Introducing the Boethius Institute

The Arts of Liberty Project began over twenty years ago as an idea Dr. Jeffrey Lehman had as a graduate student at the University of Dallas. He saw the wealth of wisdom in the Western tradition, but he also saw the dire need to recover that wisdom for the modern world. In 2008, Dr. Lehman launched the Arts of Liberty website, and built it up to become the leading provider of online materials for those desiring to teach and learn in the tradition of education based on the liberal arts of the Trivium and Quadrivium.

The Boethius Institute for the Advancement of Liberal Education is the natural outgrowth and completion of Arts of Liberty. The life of learning is not meant to be lived in isolation. As we long to learn, we long for teachers and fellow learners.

So Philip ran up to [the chariot] and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Acts 8:30-31

As we learn, we long to share what we learn with friends. Jeff and I have known the blessings of strong academic fellowship from our experiences at institutions such as Thomas Aquinas College and Hillsdale College, and we long to share this experience with others devoted to liberal education. In January of 2023, we founded the Boethius Institute to unite those devoted to serving the booming liberal arts renewal in collective learning and collaborative efforts.

On August 4th, over a dozen of  our Fellows of the Boethius Institute gathered at the Augustine Institute in Denver for our first colloquium. We spent the weekend discussing Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy as we learned more about the great figure whom we chose as our patron. Boethius grounded his love of philosophical and theological wisdom on a serious practice of the trivial and quadrivial arts, as witnessed by the mastery of poetry, logic, rhetoric, astronomy, and music shown by Lady Philosophy.

Though his own life’s work was cut short by his imprisonment and martyrdom at the age of 43, he had so absorbed the arts of liberal learning that they poured forth in a work of magnificent pathos, beauty, subtlety, and wisdom, which ensured that the nascent Christian West would reverence the gold to be found in ancient learning. We aspire to become modern-day Boethians, embodying the liberal arts in service to wisdom, and wisdom in service to Church and society. Our coat of arms expresses this aspiration. It emphasizes the importance of wisdom as the culmination of the life of learning and the lynch-pin of service through the Greek letters, pi and theta, which Boethius saw on Lady’s Philosophy’s garment, signifying the interconnection of the practical and theoretical branches of philosophy. The white cross on a red field signifies the arms of the city of Pavia, Italy, where Boethius was martyred and his cult developed. The illumination coming from the book being read symbolizes our life of learning and the fruit that comes from it.

Our central work right now is our formation program in the liberal arts for current and future leaders of education renewal. Over the next two years, our Fellows will go through brief but rich courses in each of the arts of the traditional Trivium and Quadrivium, with a culminating course on the ordering of the liberal arts to a life of wisdom. We have begun by entering into an analytical understanding of Latin as an inflected language, enabling even those new to the language to use online analytical tools to help understand a range of translation possibilities. We have also reflected on the structure of language generally through the principles of a stem method approach to Latin and the medieval account of parts of speech and sentence construction. We will wrap up our study of grammar with an introduction to Greek, before moving on to logic.

Our Fellows in formation come from a variety of backgrounds and states in life. We have several young teachers new to liberal education, experienced teachers ambitious to start their own institutions of learning, several with advanced degrees in theology, a former state senator, the head of a Costa Rican university, and a software product manager focused on building resources for educators. I have been edified by the fact they are doing this with no thought of getting an accredited degree, but simply to satisfy their own desire to grow in traditional learning and from a commitment to make themselves the best educators they can be.

Our Senior Fellows have been active in other ways. We have contributed to the establishment of Principia, a new journal devoted to classical education, whose first two issues have included three pieces by our Senior Fellows, and where Jeff serves as an associate editor. We have made presentations at education-related conferences around the country on themes such the educational philosophy of Christopher Dawson, Lady Philosophy as physician of the mind in the Consolation of Philosophy, the artist’s fantasy in Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle, and Thomas More’s use of the rhetorical progymnasmata exercises. In every venue, we have been encouraged by the strong desire to grow in and promote a complete liberal education. 

At the beginning of October, Jeff and I traveled to the Netherlands to begin a two-year-long course on the Quadrivium for the Pascal Instituut in Leiden, as they prepare to launch their own Master’s program in the Great Books. October has also seen the official launch of the Master of Arts in Catholic Education, which was founded by Jeff at the Augustine Institute in Denver, and will include challenging courses on the Trivium and Quadrivium, as well a strong grounding in Christian anthropology and the history of education.

