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What are the Liberal Arts?

The Liberal Arts

Traditionally there were seven liberal arts.  Three were the language arts (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and four were mathematical arts (numbers, music, geometry, and astronomy).  The "three ways" or the Trivium is a name given to the classical language liberal arts.  Our Liberal Arts courses are limited to the language liberal arts.  Simply put, we read and write and discuss works of literature, history, philosophy, poetry, and nature studies, emphasizing mastery of language as the road to independent learning.  

In the Classical Christian Education movement there has been a lot of talk about the Trivium, what it is, and how to teach it.  For the sake of clarifying our approach to the language arts, this page includes a fuller explanation.

the "three ways" of the word

Many think of classical education as "three stages," but this is not how we approach the language arts at St. Raphael School.  This notion is based on an analogy suggested in an essay by a 20th century English writer named Dorothy Sayers ("The Lost Tools of Learning").  While this approach has been fruitful for some, it does have some limitations.  It is worth clarifying, then, what we mean when making reference to the arts of grammar, logic (or dialectic), and rhetoric.

Modern education envisions human speech as a mechanical process of individual minds transmitting and receiving coded messages. Such a model of language distorts the goal of studying the language arts by reducing it to the mere acquisition of a technical skill ("literacy").   Language, however, as a unique power given to human creatures by their Creator cannot be fully understood according to this mechanical model, and thus teaching methods based on it will inevitably fall short of offering the fullness of living speech to students.   While the modern theory of language instruction is one-dimensional, the classical understanding of language is three-dimensional.  The arts of the Trivium--grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric--offer a broader and more comprehensive framework for teaching the language arts by appealing to the fullness of our humanity.

Grammarfrom text to context

texts as windows to the world

While "What does it mean?" represents the most basic question of early language instruction, it quickly becomes clear that individual words find their meaning in sentences; sentences take their meaning from paragraphs; paragraphs take their meaning from larger texts; and texts take their meanings from a larger context of the wider scope of human experience--our shared intellectual, cultural, political, and spiritual history.  Reading is a complex phenomenon which does indeed involve the decoding of sentences and the definition of words, but true interpretation of texts reaches beyond and ascends upward from the text and opens into a larger world of which it is a part. 

the world beyond sentences

The classical art of "grammar" is not merely sentence analysis, nor is it learning the basic facts of a discipline.  Grammar is the path of ascent to understanding a text through increasing levels of understanding.  "What does it mean?" is a simple question, yet it occupies every mind from the small child to the great sages.  Mastering the art of grammar means practicing the art of asking, and answering, that basic question.

(For a deeper understanding of the liberal art of grammar, the art of interpreting speech, see How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren.)

Dialectic:  from thoughts to ideas

All of us must sooner or later confront the fact that our thoughts about reality are distinct from what is actually the case.  In varying degrees, we all live in the darkness of ignorance and illusion.  Socrates, the first true master of the art of dialectic, taught his followers that our minds inhabit an allegorical cave.  Those who wish to escape must bring their thoughts out of hiding and expose them to the light of truth.  This can be a long and painful journey which begins in early life and will continue until our final breath.  How does one begin this journey?

Socrates used several dialectical techniques in his discussions to lead others to truth; each worked equally well on all willing participants, from illiterate children to the most brilliant minds of his age. 

Admitting ignorance

Socrates used a technique called "aporia" to soften the intellectual pride of those who listened to his discussions.  Made up of a negative prefix ("a-") and the word for an opening ("-poria," related to the English term "pore"), the term aporia literally means "the way is blocked."  Socrates used a series of questions which showed his interlocutors that their simple answers actually masked contradictions and embarrassing ignorance.  In the process, Socrates offered the only lesson he tried to teach: "My wisdom consists in knowing what I do not know."  Whether you ask a child to tell you what an "animal" is, or you ask a politician to tell you what "justice" is, you are bound to get a bewildering jumble of contradictory answers. Facing the truth of one's own ignorance is the first stage of dialectic, and it is the admission of ignorance which transforms an idle mind into a willing student.

Probing ideas

Once students have accepted their own ignorance about the simplest realities and have been softened by Socratic humility, they are free to openly wonder:  "What is an animal, truly?"  This wondering will often include trying out definitions, offering examples and counterexamples, and comparing and contrasting with other ideas.  This process, wandering and subject to many fits and starts, leads the mind upward from the confusion of our own thoughts into the light of true ideas about the world.

Seeking wisdom

The true goal in seeking the truth about reality is not an abstract theorizing; it is a single-minded devotion to finding out the order of the cosmos so we can learn the role we must play as its inhabitants.  The art of dialectic requires us to consider how we must live in a world which we know now is not as it once seemed.

Rhetoric: from sounds to souls

Wisdom in Composition

Writing and speaking require more than skills; they demand careful attention to choices we make (consciously or otherwise) each time we open our mouths or put pen to paper.  Classical composition invites students to ask a set of simple questions in a wide variety of imaginative situations based on literary examples**:

  • What should I say?
  • When should I say it, and in what order?
  • From the vast array of possibilities, what words and sentence styles are best for this occasion?
  • How can I present my message in a way that is well-ordered, appealing, and tasteful?

Rather than focusing on a list of unbreakable rules, classical composition emphasizes writing wisdom: making good choices informed by a broader understanding of the process of communication.

Imitation

While the above are in fact questions appropriate to anyone, whether she is a child writing to grandma or a lawyer preparing a case, we learn to write through reading great writing, reciting poems, memorizing speeches, copying, recording by dictation, and imitating well-written passages from excellent sources. The theory is simple, but the practice requires disciplined habits over the long term.  The same habits that make good writing in Elementary are present in a higher form in High School.  One of those habits is the keeping of a Commonplace Book, a practice which the greatest writers have incorporated into their routines, which offers regular practice in imitation.

writing as persons

The favorite composition assignments of modern writing teachers are book reports, research papers, and five-paragraph essays.  What all of these have in common is something that they all lack:  a speaker and an audience.  Well, technically of course, they have both; the "speaker" is a student who must pretend to not exist ("Is that a personal pronoun I see?"), and the audience is a teacher who requires a paper that is addressed to no one in particular. 

Classical composition differs in that it practices traditional genres of composition which, by their very nature, include an identifiable speaker and a particular audience: the personal letter and the speech.  These forms differ from the modern academic essay in that they invite the student to draw upon the entire "world" of a composition: there is still a well-defined message (logos), but the character of the speaker (ethos) and the sentiments of the audience (pathos) further energize the composition.  

Leading Souls

Plato called rhetoric "psychogogia," a word which means "leading the soul."  Teaching writing and speaking would be much easier if it only required mastery of basic skills.  Any parent or teacher of English must recognize that true facility with language requires making decisions, and that means an ethical responsibility guided by commitments and love for our audience.  That is why our Faith, not only our mastery of skills, must be part of the picture for teaching the language arts.

(For more information on the role of the Trivium in education, see Beauty in the Word, by Stratford Caldecott)