discussion and debate.  If we could get them to believe that “thinking” doesn’t necessarily mean “emoting,” and that thinking seriously and rigorously about an issue and discussing it reasonably might actually bring about a better resolution than just yelling at each other, then I think we will have done them, their nation, and the Church a great service.

The bottom line is that no student should be graduated from a Christian liberal arts university without being able to watch network news or read a newspaper and distinguish the good arguments from the bad, the purely rhetorical devices from the valid points, and the dubious evidence from the well-established and properly-supported facts of the case.

What, then, about the arts of the quadrivium?  How do they fit in?  The Christians of the Middle Ages believe that while the trivium equipped students with the necessary skills to read, write, think, and speak excellently — skills not altogether unimportant for a culture dedicated to reading, preaching, and understanding the word of God — the quadrivium, on the other hand, imparted to students the knowledge, skills, and abilities to be able to live wisely in concert with the natural world.  What sort of skills would those be?

If we look back to the classical tradition of the liberal arts and to the portal sculpture at Chartres, they have, I believe, something very important to teach us.   Classically, all of the other quadrivial arts were understood to be extensions or particular applications of mathematics.  “Astronomy” involved the mathematics of the stars and planets; “music” required a study of harmonic resonances and rhythms.  Indeed, it is not without reason that, at Chartres, the arts of geometry and mathematics are displayed at the top of the arch.  This has much to do with the neo-Platonic and Pythagorean cast of the twelfth-century school of Chartres, of course, but it is a tradition which goes well back to the earliest schools of philosophy.  It is said that written above the portals of Plato’s Academy were the words: “Let the one who is without mathematics not enter.”  It would be hard to understate the importance of this requirement.  To be without mathematics is to be illiterate in one of the major languages of the universe.

So, in our own age, we should be able to assure parents, future employers or graduate schools that our students have an excellent facility in mathematics — that they will be able to do by way of mathematics whatever they need to do in order to get their job done, whether it be geometry, statistics, calculus, or accounting.

How about astronomy and music?  Is there still any use in insisting on these two?  Well, quite frankly, yes.  Isn’t it a shame that we have students who lack any knowledge about very basic things in their environment, such as the fact that the stars and planets have a certain path through the sky?  Or that the sun rises and sets at different angles in the sky as the seasons change?  I have students who don’t know what the vernal or autumnal equinoxes are, or what the meridian is.  What a tragic lack of awareness about the world around them!

But, to extend our reflection, shouldn’t our students also have a basic understanding of all the elements of the vast natural world in which they live?  Shouldn’t they understand the basic principles of physics, chemistry, and biology, along with some basic geography and earth science — all of them, not just the science majors?  These are all “wonders of nature” that we should be sharing with our students, especially at Christian universities!  Because of course as Christians, we believe that nature is not merely dead “stuff” — out there, by some cosmic accident — but indeed the very handiwork of God Himself.  Christian students of science should have as much, or more, motivation to understand nature than those who are not, given that for the Christian, the natural world is one of the most common and most wondrous ways God has chosen to reveal Himself to us.  To misread the Book of Nature would be no less grievous a fault for a Christian than to misread the Book of Scripture, since he or she believes God is the ultimate Author of both.

And music?  Shouldn’t all our students have some introduction to the beauties ordered not only by nature, but also those ordered by human ingenuity?  Shouldn’t our students have some understanding of things like poetry, music, art, sculpture, and architecture?  Is there not also here possibly an opportunity for integrating different disciplines?  Wouldn’t it be possible, for example, to study intellectual history alongside of art and cultural history?  Wouldn’t it be better, in fact, to study the history of Ancient Greece, Renaissance Europe, or twentieth century America by studying not only the political history of the period, but also and in an integrated way, the intellectual and cultural currents: the art, the architecture, the poetry, and the music?  I suggest they should.

That “covers,” as it were, the seven classical liberal arts.   There is undoubtedly more that needs to be said about each of these, but given the limitations of space, I would like to turn our attention to another dimension of a Christian liberal arts education before I close. Let me introduce this section, if I may, with a quotation from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio, “Faith and Reason.”  At the beginning of that encyclical, under the heading “Know Thyself,” the Pope says the following:

In both East and West, we may trace a journey which has led humanity down the centuries to meet and engage truth more and more deeply.  It is a journey which has unfolded ‑‑ as it must ‑‑ within the horizon of personal self‑consciousness:  the more human beings know reality and the world, the more they know themselves in their uniqueness, with the question of the meaning of things and of their very existence becoming ever more pressing.  This is why all that is the object of our knowledge becomes a part of our life.  The admonition Know thyself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as “human beings,” that is, as those who “know themselves.”

The basic insight here is that all the knowledge we gain about the world only becomes relevant for us to the extent that it can be related to the fundamental questions, such as: Who am I?, Where am I from?  Where am I going? What is the meaning and purpose of life?  Therefore, if we are to provide an authentically “Christian” liberal arts education – and not merely produce a clique of scholarly dilettantes – we must strive always to challenge our students ask these fundamental questions about themselves and about the world.

So, for example, when one of our students graduates, he or she ought to be able to say something meaningful about his or her own identity, goals, and vision for life.  And although they might not know what “job” they will pursue, our students ought to have thought seriously enough about their life to make for themselves a meaningful choice about their future “vocation” – as an individual, as a family member, as a member of a community and society, and as a Christian in today’s world.  If our students have not made any progress in thinking about the fundamental questions such as: Who am I? Where am I from? and Where am I going?, then we will have in large part failed them in our ultimate obligation as Christian educators.

Let me emphasize before closing how important it is that all these different elements be present and be effectively integrated in the education of each student.  At my own school, the University of St. Thomas, the first page of the very first university catalogue contained the following quotation from that great nineteenth century theologian and author of The Idea of the University, John Henry Newman.  “Here, then,” said Newman, “is the object … of setting up universities:

It is to reunite things which were in the beginning joined together by God, and have been put asunder by man…. It will not satisfy me, what satisfies too many, to have two independent systems, intellectual and religious, going at once side by side, by a sort of division of labor, and only accidentally brought together.  It will not satisfy me, if religion is here and science there, and young men converse with science all day and lodge with religion in the evening….  I wish the intellect to range with the utmost freedom, and religion to enjoy an equal freedom, but what I am stipulating is, that they should be found in one and the same place, and exemplified in the same persons.” (Cardinal Newman, in Sermon I of Sermons on Various Occasions).

What is particularly beautiful in this passage is the marriage imagery: the notion that in setting up universities, our goal should be “to reunite things which were in the beginning joined together by God, and have been put asunder by man.”  The rule in the contemporary university, however, is to allow our students to fall into (indeed, we often insist that they fall into) one or another of the disciplines, to the detriment of – perhaps even the exclusion of – the others.  It is perhaps not inaccurate to say of the faculty and staff of the modern university that they are like the orphaned children of a sad divorce: a divorce not only between human wisdom and divine Wisdom, but also between and within the disciplines themselves.  The job of a Christian university, then, is to do what secular culture cannot: unite what has been put asunder by man.

Bridging these divides — bridging especially the significant division between what author C. P. Snow once called “the two cultures”: the natural sciences, on the one hand, and the humanities, on the other — bridging these divides is necessary not only for the health of the secular academy, but it is an absolute requirement, as I have tried to make clear, for a Christian university.  Only if we can succeed as our forefathers did in embodying this educational ideal in our institutions of higher education will we be able to foster in our students the kind of unified and integrated human wisdom — both of themselves and of the world — that might conceivably serve as the appropriate handmaiden of the Divine Wisdom Incarnate.


  • Randall B. Smith

    Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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