It is encouraging to review what we have accomplished so far, and yet we feel eager to do so much more. Our world desperately needs to benefit from the wisdom of our cultural inheritance. We look forward to playing a significant role in the growing movement to make wisdom possible once again.

From the Director

Dear Reader,

Over the past year, I have studied, written about, and found inspiration in The Consolation of Philosophy. One of the great dialogues of ancient times, it was written by Boethius, a Roman consul, senator, philosopher, and theologian, during his imprisonment on charges of treason.

The beginning of the work finds a fictional version of Boethius wallowing in sorrow because, forgetting the lessons he had learned from his youthful devotion to the study of philosophy, he feels overwhelmed at the thought of how God had let unjust and wicked men succeed in their plots against him. In the midst of his self-pity, Philosophy appears to him as a Lady, who tries to console him by recalling how she had strengthened her devotees to not only endure unjust suffering, but to laugh at their enemies while doing so.

I have been fortunate in that I have not suffered injustice because of my service to Philosophy. Like many of you, however, I suffer discouragement from time to time as I join in the struggle to bring wisdom back to the world of education. The forces of folly can seem so powerful. Being reminded of philosophical heroes like Socrates and Seneca is encouraging, as is the hope that Philosophy brings by proclaiming the rewards of a life devoted to wisdom.

We are already beginning to taste those rewards through the growing Fellowship of the Boethius Institute for the Advancement of Liberal Education, as I detail here. One of our Fellows, Paul Boyer, is a contemporary Boethian - a former State Senator currently running for mayor of Glendale, Arizona, who is struck by irony that the mastermind of realpolitik, Macchiavelli, was a real life political failure.

If you want to find out more about our very busy summer and early fall, take a look at our Events calendar. I hope that we will be able to report more encouraging news in the coming months.

MacDonald on Effect of Science on an Adolescent

In “A Sketch of Individual Development” (1880), George MacDonald, best known for his works of fantasy such as A Princess and Curdie and Lilith, describes an imaginary boy coming to full consciousness, from infancy into adulthood. In this excerpt, he reflects on the impact that a serious encounter with science in late high school or college might have on the development of mind and heart.

The changelessness amid change, the law amid seeming disorder, the unity amid units, draws him again. He begins to descry the indwelling poetry of science. The untiring forces at work in measurable yet inconceivable spaces of time and room, fill his soul with an awe that threatens to uncreate him with a sense of littleness; while, on the other side, the grandeur of their operations fills him with such an informing glory, the mere presence of the mighty facts, that he no more thinks of himself, but in humility is great, and knows it not. Rapt spectator, seer entranced under the magic wand of Science, he beholds the billions of billions of miles of incandescent vapour begin a slow, scarce perceptible revolution, gradually grow swift, and gather an awful speed. He sees the vapour, as it whirls, condensing through slow eternities to a plastic fluidity. He notes ring after ring part from the circumference of the mass, break, rush together into a globe, and the glowing ball keep on through space with the speed of its parent bulk. It cools and still cools and condenses, but still fiercely glows. Presently--after tens of thousands of years is the creative presently--arises fierce contention betwixt the glowing heart and its accompanying atmosphere. The latter invades the former with antagonistic element. He listens in his soul, and hears the rush of ever descending torrent rains, with the continuous roaring shock of their evanishment in vapour--to turn again to water in the higher regions, and again rush to the attack upon the citadel of fire. He beholds the slow victory of the water at last, and the great globe, now glooming in a cloak of darkness, covered with a wildly boiling sea--not boiling by figure of speech, under contending forces of wind and tide, but boiling high as the hills to come, with veritable heat. He sees the rise of the wrinkles we call hills and mountains, and from their sides the avalanches of water to the lower levels. He sees race after race of living things appear, as the earth becomes, for each new and higher kind, a passing home; and he watches the succession of terrible convulsions dividing kind from kind, until at length the kind he calls his own arrives. Endless are the visions of material grandeur unfathomable, awaked in his soul by the bare facts of external existence.

But soon comes a change. So far as he can see or learn, all the motion, all the seeming dance, is but a rush for death, a panic flight into the moveless silence. The summer wind, the tropic tornado, the softest tide, the fiercest storm, are alike the tumultuous conflict of forces, rushing, and fighting as they rush, into the arms of eternal negation. On and on they hurry--down and down, to a cold stirless solidity, where wind blows not, water flows not, where the seas are not merely tideless and beat no shores, but frozen cleave with frozen roots to their gulfy basin. All things are on the steep-sloping path to final evanishment, uncreation, non-existence. He is filled with horror--not so much of the dreary end, as at the weary hopelessness of the path thitherward. Then a dim light breaks upon him, and with it a faint hope revives, for he seems to see in all the forms of life, innumerably varied, a spirit rushing upward from death--a something in escape from the terror of the downward cataract, of the rest that knows not peace. "Is it not," he asks, "the soaring of the silver dove of life from its potsherd-bed--the heavenward flight of some higher and incorruptible thing? Is not vitality, revealed in growth, itself an unending resurrection?"

