On the Liberal Arts in Response to an Article in Principia

As we mentioned in our last bulletin, a group of classical educators and scholars has launched Principia, a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to advancing scholarship on classical education. As Brian Williams, General Editor, reports in his article introducing the journal, forty years of education renewal has spawned a growing body of scholarly research and writing. Principia provides a “venue for robust and vigorous dialogue and debate about classical education” that “will make substantive and positive impacts on the practical implementation of classical education in schools and homes around the world.” Williams' own summative expression and description of classical education provides a strong beginning.

The goal of classical education is to educate whole persons through the accumulated wisdom of the ages for a lifetime of flourishing regardless of their profession or place of employment. It attempts to recover the integrated ends, curricular materials, pedagogical methods, and formative culture that characterize the 2,500-year old tradition of liberal arts education, while remaining open to new works of profound insight, beautiful artistry, and genuine discovery. (p.2)

Christopher Schlect’s article, “What is a Liberal Art?”, highlights the need for common dialogue and debate. By all accounts, the idea of the liberal arts was central to pre-twentieth century Western education, and most current educators in the revival of that education embrace their importance. But as Schlect relates, confusion and disagreement over what the term liberal arts means is prevalent today, not only among universities with no particular interest in classical views, but even among those deeply interested in them. Schlecht emphasizes the need for each educational institution to reach clarity on its own understanding of the liberal arts, while he believes that historical disagreements about their nature will prevent any widespread consensus among classical educators as a whole.

Schlecht expresses the consensus that guides his institution, New Saint Andrews College in Idaho:

The liberal arts teach us how to learn—how to freely gain knowledge and understanding. Insofar as they are arts, they produce something, in this case, the ability to learn. Because they are liberal arts, they liberate us not only from ignorance, prejudice, and provincialism but also from servile dependence on the tutelage of others. 

Schlect goes to clarify the significance of “servile”:

This notion of liberality does not exclude teachers, and it certainly does not suggest any radical notion of independence. Indeed, a liberally educated person continues to learn from teachers, and even relies on them. But he no longer depends upon any one teacher, nor upon a particular school of teachers, to initiate and direct his learning for him. A liberally educated person becomes the master over his own progress in learning. 

With deep respect for fellow laborers in the field, I think this is not only wrong, but dangerously wrong, especially as applied to pre-collegiate learning. A recipient of a serious liberal arts education has received a tremendous blessing. But he is certainly not ready to be set loose in a library, as Schlect suggests, inhabited by the likes of Plato, Aquinas, Hobbes, Kant, and Einstein, and press them into his service. Add Marx and Nietzsche, and our liberal arts graduate should be in terror of opening the books at all. As Aristotle and Aquinas say, to order belongs to the wise man. A young person trained in the liberal arts, but who has not been schooled in philosophy and theology, is far from being wise. He is capable of being taught by the wise man, but not of making wise judgments in the midst of powerful minds compellingly advocating for contrary answers to the fundamental questions of reality.

To understand the minds of any one of those authors takes a great deal of time and effort. The general mastery of words and quantities given by the traditional liberal arts makes understanding the authors possible but not easy. It takes docility and receptiveness, which are dangerously given to the sophistical and brilliant. Plato’s dialogue, The Protagoras, begins with the question of how a young man desiring to become really well educated can judge a teacher. Socrates warns him emphatically about the dangers of learning from just any teacher:

Now, if you are knowledgeable as to which of these wares are beneficial or harmful, you may
purchase learning, in safety, from Protagoras or anyone else at all. Otherwise beware, blessed
man, lest you take chances and imperil your most precious possessions; for there is
surely an even greater danger in the purchase of learning, than in the purchase of food….Learning, by contrast, cannot be borne away in a separate vessel. No, once the fee has been proffered, it is necessary to take that learning into the soul itself, and once you have learned something, you must go your way, having been either harmed or benefited thereby.

[313e] (Platonic Foundation translation)

What do the liberal arts produce in those who become proficient? In answer, Schlect is guided by the claim of Hugh of St. Victor  “that anyone who had been thoroughly schooled in them might afterward come to a knowledge of the others by his own inquiry and effort rather than by listening to a teacher” (Didascalicon. 3.3). As Schlect suggests, Hugh meant that the liberal arts opened up the world of books to the learner, so he could learn directly from the best minds of all time. But at that time, the world of books consisted of the Scriptures, the Fathers, monastic authors, along with the best moralists among the ancient Romans. The learner was expected to trust that all these authors were wise, not to judge among competing worldviews presented by powerful sophists. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning witnessed, even in the 19th century libraries were dangerous places.

Sublimest danger, over which none weeps,
When any young wayfaring soul goes forth
Alone, unconscious of the perilous road,
The day-sun dazzling in his limpid eyes,
To thrust his own way, he an alien, through
The world of books! Ah, you!—you think it fine,
You clap hands—‘A fair day!’—you cheer him on,
As if the worst, could happen, were to rest
Too long beside a fountain. Yet, behold,
Behold!—the world of books is still the world;
And worldlings in it are less merciful
And more puissant. For the wicked there
Are winged like angels. Every knife that strikes,
Is edged from elemental fire to assail
A spiritual life. The beautiful seems right
By force of beauty, and the feeble wrong
Because of weakness. Aurora Leigh

Too often high school graduates from liberal arts schools, although very grateful for what they have received, feel they are done with liberal education, and head to college to take on the serious business of preparing for a career. Often high school educators underestimate the crucial importance of their influence on inspiring a love of serious learning, and of directing their students towards the authors, programs, and professors that will guide them towards wisdom. For training in the liberal arts is only the beginning of a complete liberal education. As Newman wrote in the Preface to his Discourses on University Education, being well-grounded in grammar and mathematics will “make them feel nothing but impatience and disgust at the random theories and imposing sophistries and dashing paradoxes, which carry away half-formed and superficial intellects,” and will prepare them to be “gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views.” But Newman warned it could also make them powerful proponents of error:

In all it will be a faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession. All this it will be and will do in a measure, even when the mental formation be made after a model but partially true; for, as far as effectiveness goes, even false views of things have more influence and inspire more respect than no views at all. Men who fancy they see what is not are more energetic, and make their way better, than those who see nothing; and so the undoubting infidel, the fanatic, the heresiarch, are able to do much, while the mere hereditary Christian, who has never realized the truths which he holds, is unable to do anything. 

As we think through together what is being accomplished in our times by the many different efforts to renew education in the light of (but not limited by) the successes of the past, the liberal arts should be differentiated from – while finding their role within – our understanding of liberal education as a whole. The liberal arts are to be treasured for the role they play in awakening and forming the mind, but they must not be considered to complete education to the point of making their possessors masters of their own learning. Rather, their most important role is to open the ways to begin to profit from the wisdom presented by authentic guides.