3. A liberating foundation in the liberal arts

The roots of the liberal arts (artes liberales) extend back into classical antiquity. Roman education, for example, progressed from basic literacy (the province of the litterator), to secondary school under the grammaticus, and finally to rhetorical education with the rhetor. Rhetoric allowed for a career in public office or the law courts. The achievements of Greco-Roman culture were eclipsed in the West for some centuries after the fall of Rome (410 C.E.).

During the Middle Ages, monastic scribes preserved a significant body of ancient learning in Latin. However, more complete Greek learning was preserved only in the Byzantine Empire while Arab culture retained and developed ancient knowledge of numbers. The founding of universities in Europe (Bologna, Paris) established the medieval curriculum of the trivium and quadrivium. These studies provided the foundation for professional studies in Theology, Law, and Medicine. The medieval curriculum was profoundly enriched and expanded through Renaissance humanism with its insistence on the study of poetry and literature, history, language study, and ethics.

Humanism fostered the recovery of texts, civic virtues, and spiritual values of classical Greece and Rome. Humanism counted “the human the measure of all things” and aimed to develop all human potential as gifts from God. The learning of the Greek language and study of Greek texts revived as these cultural influences came to the West from Constantinople. Likewise, scholars began the study of Hebrew as Jewish scholarship gained notice. Gutenberg’s movable type (1450s) allowed for the printing of books and the spread of broader literacy. The recovery of classical art inspired many new forms of artistic creativity, such as in the work of Michelangelo and Da Vinci. Painting acquired perspective and sculpture acquired life-like realism. Bernini effected the grand renovations in Rome, reminiscent of the monumental architecture of the classical age. Scholars like Erasmus and Luther urged reform of the Church, felt to be moribund by confused traditions and corrupt practices. Indeed, the Lutheran Reformation drew upon significant cultural features of the Renaissance: Greek and Hebrew texts for translation of the Bible into the German vernacular, dissemination of theological arguments through printed tracts, depiction of reformed theology in visual art (Lucas Cranach), new musical genres (Johann Sebastian Bach), and architecture (Nickel Grohmann).

The Lutheran intellectual tradition, then, was closely allied with a renewed liberal arts curriculum, which in the cases of Erasmus and Luther was highly rhetorical, taking the study of words seriously. Moreover, this tradition continued the Renaissance appreciation of the arts and music, and remained open to the emerging modern sciences. The German universities of the Enlightenment consequently developed what Sydney Ahlstrom called the “critical Lutheran tradition.” These liberal educational currents migrated to America and eventually shaped Lutheran institutions of higher learning down to the present.

Signs of liberal arts education are everywhere in the curriculum of Pacific Lutheran University.

Seven language departments cover languages strategic for the Lutheran intellectual tradition. Great classic literary, theological, and philosophical works are studied in English, Religion, and Philosophy classes. The social sciences offer sophisticated theory and ideas about practical policy. Advanced mathematics and science courses are taught on campus. The musical programs are of the highest quality. Works of art abound across campus, including the Rose Window in Eastvold Hall. Students are encouraged to ask big questions, and to seek their own vocations of service, leadership, and care in the world. The student potential for effective service in the world is stimulated by an intellectual tradition living within a solid liberal arts core education.