The vision also of the oneness of the universe, ever reappearing through the vapours of question, helps to keep hope alive in him. To find, for instance, the law of the relation of the arrangements of the leaves on differing plants, correspond to the law of the relative distances of the planets in approach to their central sun, wakes in him that hope of a central Will, which alone can justify one ecstatic throb at any seeming loveliness of the universe. For without the hope of such a centre, delight is unreason--a mockery not such as the skeleton at the Egyptian feast, but such rather as a crowned corpse at a feast of skeletons. Life without the higher glory of the unspeakable, the atmosphere of a God, is not life, is not worth living. He would rather cease to be, than walk the dull level of the commonplace--than live the unideal of men in whose company he can take no pleasure--men who are as of a lower race, whom he fain would lift, who will not rise, but for whom as for himself he would cherish the hope they do their best to kill. Those who seem to him great, recognize the unseen--believe the roots of science to be therein hid--regard the bringing forth into sight of the things that are invisible as the end of all Art and every art--judge the true leader of men to be him who leads them closer to the essential facts of their being. Alas for his love and his hope, alas for himself, if the visible should exist for its own sake only!--if the face of a flower means nothing--appeals to no region beyond the scope of the science that would unveil its growth. He cannot believe that its structure exists for the sake of its laws; that would be to build for the sake of its joints a scaffold where no house was to stand. Those who put their faith in Science are trying to live in the scaffold of the house invisible.

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.

Only the Lover Sings: The Secret to Teaching Literature

I have spent my twenty-five years as a teacher further and further refining my purpose, to its present obsessive focus. My animating ambition, the one I live, sleep, and breathe, is to help people learn to love – to love – great literature.

In the span of that time, the task has become only tougher, primarily because of the omnipresence of technology. The quick and ready entertainment, meme and soundbite style content, and constant din of calls for our attention that come with a smartphone in every hand mean it has become increasingly difficult to get anyone to read.

Nevertheless, when my students are in the classroom, held as a captive audience, their devices all turned off and set aside, and we have in our hands one of the beloved books of my carefully chosen curriculum, I still feel an almost infallible power to turn them into thoughtful, eager, and passionate lovers of books.

While I myself am always learning more about what it takes to teach literature well – whether that means conceptualizing techniques that come to me as instinct, or gaining new insights from the world’s great teachers, present and past – I am confident I can name the fundamental principle behind my (perhaps immodest) boast of infallibility.

To be an effective guide and mentor, you must be in love with literature yourself. 

I say “be in love with” rather than “love” to give emphasis to the personal and passionate form the attachment has to take. If familiarity with great books feels to you like some duty of cultural literacy, if the experience of reading is more cerebral than it is of the soul, if the books you teach do not reverberate in the very core of your being, then you are not “in love with” literature.

Most of my memories of studying books in school involve, at best, dry discussions of literary devices, and, at worst, no discussion at all, but only multiple-choice tests to prove I’d done the reading. Almost never do I recall a teacher modeling an earnest emotional investment in the work, and rarely did I myself come to feel that kind of intense and personal connection.

By contrast, someone recently described to me how, as a boy, reading Lord of the Rings had made him desire to be good. He found himself unable to abide the thought of doing anything that, in his mind, would make him a disappointment to heroes like Frodo and Gandalf. That is what it means to be in love with a book. He saw the novel’s theme, he felt its import, and he made it a part of himself.

One of the problems endemic to education is that this love of literature has been lost. We cannot teach that which we are not capable of ourselves. So, if our capacity for that love has atrophied, or was never properly developed, what are we to do?

It is important for me to note here that I myself did not learn to love books until I was in my mid-twenties, and already working as a teacher. I have a vivid memory from my youth of watching a performance of The Miracle Worker and finding it painfully dull. Today, it is painful for me to confess that, because this play has come to stand in my mind for what it means to awaken a child’s soul to “a consciousness of her immortal nature” – to be a teacher, in the truest sense of the word. And after teaching this play every year for two decades, I still cannot read the climactic scene without crying.

