The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education (Classical Academic Press, 2013).,
It would be hard to overstate the impact of Dorothy Sayers’ seminal 1947 essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, on American “classical” education. Even a brief survey of classical school websites would reveal her dominant and pervasive influence. In an era defined by anti-traditionalism, Sayers’ essay has been a welcome guide and refuge for communities looking to escape the hegemony of modern educational theory. Sayers wrote the essay in response to English educational reforms which had, in her view, decimated students’ ability to think. The proliferation of discrete “subjects” in schools resulted in students who could ape conclusions but were incapable of learning anything on their own. Against this reduction, Sayers proposed a return to the liberal arts of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric (which were traditionally termed the Trivium). Contrary to the modern approach, these liberal arts were not merely subjects to master but reflected the nature and structure of thought itself. To learn the Trivium was to learn how to think. Once that was done, there was hardly any need for schooling “for the sole true end of education,” she concludes, “is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves.”
The influence of Sayers’ essay in American classical schools has been something of a double-edged sword, however. On the one hand, as a philosophical reflection on the nature of the medieval Trivium and its relation to formation and thinking, Sayers’ essay has proven valuable to teachers and students. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine the classical movement without her essay. On the other hand, the very power of her presentation has led some to interpret hers as the authoritative statement on education. Consequently, whole school curricular models have been constructed around her essay alone.
The essay, it must be admitted, is simply too limited for that purpose. Teachers and parents soon realize that the Trivium alone is not enough, but the resources available to schools and parents for a more complete vision of K‒12 education have been unfortunately wanting. Into this gap comes The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, a thoughtful and valuable contribution. The authors both teach at the Geneva School in Orlando, Florida, which in the early 1990s spearheaded the classical school movement in Orthodox Presbyterian communities throughout the country. Any parent or teacher wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the Christian liberal arts tradition would do well to read this work carefully.
Jain and Clark admire the groundwork laid by Sayers but recognize the need for a more expansive vision of human formation—one not limited only to the formation of certain intellectual virtues. For Jain and Clark, the “liberal arts” were never considered sufficient unto themselves but were always situated within a “larger model” that embodied “a thoroughly Christian understanding of human nature.” That is to say, an understanding of human nature as a body-soul unity whose origin and end was God. An education which only emphasized the liberal arts of the Trivium would have been considered, in traditional Christianity, woefully insufficient. Indeed, as Jain and Clark observe, few schools actually limit themselves to the Trivium or to the idea that they should only teach their students how to learn. The problem for us now is that the “other” parts of the curriculum are often incoherently ordered. Where do music and athletics fit? How is math integrated into the Trivium? The natural sciences? What about moral virtue? Against this disintegration, Jain and Clark advocate for the recovery of six categories that should direct and order the culture and curriculum of a school. These are: Piety, Gymnastic, Music, Liberal Arts, Philosophy, and Theology. The ordering of the categories is not accidental; for Jain and Clark, each subsequent category depends on and integrates the prior. The schema provides a principle of order that the authors hope will allow for a recovery of “a truly integrated Christian classical education—where the intellectual tools of the seven liberal arts are formed within the context of a Christian life and moral imagination.”
The book is structured according to the six categories mentioned above. Each chapter gives a brief introduction to the category as well as its relation to the wider curriculum. A full treatment of each of the chapters is impossible in such a brief review so I will focus instead on some of the more salient insights.
First, Jain and Clark’s treatment of piety deserves to be considered carefully by anyone involved in education. By piety, I should hasten to add, they do not mean obsequious religious expressions but rely on Thomas Aquinas’ definition as the virtue of “paying duty and worship to God and man.” Piety is a species of justice, which may be cultivated and developed as a habit. The authors concur with Richard Weaver’s analysis in Ideas Have Consequences that the loss of piety is the “most fundamental modern malaise of our contemporary society.” Against the modern embrace of individual autonomy, Clark and Jain argue that piety is the sine qua non of any true education. Without piety, the proper ordering of loves is impossible, and education becomes “adrift from its moorings.” Hence, Augustine comments that piety as a virtue must come before wisdom. Before any lessons are taught, grammar learned, or poems memorized, the “school culture must incarnate piety…for the culture of a school educates as much as its curriculum.” How different might a school culture look, even a classical school culture, were it infused from the beginning with the virtue of piety?
Second, their discussion of the Quadrivium (the mathematical liberal arts of arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry) deserves high praise for its attempt to recover these lost liberal arts. One of the more deleterious consequences of Sayers’ essay has been the devaluation of the Quadrivium in the liberal arts. Math, all too frequently, is viewed somewhat suspiciously as a practical skill rather than a real contemplation of the beauty of the created order (given some algebra textbooks, it is easy to see why). In Clark and Jain’s treatment, these liberal arts are restored to their rightful position in liberal education as the arts which “lead the mind to eternal and unchanging truths.” Particularly helpful is the discussion of the importance of discrete and continuous quantities in the ever-vexing philosophical problem of the one and the many. Readers of Humanum will be happy to see Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake quoted extensively in this section.
One of the only weak points in the text is the tendency to gloss over significant differences within Christianity and the western tradition in favor of presenting a unified and cohesive tradition. This is understandable in a work which attempts to introduce some relatively abstruse ideas to a popular audience. The authors, rightly, want this book to be read across multiple denominations and are at pains to show unity rather than division. Yet, there are differences between Protestants and Catholics on key theological questions and these differences have significantly affected their respective approaches to education. To give one example, the authors cite the medieval maxim “grace does not destroy but perfects nature” in order to justify the integration of human and divine sciences. The authors are right that the question of the relation of philosophy and theology hinges on the question of grace and nature. If grace perfects nature, it is natural to assert that theology perfects philosophy. In the authors’ presentation, however, one is led to think that this premise has been widely accepted within contemporary Christianity. While this may have been true in the Middle Ages (with a few exceptions) and continues to be the case for Catholics, the leaders of the Protestant Reformation rejected it in favor of a new notion of the relation between grace and nature. This new notion led inevitably to the removal of the Greek philosophical tradition from many Protestant schools. Indeed, Luther had no time for Aristotle (“that damned, conceited, rascally heathen”) and considered the medieval synthesis of philosophy and theology the source of many of the abundant evils in the Church. The differences within Christianity regarding the relationship between philosophy and theology are quite vast and it is inaccurate to present Protestants and Catholics as exhibiting a single unity on such a vital question.
As the classical school movement in America continues to mature, it will be important to think more carefully about the proper order of education. Few authors, however, have the capacity to think with the breadth and scope necessary for such an ambitious project. Jain and Clark have attempted the arduous task and provided teachers and school leaders with a valuable tool for ordering their schools.
Andrew Shivone has led both Catholic and Charter schools for over a decade and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.
Keep reading! Next comes a review of Christopher Lasch's classic The Culture of Narcissism.