We are growing accustomed to children opening fire on their teachers and classmates, to teachers and clergy abusing children. We feel no surprise at students graduating from high school unable to read, at parents suing schools, or harried parents refusing the imposition of homework as an infringement on their limited quality time with their latch-key orphans. We think nothing of hearing that our high schools and colleges offer credit for the study of “gangsta rap” and “harlequin romances.”
For two hundred years now, our schools and universities have abandoned the old liberal arts curriculum in favor of a subjects-and-disciplines, skills-and-information, approach. Our schools are drowning youth in tides of information. That they are overdue for major reform, only the most die-hard of teacher-unionists can now deny. But what shape that reform will take in the next decades will determine the direction of the republic and the Church for centuries to come. Those we are educating now will soon become teachers, businessmen and directors; most will become parents and “primary educators” of their children. It is incumbent on us to take seriously the education we impart to succeeding generations.
The word “education” comes from the Latin educare, to draw out. Genuine Catholic education draws us from ignorance, isolation, and self toward humanity, knowledge, and God. Our schools should be dedicated to drawing out students’ souls by imparting to them the arts of learning.
Freedom from Ignorance and Appetite
Those arts of learning are the liberal arts. Although we use the term frequently and many of us have liberal arts degrees, most of us have only a vague understanding of what they are. The liberal arts are those skills (techniques, tools), necessary to being a free man or woman, homo liberalis. They free us from the slavery of ignorance and especially from the slavery of appetite—the whims, urges and desires which make us listen to the latest advertisements and buy the latest fashion. The liberal arts are those skills that set men and women free before God.
The liberal arts are not so much about teaching things as teaching the skills for learning things. They are not so much the teaching of cultural literacy as teaching the ability to acquire that cultural literacy. Clearly, schools should demand mastery of a body of information from their pupils, but “facts are stupid things unless brought into contact with an organizing principle,” as the 19th-century naturalist Louis Agassiz impressed on his students (qtd. in David McCullough, Brave Companions, 26). The real goal is to impart skill at acquiring even more information outside the classroom.
Skills, not Subjects
It would probably embarrass most liberal arts graduates to be asked to name the liberal arts, much less define them. The curricula that we are accustomed to call “liberal arts” or a “classical education” is now a concatenation of subjects comprising the humanities and the soft sciences, with the reluctant inclusion of the hard sciences as tolerated cousins. The very name liberal arts now suffers from the degradation of the adjective liberal, making even liberal arts colleges vaguely suspect to the general public.
The liberal arts were first distinguished and systematized by Roman schoolmasters. They became the structure of all schools in Europe until the last century. They are composed of two groups: the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium, the “three roads” to learning that impart literacy, comprises grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The quadrivium, the “four roads” that impart numeracy, is made up of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.
To the modem ear, that list sounds either too primitive to take seriously or too arcane to be possible. That is because we think of the liberal arts in terms of the subjects by those names that we studied in school. But the liberal arts encompass all the subjects, both the humanities and the sciences. They are the arts, the techniques, skills and approaches, the intuitive knack with which subjects are approached and mastered. They prepare the mind to use the information in any subject for its greatest operation—learning. The liberal arts are arts.
Not So Trivial after All
The trivium includes grammar, logic, and rhetoric. It is concerned with achieving literacy, the skill of dealing with letters and the words those letters convey. It is from trivium that we get our word trivial, meaning associated with childhood learning, but these skills can hardly be called trivial considering how crucial it is that we deal intelligently with the constant bombardment of advertisements, propaganda, and deformation of truth.
Next, the quadrivium is concerned with achieving numeracy, the skill of understanding number, both practically in ciphering, and philosophically in measuring and accounting for the ratios of being, relativity, and relationship. Students learn the application and meaning of numbers, the connection of arithmetic and simple geometry to greater questions and problems of the nature of the physical world. They learn motion and its patterns from the movements of the stars and the techniques for measuring great distance and approximating spaces. Last, they learn music theory, the meaning of ratios and intervals, the art of discovering harmony in the world around them.
The quadrivium takes the mind into the abstract and hypothetical realm that number names, away from the particular and the concrete, and carries the soul toward the imageless and eternal divine.