My own eyes were first opened when I read Victor Hugo’s novel Ninety-Three aloud to my little group of homeschooled students so many years ago. We were wholly absorbed and focused. We were riveted by the plot. We gasped in chorus at the sudden twists and sighed over sentimental passages. We discussed our reactions as we read, and we worked to decipher Hugo’s message. The experience was as much a life-altering one for me as it was for them.

The point is, even if a passionate approach to literature does not now come naturally to you, it is a skill that can be revived or learned afresh.

  • Connect again with that classic that really made you feel – in love with the aloof Mr. Darcy, awed by the integrity of Atticus, pitying of poor Jane Eyre.
  • Find a mentor. When I discovered a great literature teacher, I consumed every word of his I could, and, afterward, strove to emulate his process. I am now trying to offer mentorship myself through a program called Read With Me, whose mission is “to help people connect emotionally with the classics.”
  • Take a close look at Mark Edmundson’s Why Read? or Arnold Bennett’s Literary Taste. Hear the former tell you in impassioned tones why “real reading is reincarnation,” and let the latter explain how literature helps us raise the plane of our existence “to the top level of the peaks.”
  • Recall that reading great books is meant to be a pleasure – not an idle one, but the profoundest kind we can know. Don’t consider a book part of your personal repertoire or eligible for your curriculum until you are able to consume it as a life-enhancing pleasure yourself.

Now, in one sense, a love of literature is only the precondition of effective teaching; it doesn’t give you a process. But it another sense, it is necessary and sufficient.

If you yourself have mastered a book’s meaning, felt its import, and made it a part of yourself, then you will know that all your efforts must be integrated around helping your students do the same. You won’t allow yourself to be distracted by too much talk of literary devices, you won’t be content for your students to prove only a rudimentary grasp of the content, and your discussions won’t be soulless and cerebral. You will be better able to trust your instincts, because you will know, deeply, the purpose you hope to achieve.

With my own faithful repertoire of books I dearly love, I can now be sure that every year a student will, for example, beg to keep her copy of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House so she can share it with a sister, or create a year-long calligraphic log of favorite literary quotes, or declare indignantly that I have ruined her for romance because no man will ever be a Cyrano de Bergerac, or weep with me more than once over scenes in Les Misèrables, or ask for keepsake versions of the books we read for Christmas.

I am in love with these books, and they learn to love them too.

From the Director

Dear Reader,

Easter weekend has definitively proclaimed the arrival of Spring, at least in northern Iowa on the border of Minnesota. Two weeks ago, though Canadian geese filling the sky and fat robins returning to their territories spoke of spring as imminent, the deep snow cover made it hard to believe in new life. Trees produced buds in vain. But Nature is wise. This weekend brought our first days of 50, 60, and 70 degree weather, and the snow quickly melted away, revealing grass eager to make the earth green again. Soon green shoots will completely cover last year’s corn stalks in the fields.

In this mood of the joy of new life, I am delighted to announce a great step forward in the work of the Arts of Liberty Project. Taking inspiration from the great work in the preservation, development, and promotion of the liberal arts done by Boethius, the last great Roman statesman, Jeff Lehman and I have decided to found the Boethius Institute for the Advancement of Liberal Education. For over a decade, ArtsofLiberty.org has provided a wealth of materials that foster the understanding and practice of the traditional trivium and quadrivium as the proper foundation for a life devoted to wisdom. The Boethius Institute will follow in the footsteps of its patron by publicly defending the crucial role the liberal arts play in liberal education, adapting them to current circumstances and opportunities, and providing leaders of the growing liberal arts renewal with deeper formation in them.

Questions abound about the place and nature of the liberal arts today in what is often referred to as classical education. How should we understand and practice grammar, logic, and rhetoric? Do geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music have any role? How do the physical sciences, which are so important in modern education, fit into an education of which they have historically been a rival? In an excerpt from a fascinating essay on the rise to consciousness of an imaginary boy, George MacDonald imagined the effect of this rivalry on a serious young man. Scholarly discussion about these questions is revealing significant disagreements among practitioners. I express one of these disagreements in response to a recent article tackling the difficult question of defining what the expression “liberal art” means.

Opportunities also abound. Students who have received a strong liberal arts foundation are ready to achieve great heights in areas such as Latin, Greek, rhetoric, history, mathematics, philosophy, and theology. Teachers who have been successful in their particular classrooms and schools are ready to share how they have fed the natural hunger of the young for learning. When I met Lisa Vandamme at her school in Orange County, California, she was proud to introduce me to her eighth grade class, who impressed me with the passion and penetration of their answers to her question, “What has been your favorite work of literature during your time here?” She shares her fundamental secret in this issue of our bulletin.

