The purpose of a liberal arts education
"In reality when we say we aim to graduate leaders who shape culture, what we mean centrally is that we aim to graduate men and women who will marry and raise children in the joy of the Lord... Your education at NSA aims most essentially to teach you how to be men and women. To teach you how to image your maker as male and female so that you will be equipped to be faithful husbands and wives and fruitful fathers and mothers. The center of leading and shaping culture is through marriage and childrearing. This will necessarily require other vocations and callings, but those vocations and callings and so forth find their meaning and significance in a world of marriages and homes." - Toby Sumpter, outgoing head of the board of New Saint Andrews
This reveals the hazards inherent in talking about first principles. The closer we get to talking about essential things - God and country and family, capital-g Grace, etc. - the more circumspect (or poetical) we have to be.
I'm reminded of the Walker Percy quote: "I have to be damn careful when I talk about grace. I have to be extremely allusive."
What I'm saying is that if you want to speak dogmatically about big topics you risk of being reductive and losing the very thing you sought to praise. Which is why I feel like I can say I agree with the general idea that marriage and family are a first-order concern, and also that I think that Sumpter is doing a horrible disservice to NSA and the students he was addressing.
Aaron Renn addresses the Evangelical tendency to reductively re-frame a man's mission from an outward focus to his wife and children. This is the false dichotomy of the 'servant leadership' concept: If you say that a husband must choose between pleasing himself and pleasing his wife, the unselfish answer is to please his wife. Says Renn: "Ultimately the servant leadership concept, by defining leadership exclusively as a man’s service to his wife and children, makes a man’s woman into his mission, and thus orients his household inwardly and away from the true mission their household should be pursuing."
I'm sure Sumpter doesn't deny the outward focus of the home, but he falls into the same frustrating rhetorical emphasis - with some added weirdness due to his co-ed audience. Evangelical colleges periodically struggle with the question of whether women should go to college. The thinking goes: If a woman's primary vocation is to get married and have children, perhaps college is good for women if it can make them better wives and mothers. Or to prepare them for the workforce if they fail in their primary vocation of getting married and having children. In this view, college can make men better husbands and fathers, *and* prepare them for a career. Sumpter seems to swallow the reductio that a liberal arts education isn't preparation for a specific vocation and drops the career thing altogether.
Thought exercise: a 17 year old guy comes to you. He says, "I want to do things to prepare me to be a better husband." Ok, you say, tell me more... "I'm perfecting my osso buco, doing Crossfit, reading Euclid, learning the difference between Doric Ionic and Corinthian columns..."
ALL GOOD THINGS. And all things that may make you a better husband. But I would tell this hypothetical person to chill out on the "I'm learning Euclid to become a better husband" rhetoric. You're over-thinking and under-thinking it at the same time, my dude!
The point of liberal arts education is to 'order the human soul' as Russell Kirk puts it. "Sounds like preparation for marriage to me," you say. While this has a social and moral purpose, efforts to emphasize the social utility of education lead inevitably to the loss of liberal arts education itself. Picture something like John Dewey's 'citizenship education'. In Sumpter's case, NSA could expand its one week of separating the otherwise co-ed classes for memorable addresses to men and women into a full charm-school program. I volunteer to handle sartorial education.
tl;dr NSA does tremendous work, but I'm baffled by its outgoing board president's utilitarian and reductive take on the point of it all.