In the seven liberal arts, the Christian world had a system of training the young in the skills of thinking. Of this old schooling Dorothy L. Sayers wrote: “For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain” (“The Lost Tools of Learning”).
First, Learn about Order
All learning begins in mastering the grammar of any subject. Grammar is learning language, its structure, its nature, how it is put together, and why it works the way it does. But more essentially, grammar is also learning to understand and respond to order in all things. It is learning to recognize order, to put the myriad things of experience into order, to perceive the underlying order in the complexities of experience. This requires learning about language, that characteristic human gift for interpreting the world. It also requires learning about the treasury of ideas which our own language has preserved through the generations and guarded for our inheritance.
In the past, the subject on which students practiced the art of grammar was, of course, Latin, the language of the Church, of law, of diplomacy, of the best in literature, and of science. It was assumed that the junior apprentice’s practice on the then-ordinary wood of Latin would carry over to his own native vernacular so that he would be as ready and able to construct his mental furniture out of English or Spanish or German as he was out of the international tongue. Children learned to read with Latin, so that they might read Scripture, prayer, the ideas of foreign scholars, and their own country’s laws equally. Grammar, the order of a language, also meant learning the structure, meaning and history of that language’s literature, so literature and history studies were a part of the art of grammar. Simple ciphering, the four operations, the tables of sums and divisions, the stories and songs of the tradition, all the basic data of “cultural literacy,” was considered the stuff of the art of grammar. Thus, we send our children to “grammar schools.”
The grammar of a subject is its structure, order, presuppositions, history, and fundamental knowledge. We are using grammar when stuff is learned as order, in order, placed in its true order, as the truth and beauty of the world we live in, the “laws” of the natures of things. Thus there is a “grammar” to every skill or subject we try to learn. That we are passing on the fundamentals, the order and structure of subjects, in the first years of schooling was long remembered even after the old trivium system was mutated into the modern form.
The liberal arts are the tools for finding patterns and ordering the details of any subject. All subjects, from poetry to mathematics, basketball as much as languages, have their grammar, the right ordering of their first principles and structures, their basic body of data and their fundamental skills of performance. The grammar of basketball consists in learning to pass, dribble, shoot for the basket, and cooperate with teammates. The grammar of mathematics consists in learning to count, recognizing systems of base 10, or six, or two, etc., mastering the possible functions and permutations—adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing—and committing to memory the tables of math facts. So the right ordering of any study begins in recognizing its grammar, what is fundamental to that subject and what is its order of structure.
Leap to Logic
Likewise, all subjects have their own logic, the laws of coherence, identity, and consequence that are inherent in that field. The logic of football entails the choice of plays, given the relative sizes and skills of the teams. The logic of literature is the possibilities and limitations in the structures of genre, form and figure, inherent or intentional. The logic of a fugue lies in the necessities of harmonics and possible melodic permutations in the interplaying melodic voices of the several instruments or lines. A savant has said that the logic of history is chronology—time and sequence determining cause and effect.
Now, Make it Pleasing
All subjects also have their rhetoric—the art that makes them pleasing and unified, the art of persuasion, the art of style. The rhetoric of mathematics is seen in problem-solving, in the accuracy and elegance of proof. The rhetoric of football is in the on-field play, how the called play is actually run in the necessities of the minute and the chances and changes of the unexpected.
The trivium, then, is a schematic for learning the nature and practice of human enterprises: structures, principles, practice. And to master the trivium is to master those things that can be named by language and words, it is to learn to think and speak accurately and elegantly. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric create and sustain the community we make with our fellow men. They are the arts of “social animals.”
Move on to Abstract Concepts
The quadrivium comprises those arts that train the mind to order abstractions as the trivium orders concretes. The arts of numeracy, or number, are orderings of relationships, ratios. As the mathematicians John and Theresa Kohl have written, “Thus, as the three arts of speech are engaged in raising men to political maturity upon earth, so the mathematical arts raise men from mundane to extra-mundane concerns” (“The Quadrivium” lecture). The relationships of abstractions—of things that are not tangible—are the relationships of the things of the mind. And from ancient times, it has been held that number is the universal language for all abstractions. Each of these four “roads” of number has its own grammar, logic, and rhetoric, which is why the study of the quadrivium was held until after the mastery of the trivium in the old education.