To learn more about the Boethius Institute, visit our new website. We will keep you up-to-date on our various activities, such as our visit to the University of John Paul II in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Don Quixote Excerpt on Creative Writing

Miguel Cervantes’ masterpiece, Don Quixote, was considered “the final and greatest utterance of the human mind” by Doestoevsky, and was voted the best book ever written in a survey of top authors. Cervantes begins his prologue by speaking to the “Idle Reader”; the work presents a sustained reflection on the impact that the new reading culture had on 17th century Spanish society. Near the end of volume one, a learned clergyman reflects on the good, bad, and ugly of fictional writing, in words from which today’s creative writers can learn.

Don Quixote, Part I, Chapter XLVII

The canon and his servants were surprised anew when they heard Don Quixote's strange story, and when it was finished he said, "To tell the truth, senor curate, I for my part consider what they call books of chivalry to be mischievous to the State; and though, led by idle and false taste, I have read the beginnings of almost all that have been printed, I never could manage to read any one of them from beginning to end; for it seems to me they are all more or less the same thing; and one has nothing more in it than another; this no more than that.

“And in my opinion this sort of writing and composition is of the same species as the fables they call the Milesian, nonsensical tales that aim solely at giving amusement and not instruction, exactly the opposite of the apologue fables which amuse and instruct at the same time. And though it may be the chief object of such books to amuse, I do not know how they can succeed, when they are so full of such monstrous nonsense. For the enjoyment the mind feels must come from the beauty and harmony which it perceives or contemplates in the things that the eye or the imagination brings before it; and nothing that has any ugliness or disproportion about it can give any pleasure.

“What beauty, then, or what proportion of the parts to the whole, or of the whole to the parts, can there be in a book or fable where a lad of sixteen cuts down a giant as tall as a tower and makes two halves of him as if he was an almond cake? And when they want to give us a picture of a battle, after having told us that there are a million of combatants on the side of the enemy, let the hero of the book be opposed to them, and we have perforce to believe, whether we like it or not, that the said knight wins the victory by the single might of his strong arm. And then, what shall we say of the facility with which a born queen or empress will give herself over into the arms of some unknown wandering knight? What mind, that is not wholly barbarous and uncultured, can find pleasure in reading of how a great tower full of knights sails away across the sea like a ship with a fair wind, and will be to-night in Lombardy and to-morrow morning in the land of Prester John of the Indies, or some other that Ptolemy never described nor Marco Polo saw?

“And if, in answer to this, I am told that the authors of books of the kind write them as fiction, and therefore are not bound to regard niceties of truth, I would reply that fiction is all the better the more it looks like truth, and gives the more pleasure the more probability and possibility there is about it. Plots in fiction should be wedded to the understanding of the reader, and be constructed in such a way that, reconciling impossibilities, smoothing over difficulties, keeping the mind on the alert, they may surprise, interest, divert, and entertain, so that wonder and delight joined may keep pace one with the other; all which he will fail to effect who shuns verisimilitude and truth to nature, wherein lies the perfection of writing.

“I have never yet seen any book of chivalry that puts together a connected plot complete in all its numbers, so that the middle agrees with the beginning, and the end with the beginning and middle; on the contrary, they construct them with such a multitude of members that it seems as though they meant to produce a chimera or monster rather than a well-proportioned figure. And besides all this they are harsh in their style, incredible in their achievements, licentious in their amours, uncouth in their courtly speeches, prolix in their battles, silly in their arguments, absurd in their travels, and, in short, wanting in everything like intelligent art; for which reason they deserve to be banished from the Christian commonwealth as a worthless breed."

The curate listened to him attentively and felt that he was a man of sound understanding, and that there was good reason in what he said; so he told him that, being of the same opinion himself, and bearing a grudge to books of chivalry, he had burned all Don Quixote's, which were many; and gave him an account of the scrutiny he had made of them, and of those he had condemned to the flames and those he had spared.

The canon was not a little amused, adding that though he had said so much in condemnation of these books, still he found one good thing in them, and that was the opportunity they afforded to a gifted intellect for displaying itself; for they presented a wide and spacious field over which the pen might range freely, describing shipwrecks, tempests, combats, battles, portraying a valiant captain with all the qualifications requisite to make one, showing him sagacious in foreseeing the wiles of the enemy, eloquent in speech to encourage or restrain his soldiers, ripe in counsel, rapid in resolve, as bold in biding his time as in pressing the attack; now picturing some sad tragic incident, now some joyful and unexpected event; here a beauteous lady, virtuous, wise, and modest; there a Christian knight, brave and gentle; here a lawless, barbarous braggart; there a courteous prince, gallant and gracious; setting forth the devotion and loyalty of vassals, the greatness and generosity of nobles.

