Education is in crisis not because standards of literacy or mathematics have fallen, but because we have no coherent vision, as a society, of what education is for or what it is meant to achieve. We have assumed that, if it is not merely a cage to keep our young people off the streets, its purpose is to train workers in the great economic machine, a machine that will produce endless growth. We cannot know what education is for because we have no idea any longer what man is for, or what a human being actually is.
As Frank Sheed once put it:
“This question of purpose is a point overlooked in most educational discussions, yet it is quite primary. How can you fit a man’s mind for living if you do not know what the purpose of man’s life is?”
We need an adequate philosophy of education based on an adequate “anthropology” or picture of man, if we are to put education back on the right track. The Catholic tradition—and more broadly the great tradition of Western civilization—has such a science of humanity, the key to humane learning. This needs creative retrieval and development, but it contains the elements of a solution to our educational crisis, the indications of a way out of this mess. It is associated with what were known as the seven “Liberal Arts”, the core curriculum at the heart of the classical and medieval educational system.
I have been investigating these “arts” of education, and searching for the Wisdom that is their “Mother”, in two books devoted to the Quadrivium and the Trivium—that is, the four cosmological arts, and the three arts of language (explored in Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education and Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education respectively) – with a view to discovering a way forward for educational reform.
First, what are seven Liberal Arts, and why are they still relevant to us today? St Augustine and others defined them as follows. The Trivium consists of Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. Hugh of St Victor writes in the Middle Ages:
“Grammar is the knowledge of how to speak without error; dialectic is clear-sighted argument which separates the true from the false; rhetoric is the discipline of persuading to every suitable thing.”
The Quadrivium is Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. Both sets of arts were preparatory to the study of Philosophy and Theology—that is, the love of Wisdom (philo-sophia) and the knowledge of God (theo-logos). It is God’s image that is imprinted on creation, and his Word that holds all things together.
But science has moved on. Why are these particular studies still of interest today? Can we we fit Biology, History, Geography, Sociology, Computer Studies, and the rest, into such a narrow frame?
What I discovered is that the ancient categories are still important, provided we do not take too superficial view of what they were really about. Certainly the knowledge of how languages work, how to think clearly, and how to persuade others, are all skills that are as relevant today as ever. Adding Latin and English grammar, the principles of logic, and some training in eloquence to the curriculum of our schools would be a great idea. But the Trivium has much deeper roots—roots that go back to the Trinity itself. Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric can be shown to correspond to the three fundamental human gifts of memory, thought, and communication, echoing the three Persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
For example, Pope Benedict has shown us how “Grammar” goes to the very root of our existence, the source of our being. In Caritas in Veritate he writes of the grammar of creation “which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation” (48). In his Message for the World Day of Peace in 2007 he writes of a transcendent “grammar” inscribed on human consciences or on the human heart, “in which the wise plan of God is reflected”. And writing before his election as Pope he looked to Plato to help him understand this phenomenon of conscience as “something like an original memory of the good and true (the two are identical),” and therefore as an “anamnesis [reminiscence] of the Creator”. Thus the first gift of humanity is our connection to our Origin, which comes to us through memory, language, and tradition—this is the deepest foundation of the arts of language. The other two members of the Trivium have similarly deep roots.
Once that depth has been established, the importance of the Quadrivium begins to reveal itself. These four subjects are not merely “mathematical” studies in contrast to the Trivium’s “literary” ones (which would replicate the modern divorce of science from the humanities). They are about the search for the Logos or Intelligibility of things. Each involves the study of patterns in space or time, leading to an ever-deeper knowledge of the underlying Wisdom of the Creator expressed in those patterns. This, of course, is the origin of the scientific enterprise, but it is equally the origin of art. Both are ways of discerning the Logos. Art exercises the imagination, and so in another way does science, where every major discovery has involved a creative leap. The artist searches for beauty, and so does the scientist and mathematician.
The quest for the Logos is the quest for truth, beauty, and goodness. This is the search of the human heart for what it needs to flourish and be happy. And it is the starting point for a new philosophy of education. With its help we can construct a framework in which every type of human enquiry finds a place, losing sight neither of the way all subjects ultimately connect together, nor of the nature and needs of the human person who is the subject of education. Rather than fit the child to the Procrustean bed of economics, we fit our educational systems to the nature of the child, whose meaning and purpose transcend that of the economic machine.
Books related to the topic of this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.