Notes on “The Liberal Arts Tradition” by Clark and Jain – “The Paradigm of the Liberal Arts Tradition”

Photo of Book

I have begun reading this book about the recovery of classical Christian education – realized I was going to have to write some notes and reflections to myself as I went, and decided to leave them here.  Per usual, accuracy of notes is attempted, but not guaranteed.

In this first chapter (“The Paradigm of the Liberal Arts Tradition”) the authors are laying out, in a short but dense way, what classical Christian education is trying to teach.  They discuss the Trivium and Quadrivium as sort of the first part of classical education to be “rediscovered” in modern times… but by themselves they aren’t enough.

Our thesis is simple, though perhaps controversial: the seven liberal arts were never meant to stand on their own as the entire curriculum, for they are designed particularly for cultivating intellectual virtue.  Since human beings are more than just intellects, however, the curriculum must develop more than just intellectual virtue.

Their proposed categories, elaborated upon in later chapters of the book, are PGMAPT:

Arts (Liberal Arts)

About piety and theology…

The foundational distinction between traditional education and modern education is that the ancients believed that education was fundamentally about shaping loves.


Thus theology was not supposed to intrude upon the lower disciplines from without but to offer nourishment to their basic principles from within, allowing each subject to explore the artistry of a creative God.

That sentence especially struck me as a scientist – as many writers have pointed out, science relies upon many “basic principles” that we cannot exactly prove (the idea that our reason and/or senses are a trustworthy guide to reality in the first place, for example, or the idea that we can trust the universe to be ordered).  To some extent science could be argued to be self-validating, but only to some extent, I think.

About gymnastic (sorry, no quotations here) and music…

The musical education, directed toward joyful engagement with reality, offered this imitative foundation for the later learning of the arts and sciences.

That struck me because… as someone who teaches science at a public college, we know the sciences are pretty safe because everyone knows they are *useful* – GET A DEGREE IN ENGINEERING, GET A JOB kind of stuff.  It’s harder for professors in music and the visual arts and in my experience, even they sometimes have trouble justifying why others should care about their classes – “take a music class because it’ll do stuff to your brain that will make you do better in other classes” is one defense I’ve heard.  The idea that music is about “joyful engagement with reality” is a hard defense to make, I think, when even many music and visual arts professors have bought into the idea that reality is whatever you want to make it for you… they themselves are handicapped by an inability to make explicit appeals to something transcendent.

About the liberal arts (think Trivium and Quadrivium)…

Recovering the primacy of both the language arts and the mathematical arts is a pivotal piece of this paradigm.  Together they help train the student not just in what to think but in how to think.

I appreciated that because, as many have pointed out, there sure are a lot of modern subjects missing in the Trivium and Quadrivium – is that OK?  Do we need to fix it?  This book is new to me, but my sense is, the authors will argue that these seven arts help teach you HOW to think in a fundamental way, and once you know HOW to think, you can go apply those fundamental skills and become a biologist or an economist or whatever.  But, especially for children, it is more important to teach them how to think.

Worth also keeping in mind that these authors use “science” to refer to “knowledge”, “arts” to refer to the skills that help create knowledge.

Finally, about philosophy,

In the medieval system, philosophy had three branches: natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and divine philosophy (metaphysics).  Natural philosophy is the traditional home for modern natural science.  Moral philosophy is the traditional home for modern social science.  And metaphysics, the study of being, guards the secrets of reality and discloses its transcendental unity.

I just thought that was a nice summary.

Today application is the central justification given to students for the truth of a matter, which would not have been sufficient demonstration for medieval or ancient scientia.

I thought that statement was a little overaggressive… perhaps just because modern education does still have remnants in it from when we had a more unified picture of what we were trying to accomplish (which is especially discussed in the next chapter).  But yeah – this is why the sciences are safe in our public colleges, everybody knows they have application.

That is all!

(Link to notes on next chapter.)

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