"Or again," said he, "the author may show himself to be an astronomer, or a skilled cosmographer, or musician, or one versed in affairs of state, and sometimes he will have a chance of coming forward as a magician if he likes. He can set forth the craftiness of Ulysses, the piety of Aeneas, the valour of Achilles, the misfortunes of Hector, the treachery of Sinon, the friendship of Euryalus, the generosity of Alexander, the boldness of Caesar, the clemency and truth of Trajan, the fidelity of Zopyrus, the wisdom of Cato, and in short all the faculties that serve to make an illustrious man perfect, now uniting them in one individual, again distributing them among many; and if this be done with charm of style and ingenious invention, aiming at the truth as much as possible, he will assuredly weave a web of bright and varied threads that, when finished, will display such perfection and beauty that it will attain the worthiest object any writing can seek, which, as I said before, is to give instruction and pleasure combined; for the unrestricted range of these books enables the author to show his powers, epic, lyric, tragic, or comic, and all the moods the sweet and winning arts of poesy and oratory are capable of; for the epic may be written in prose just as well as in verse."

Shannon Valenzuela

Shannon Valenzuela shares something in common with two of the heroes of the current liberal arts renewal. Like Tolkien and Lewis, she is both a respected professor of literature, a creative fiction writer, and one who cares deeply about the formation of the imagination. Shannon is an affiliate assistant professor of humanities and literature at the University of Dallas, and teaches in the Master’s of Classical Education program. She is a medievalist by training and well-versed in the classical epics, lyric poetry, and drama. She is also a science fiction writer whose stories include freedom-fighting assassins and bureaucratic memory-wipers. She is not only a novelist but also an award-winning screenwriter. She is the writer, director, and producer of “The Quest”, a documentary-style miniseries that draws on stories from Scripture, history, and literature to explore the Christian life as a narrative of joyful courage in the gathering darkness of this world.

Shannon has been a writer since she was young. She chose an academic track in graduate school rather than a Master of Fine Arts degree because she found that learning to read and teach stories critically helped her own creative writing. Conversely, her creative writing gives her insights into great writers and their works – how they structure, compose, etc. For example, her work as a screenplay writer allowed her to appreciate the battlefield scenes in The Iliad in a new way. “Homer has an eye like the best of today’s directors of war movies. He realizes you can’t effectively imagine a battle on its grand scale. To feel its tragedy, you need to get into the mud of the field, and to get a glimpse, however brief, of the personal story of someone whose life is suddenly cut down by the spear. The gods may see men as pawns on a chessboard, but Homer profoundly presents the human perspective.”

Shannon finds screenwriting challenging compared to novel writing. “The novel is expansive. You are the master of your world. You can take the time to tell the story as you would like. You only have to consider yourself and your reader. The screenwriter, like the lyric poet, is limited by its form. You have to be very economical. You are one part of a process. You are making a blueprint, like an architect, knowing that the final form of your work will be determined by many other hands. I find that artistic collaboration exciting as well.” The toughest challenge for her lies in the difficulty of showing what is going on inside the characters. “Interiority cannot be presented with the ease of a novel. We always want to see the interior development of a character, and the thought and emotion that lies behind decisions they make.”

Her writing also affects her teaching, because she always wants her students to learn to enjoy the works they are studying. “We can forget that in our desire to glean wisdom from these authors. They do express wisdom, but it operates through delight.” She strongly believes that people relate to one another through stories, and so delight in listening to stories is crucial for our human development. “We come to know our grandparents by listening to their stories; we come to know God by hearing His story of salvation. We come close to Christ by imbibing his parables.”

Being affected by stories also opens the way to critical thought about them. Shannon encourages her students to develop essay topics by asking themselves, “What surprised me, what delighted, shocked, or excited me? What do I want to spend time thinking through and sharing?”

Experiencing delight in reading rich works can be hard, especially for the young of today immersed from early on in visual entertainment. Receiving an author’s words demands an active imagination, but the visual medium provides a substitute, so that the imagination is never developed. “If you are not able to use your imagination, your ways of engagement with the world are diminished. In a very practical way, your ability to make prudent decisions is hampered if you are unable to imagine forward, to consider the different ways things might work out.”