Let us treat of arithmetic first, for on it depends much of what may be said about geometry or astronomy or music. Arithmetic the liberal art is not the elementary school subject we all learned (in differing degrees of mastery), which old-time teachers honestly called “ciphering.” It is the ordering of the relationships of quantity. It is the arrangement of count, the relations of substance.
The ancient art of arithmetic was much more than ciphering and balancing one’s checkbook, it was a pursuit of the structure and order of reality as represented by abstract number. What besides count is two plus two? Or two itself, what is two? What does it mean to multiply anything? To divide it? What activity is really going on when an automobile computer decides on direction from mileage and compass coordinates? Today’s equivalent is found most clearly in the higher mathematics of linear algebra and the calculus, in probability theory and model building research. Arithmetic considers the interrelationship of counts, however abstruse and intangible.
Conceive the Invisible
Geometry the liberal art, which reached its apogee in the ancient world with Euclid’s Elements, and is today experiencing another breakthrough of insight in topology and vector analysis, is the ordering of relationship in space and time. It is the art of conceiving the invisible, of imagining things beyond touch and sight. How does point relate to point? Line to line? The study of the order of space and the relation of time to spaces liberates the mind from the limitation of the senses. To think numerically is to think in abstractions, intellectual realities.
Measure and Predict Movement
Likewise, astronomy, which for the ancients meant the study and measurement of the movement of the visible stars, is the ordering of the relationships of all things in motion. For the ancients, the movement of the heavenly bodies was the most regular and measurable set of things in motion, and the ever-changing configurations of the stars and planets, of sun and moon and the resultant seasons and tides, gave rise to the study of motion itself: and then to change. Change is that motion of things in time as well as space that Aristotle was to call physics. Modern calculus and physics treat of those relationships more than any other art, but it would not be too far off accuracy to suggest that certain “soft” sciences, such as statistics, social anthropology, and political forecasting, have about them the same search for the order of relationship of things in motion. The soft sciences’ accuracy of description and prediction, though, does not measure up to that of physicists, their subjects being in greater motion and change than the sensory objects of physics.
Find the Truth in Structure
Finally, music, harmonia, which for the ancients was the study of the relationships of sounds, bodily movements, and visual proportions, is the ordering of relationships of intensity or magnitudes in space and time. The harmonious arrangement of a living room, the perfect pouring of teas, the balance of elements of design and function that is architectural success, these are all examples of music, the liberal art. Mastering a musical instrument or singing in choir is the way to learn the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of harmony. But the music of any subject, the balance and beauty of its several parts, is the recognition of its inner structure and truth. Elegance is harmony of the least possible parts. Harmony is beauty, the third of the transcendentals, and according to many ancient and medieval thinkers, the character of one of the persons of God.
We see then how the quadrivium follows on the trivium as the mind is lifted beyond the obvious and immediate to concerns of ultimates and transcendents. As nearly as we can learn to contemplate a situation or an event in its proportions and relationships, we have achieved the liberation of spiritual vision. We are free to choose rightly between the elegant and the inelegant, the true and the false.
The Weight of Freedom
We use the term freedom frequently and often incorrectly. True freedom does not mean—as society is always telling us—being loosed from all restraints to act on any whim. It means more, even, than the political freedom we enjoy. Freedom, as our liberal-arts-educated grandmothers knew, means responsibility and self-awareness. Libertas. It means assuming the weight, the liber, of our duties and obligations and the consequences of our actions. Only a free man or woman can do that. And to assume that weight we must know: What are my responsibilities? What would be the consequences of my actions? Where would my choices lead? What are the alternatives? Above all, it means being able to answer the question: Who am I?
Our old masters of prayer say that the chief obstacle to prayer is that one so seldom knows who is praying, which of the “me’s” is in control at that moment, and whether what one is praying for is what the heart really requires. The free man knows who he is, knows what he wants, knows what he asks. He prays freely.
