A Classical Education is Practical

This is part of the series Classical Homeschooling

Yesterday, I discussed one of the biggest challenges to a classical education: practicality. We’re going to take this on in two parts.

First: Defining Terms.

The traditional liberal arts are grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These three represent what’s called the Trivium, or the “three paths,” Then there are arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music–or the Quadrivium, the “four paths.”

These “liberal arts” constitute the main body of a classical education according to most modern classical educators.

“Liberal” is not the modern political sense of the word, meaning “not conservative.” Rather, in this case it refers to the Latin root “liber,” meaning “to free.” An education in the liberal arts is one that makes the student free. I’ll go into more detail on this in another post, for now I want to get to the word “arts.”

“Arts” in this case can be contrasted with sciences. In the Liberal Arts Tradition, Jain and Clark define sciences as knowledge whose realm of influence is the mind. Arts, they say, are essentially applied sciences, or skills. The student gains knowledge in the science and puts that knowledge into practice through the art.

According to this definition, each of the liberal arts is fundamentally practical. Each liberal art is a skill.

Contrast this with the view of classical education popularized by Dorothy Sayers in her essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, which views the liberal arts as stages of cognitive development. In this view, each subject has a grammar, logic, and rhetoric. So if one were to study chemistry, one would start with the grammar, or “vocabulary” of chemistry: naming parts of atoms, elements on the periodic table, etc. The logic of chemistry then means figuring out how those elements go together, for example in chemical equations. Then the rhetoric of chemistry would mean invention: coming up with one’s own experiments.

Though this view of classical education can be helpful in determining a course of study, it’s not really what are Aristotle meant.

Those students who received a classical education in antiquity really did study grammar as subject matter, not as a method. How does one form a grammatically correct sentence? They studied logic: what a sound arguments is, and how to spot a fallacious argument. Rhetoric was the practice of actually speaking persuasively. Arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy gave the ancients real skills, like how to keep the books and not go broke if you were a merchant, how to build furniture, or, say, a colosseum, and navigation on land and water using the stars. And music: expression through voice and instrument.

What makes these arts practical?

I think I can sum this up with a negative definition. Imagine what it would be like if you did not have the skills represented by the liberal arts.

  • What if you couldn’t understand or write in any language? Would you be more or less prone to following an unethical leader?
  • What if you couldn’t spot the fact that the talking head on TV was using an ad hominem attack on his political opponent? Would you sympathize with him, since the other guy really was funny-looking? How would this influence how you voted?
  • What if you couldn’t speak persuasively? How would you convince your children not to run out in front of cars in the parking lot?
  • What if the teller at the big box store charged you whatever he felt like charging every month for toilet paper? How much does arithmetic really matter to your family budget?
  • What if those who built your house or roads did not know geometry?
  • What would your job look like if no one could tell time because no one through history had ever learned astronomy?
  • How empty would the world be without music?

So yes, I think the liberal arts are eminently practical.

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