Training the imagination becomes one of the most important tasks of education. “We owe it to ourselves as human beings, especially with technological developments.” She believes that classical liberal arts education fosters imaginative growth in many ways, such as through poetry memorization, exercises in narration, and training in the fine arts. Reading aloud to children from a young age is a natural way to activate and form their imaginations.

As a teacher, she works to get her students to slow down, to pay more attention, to notice more, to be more precise in description, and to use accurate vocabulary to communicate it so that others can picture things as they have. When she taught middle school science, she would have each student sketch a seashell. When they turned them in to her, she would send them back to notice and include more details that they had missed. She would take her screenwriting students outside to a particular location, and have each one describe it according to the mood of the genre of their project - fantasy, horror, thriller. Later they read their descriptions aloud, noticing the differences in vocabulary and style used to express the same location from different imaginative standpoints.

Shannon believes that we are involved in a fight for the imagination. “We are what we consume. As we need to be mindful of what we eat because of its effect on our bodies, we need to be mindful of what images we consume. The imagination is powerful. We all have experiences of images that linger within us and color our experience of the world. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis explores the consequences of an education which neglects the imagination. As he puts it, ‘Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.’” Shannon does all she can to make sure her students are strong on dragons.

Grammar Revolution

In preparing for our recent issue devoted to grammar, I watched an hour-long documentary recommended by a colleague, Grammar Revolution, a well-done “indie” that investigated the debates among academics that contributed to the demise of formal grammar teaching. I was surprised to see segments with Lisa VanDamme, founder of VanDamme Academy (VDA) in Aliso Viejo, California, and the mother of a recent student of mine. This led to the discovery that the documentary was conceived, produced, filmed and directed by two teachers from VDA, David and Elizabeth O'Brien. I was intrigued – two elementary teachers put this together? I smelled a good story, and was not disappointed.

David and Elizabeth are adventurous spirits. “Fun” ideas not only attract them, but lead them to action. What they find fun is exceptional. They graduated from The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with degrees in Philosophy and Education respectively. After a summer’s work at Glacier National Park in Montana, they decided to tour the country. They had discovered some lectures on the philosophy of education by Lisa that impressed them, so they reached out to see if they could visit her school. They stayed several days, before continuing on their way. When they were in Florida, they got a call from Lisa asking if they would like to teach for her. “That sounds fun,” so they did.

During college, Elizabeth had discovered that grammar is fun; at VanDamme Academy, she found that teaching grammar to students is also fun. Elizabeth’s answer to why she is so passionate about grammar is, “I love grammar because I used to hate grammar.” Elizabeth had little exposure to grammar during her K-12 years. It mainly came up in high school, when composition teachers would speak of things like “verbals” and “adjectival clauses” as though students should know, but she didn’t even know what verbs and adjectives were. Her ignorance made her feel embarrassed and frustrated when she tried to explain grammar concepts to ESL (English as a Second Language) students. So she took a grammar course from an excellent professor who showed her that grammar makes sense, and that sentence analysis, aided by diagrams, becomes a fun puzzle exercise.

In 2008 she began sharing with other teachers her joyful, logical, puzzle-ing approach to grammar. Over the years she has served hundreds of teachers through her Grammar Revolution site. Most teachers of grammar expect students to memorize by rote and to learn pattern recognition for the sake of completing worksheets and passing quizzes. Elizabeth believes that diagrams lead to real learning and effective teaching. Diagrams help students visualize the logical connections among the elements of a sentence. Diagramming makes grammar meaningful for students, and makes them more active. They learn to attack a sentence as a whole, deconstruct it, recognize that nouns do noun jobs, and then that other groups of words can also do noun-jobs. David likened normal grammar worksheets to “those blank maps of the US where you learned to fill in the names of states. That doesn’t last. But if you were challenged to describe the shape of each state, you might remember it better.” Elizabeth pointed out that teaching grammar in connection with diagrams forces teachers to proceed in a logical, hierarchical order.

David’s journey into grammar began with teaching at VDA. “Learning grammar while teaching at Lisa’s school was eye-opening, a revelation! While I was studying for my philosophy degree, I fancied myself a word-smith. Looking back, I realize I was just cramming words in that sounded good, but the papers were really unclear.” David’s teaching of grammar became practically fruitful for him when he entered law school. He aced the Legal Research and Writing diagnostic quiz! A couple of internships during law school convinced David - “prematurely probably” - that it wasn’t going to be the right kind of fun for him; on the other hand, teaching philosophy and law at a classical high school – “Now that is fun!”