Getting to know who I am is the effort of years. Getting to know the world around me is also the effort of years—of education and the skills learned in school. Freedom is self-knowledge, world-knowledge, human-knowledge—it is the truth. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
That is why I recommend a liberal arts education as the necessary basis for real reform of our schools. Learning the structures of order, its governing principles, its communication to others, learning the relationships that the mind perceives in the world of the senses, quantity, space, motion, and harmonious magnitude, will take the next generation farther than all the Internet connections or multi-cultural incentives to self-esteem our politicians and ethnarchs could devise. These arts must be again the guides and reason for our educational enterprises.
This is not to advocate some quick-fix curriculum of “classical” schooling, or simply a return to basics, or even the Great Books curriculum, but rather a recovery of the attitude and approach that a liberal arts education, whether in secondary schools or in universities, ought to represent. We must recover the ordering arts that give mastery over information.
What do we want at the end of our teaching? We want a soul—honest, moral, healthy, competent, confident, open, inquisitive, zealous, and reverent: what used to be called a good Catholic and an honest citizen. Academically prepared for the next level of his schooling, open to learning even if not yet fully in love with the tiresome business of cramming facts and skills into the brain, and spiritually prepared to meet the challenges of the modem world and his own situation and.aspirations with courage, self-control, sympathy, and humility. We want kids we can admire and love. And most of all, we want them to get to heaven.
Inaccuracy is Lying
No one would really want to return to the days of ruler-smacked palms and dunce caps, but the sisters and those young women of the frontier who ran their one-room schools (so much a part of American folklore and literature) knew what worked. They and demanded hard work and accurate spelling and ciphering as the price of a grade, the foundation of self-respect, the sine qua non of “self-esteem.”
We have to insist on the necessity of accuracy because literacy and numeracy are accuracy of writing and of calculation. Dorothy L. Sayers was fond of quoting her fellow Oxford Christian Charles Williams’ line, “Hell is inaccurate.” And the old saw, “The devil is a liar,” may explain some of what has gone wrong in our schools since the old insistence on accuracy gave way to self-esteem.
Inaccuracy is lying, to others and to oneself. The habit of accuracy carries over into the habit of self-honesty, humility, getting the facts straight. We hold there is a Truth, and so we dare not get careless about the little truths. Teachers, and the students themselves, must take a firm stand about accuracy or lose heaven.
The Connection between Education and Prayer
The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it. Of course, school exercises only develop a lower kind of attention. Nevertheless, they are extremely effective in increasing the power of attention that will be available at the time of prayer.
In other words, even if we have no aptitude or natural taste for geometry, our faculty for attention will be developed as we wrestle with its problems. Indeed, struggling with a distasteful subject is almost an advantage. Genuine effort is never wasted. It always has its effect on the spiritual plane and in consequence, on the lower one of the intelligence, for all spiritual light lightens the mind.
Today: Not Education but Social Engineering
Educationists today distinguish five major approaches to curriculum presently accepted in American schools. The first, called by the educationists “academic rationalism,” (they shy away from using the term liberal arts), includes all those curricula that we would call liberal arts curricula, emphasizing the learning and mastery of a set body of knowledge and skills derived from the past, a love for the good and the true, and the character formation necessary to accomplish that mastery.
The other four comprise cognitive process development, instruction as a technology, social reconstruction, and self-actua1ization. These new approaches, the dominant notions in today’s public and parochial schools, keep the appearance of the subjects and sequences of the reformed liberal arts system of our past, but they are not the same. They change the emphasis in such way that they change the end result and the purpose of the enterprise, sometimes beyond recognition.
These approaches shift the emphasis from the achievement of skills for the sake of pursuit of the truth to the formation of this or that sort of character considered useful at the moment for this or that faddish conception of utopia. The new approaches are, in other words, forms of social engineering, not of intellectual and spiritual formation. Their concern is not acquiring skills and knowledge, or self-control, but formation (or deformation) of the pupil’s personality and character to some model preconceived and pre-constructed by the authorities. They are methods not of education, but of imposition of the teacher’s will on the student. I do not think I misread their nature or their intent.
Regrettably, they are more immediately gratifying to many teachers, offering what appear to be measurable results (to a steady dumbing-down of expectations), and a kind of emotional reward, an intimacy of spirit with students that the older demand for mastery, with its unfortunate necessity of drill and other drudgery, could not hope to bestow.