When Socrates defended himself before the Athenian court, he appealed ultimately to his belief that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” For Socrates, to examine meant to question, to investigate, and to dialogue. The practices for which he was on trial were part and parcel to living an examined life, or as Socrates thought of it, a truly human life. The classical tradition of education, which owes much to Socrates’ most famous student Plato, takes serious this charge to live an examined life and seeks as its ultimate goal to produce men and women who question, investigate, and dialogue. Thus the classical curriculum is built around the seven liberal arts and sciences (trivium and quadrivium), which are called “liberal” because of their common aim of producing men and women who are “free” in the best sense of the word. For Socrates, this freedom manifests itself in the ongoing process of examining one’s life and convictions with the ultimate goal of reaching Truth. In this way, the most “free” human being is the one who is capable of discerning Truth and desires to align his values and actions with some objective standard.
While this educational program finds its genesis with the pagan Greeks, Christendom has long seen the value in a program that has as its goal the freedom of human beings. God created Adam and Eve as free and glorious creatures who found their freedom in living as true image bearers of God. As Christendom has sought to restore man to this glorious condition, education has been viewed as an important secondary means in achieving this end. During the Middle Ages, the classical, liberal arts tradition was appropriated and students were educated to question, investigate, and dialogue within the framework of a Christian worldview undergirded by the creeds of the Church. This represented in many ways the height of the classical, liberal arts tradition. Not only was education highly valued, but also the prevailing view of the human condition was built upon the Biblical notion of man as a glorious image bearer of God and the crown of his creation.
During the Modern period, two forces have served to undermine this classical, liberal arts tradition, which had reached its peak in the Middle Ages. First, as Christendom fell apart, religion lost its central role in the life of the human being. No longer were all aspects of life tied together by man’s chief purpose of bearing God’s image. This helped usher in a much more pragmatic approach to education as a means of gaining power and advancing in society, not of becoming a free human being who bears God’s image in the world. Second, the modern quest for certainty via reason and science fell apart in the 20th century as Europe was ravaged by two world wars. Instead of creating a perfect society, reason and science brought horrors such as fascism, communism, and nuclear weapons. As man lost faith in reason, he also lost faith in the existence of Truth. Thus postmodern relativism developed and removed the possibility of ever achieving knowledge of the Truth that the classical, liberal arts tradition sought to discern. Human freedom was no longer found in aligning one’s values and actions with the objective standard of the image of God. Instead, freedom was found in the acquisition of power (pragmatism) and in removing all limits and notions of an objective standard (relativism).
Having this history in mind, we can better understand how we should seek to work out the classical, liberal arts tradition in our own day. First, we can see from the Medieval period that the classical program is best worked out when it is appropriated within a rich and robust Christian worldview which values Truth and sees the human being as a glorious image bearer of God. We can see how important such a foundational worldview is by recognizing that relativism and pragmatism began to creep in when such a foundation is removed. At the same time, the goal of the classical, liberal arts tradition has always been to produce men and women who seek out Truth by questioning, investigating, and dialogue. This can only be done when there are questions to ask and matters to be discussed. Thus, a theological foundation that is too thorough might stifle a true search for knowledge by rendering all of the important questions answered. The quest for knowledge and understanding, according to Socrates, begins with acknowledging one’s own ignorance. We can also find wisdom in this approach by understanding how the modern search for certainty had the ironic effect of ushering in our relativistic age of uncertainty. Therefore, it seems appropriate both historically and philosophically to root the classical, liberal arts tradition in a creedal Christianity which provides a proper trajectory for the educational program, places limits on the paths which it can take, and allows freedom for those paths to be explored in an intellectually honest manner.