David had long been interested in another kind of fun – making a movie. Elizabeth suggested that grammar could provide an exciting movie topic. David agreed, and he was especially interested in further exploring ideological conflicts within education and within grammar. He had followed a series of essays referred to as the “grammar wars” in issues of the Atlantic monthly. The battle was characterized as one of descriptivists vs prescriptivists, that is, the new way of using grammar to merely describe how people speak and write vs. the old way of using grammar to train people to speak and write well.

“We were ignorant and wanted to learn,” said David. They were not only ignorant of the controversy, but also about making a documentary. But, having raised $25,000 through KickStarter – most of it from teachers who had benefited from Elizabeth’s work – David purchased some middle of the line equipment and paid for some hours of over-coffee conversations with people who knew how to film. Filming wasn’t too hard, but he learned later that post-production work was beyond him. “We should have been more ambitious in our Kickstarter campaign!”

They were surprised by how easy it was to get interviews with big names in the controversy.  They started with John McWhorter, cultural commentator and professor of linguistics at Columbia University. “Once he agreed, it opened the doors to others.” But David and Elizabeth were humbled and surprised by the interviews. “When we started, we were motivated by the desire to defend prescriptive against descriptive grammar. But the conversations showed us how intelligent, reasonable, and above us all the thinkers were.” It also revealed that the major thinkers didn’t disagree as much as they had thought. “Everyone interviewed agreed that standard English should be taught, except the education professor, who saw teaching standard grammar as imposing a power structure. The others recognized that standard English is the language you need to succeed.”

David and Elizabeth learned a lot about grammar and language. “Grammar debates are not like mathematics, where there is a clear difference between correct and incorrect answers. Standard English is a preferred dialect, but its usage is not always simply right. For example, in other languages, double negatives are standard.” They point out that what is standard in English has changed over time. Change is so natural to language that it has patterns. Garner’s Modern American Usage details five stages of language change, from when some usage is a mistake to when it becomes widely accepted.

“In spite of the agreement on the need to teach standard English, many linguists are oblivious as to the actual consequences of their denigration of Standard English.” David pointed me toward one segment of bonus footage available from the documentary. After hearing from Bryan Garner about the importance of grammar for maintaining the literary traditions of standard English, and Steven Pinker about the impossibility of actually slowing down the change taking place in usage, the camera turns to a student at the University of Minnesota in the linguistics department and the education department, who was uncomfortable with the idea of teaching standard grammar at all. “Of course, there is more than mere linguistic anti-prescriptivism behind the student's hostility toward Standard English and literacy, but it has had an impact on her.”

Elizabeth and David are happy that their efforts are helping those who want to teach grammar make it fun and fruitful for their students. “Even more than its practical effects, grammar shows you how beautiful and interesting language is.”

From the Director

Dear Reader,

In this issue of the Arts of Liberty Bulletin, we continue to reflect upon issues related to grammar, as well as get to know some amazing teachers. Traditionally, grammar referred directly to the art of crafting and analyzing sentences, but more generally to the art of learning to read great works well. In our last issue, we looked at the liberating effects of learning the art of grammar and the help that diagramming offers. This issue features an interview with a pair of teachers-turned-producers of a “revolutionary” documentary on grammar, and another with an AoL collaborator, who shares insights from her experience of  teaching literature as both a scholar and fiction author. We also draw upon Don Quixote for literary insights of his creator, Miguel Cervantes.

The past several months have begun a new journey for the Arts of Liberty Project. Over the decade and a half since its founding, the project has received tremendous assistance from the Center for Thomas More Studies and the University of Dallas. In November, we decided to take the difficult but important step of founding our own independent institute. We believe this will enable us to better fulfill our mission of providing leadership and instruction to the growing number of teachers and scholars involved in the educational reform movement in our country and around the world. We will provide more information in the coming months.

In other news, AoL Senior Fellow Erik Ellis completed his first semester as an assistant professor of education in the new Master’s of Classical Education program at Hillsdale College, and was introduced to the community in an interview in their student newspaper. Erik spent the past three years at Universidad de los Andes (Chile), where he helped launch a Great Books program, and is looking forward to helping promote liberal education efforts in South America. Jeff Lehman, Erik, and I participated in the Center for Thomas Studies annual conference. I gained a much greater understanding of the role of Providence in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy through our discussions; my paper, “Drawing Near to God: Lady Philosophy as Physician in the Consolation” will appear in an upcoming edition of Moreana.

Let us continue to labor to form ourselves in the Arts of Liberty, and extend the blessings of liberty to the next generation.