The Path Less Traveled: Early Education in the Liberal Arts

I fell in love with liberal education during the pandemic. I was teaching first grade at a poor school that had only recently decided to renew its curriculum and embrace the liberal arts. But through all of the training sessions, retreats, and curriculum writing, I continually encountered the same frustration: All of this would be so useful if only my students could read!

Our school primarily served immigrant families, so a variety of factors – particularly competing spoken languages between home and school – delayed literacy. I knew these children deserved the freedom provided by the liberal arts and, in fact, that the very philosophical underpinnings of liberal education all but demand that preliterate learners be included in this fully human way of engaging reality. But so few of our resources could accommodate these sweet, eager minds.

There’s much work to be done in exploring best practices of modern-day early liberal education. While I’m convicted of that, I’m not qualified to provide much of the necessary scholastic momentum. Instead, I would like to humbly highlight three qualities that, it seems to me, set early liberal education apart from other pedagogies. Perhaps these can be a starting point for deeper consideration by those wiser and more experienced than me.

First: imaginative. 

Modern pedagogy often uses children’s natural propensity for imagination as an engagement tool for otherwise sterile lessons. This use is improper. Imagination is not an alternative to reality – it’s the key to reality. Imagination helps us to understand the most fundamental truths around us: it helps us to explore what is beyond the physical limitations of the moment; it helps us to explore what isn’t by showing us what is preventing it from being so; and it helps us to explore what could be by going beyond the is and isn’ts and into the unknown.

One of my favorite and oft-repeated lessons comes to mind. Each year, my own five- and six-year-old students spent our much-anticipated Dinosaur Day studying fossils, biological adaptation, deductive reasoning, and earning “doctorates” in paleontology. The crowning moment of the event was when, donning their handmade T-Rex hats, they “became” dinosaurs. With elbows tucked to their sides and secured with soft, oversized yarn, the young T-Rexes were simply asked to extend two fingers from their closed fists and then go about the rest of the day. It wasn’t a particularly interesting itinerary for human students – eating a snack, putting on a backpack, opening the door, drawing a picture, free play with friends – but the dinosaurs alternated between laughter, frustration, and exhaustion as they discovered the evolutionary disadvantages of a T-Rex’s short arms and few, non-opposable digits. Some students resorted to holding pencils in their mouths. A pair of boys playing Tic-Tac-Toe with sidewalk chalk repeatedly lost balance as their truncated arms failed to reach the ground, even from a kneeling position. Catching a fall was hard, getting up was even worse. Duck-Duck-Goose had to be adapted. Cretaceous chaos reigned.

No adult merely informing them about evolutionary adaptation would have seared the reality into their minds the way that imaginative play did all on its own.

Such an example confirms that when learning, young children ascend a ladder which is equal parts imagination and reality–often done through nature’s own pedagogy: play. Children need to begin in imagination, measure it against reality, and then return to imagination to process what they’ve learned. This means finding the virtuous middle between sterile lessons which employ imagination as an afterthought and abandoning children to their own devices in largely unstructured “play education.”

Second: nurturing of true schola. 

To explain this, please pardon a brief departure from the topic at hand.

Schola refers to leisure devoted to learning. For the ancients the ability to study was leisure – that is, time away from the physical demands of survival. But education as leisurely seems contradictory to modern sensibilities. For myself, when I think of school, I think “restriction” and “stress.” When I think of leisure, I think “engaging” and “freedom.”

Freedom is the intention of the liberal arts; that is, freedom to see the Truth of things. The ability to teach oneself well is a freedom that opens up greater access to Truth, and knowing that Truth allows us to work with things as they are, rather than being restrained by assumptions, projections, and guesses.

Beyond even that, discovery is what happens when we see what is (that is: the Truth), embrace it, and make new connections. More properly, we make connections that are new to us. This discovery deepens our delight in the complex nexus of truths made by Him who is Truth so that we may further delight in Him. True understanding, then, is that which allows us to more deeply delight in Truth. If the liberal arts free us to see the Truth of things, the understanding gained therein frees us to delight in that Truth.

Here we return more directly to the topic at hand: the ideal of the liberal arts – to connect schola to the modern understanding of leisure and further, to the freedom to delight in God – is perhaps most easily achievable in early childhood.

These things should, of course, be intuitively connected at any age, but we live in a fallen world with a further fallen education system which has masterfully divorced leisure from discovery and discovery from delight for many of its students.

Early education is the ideal time to bring ancient and modern understandings of leisure together by making learning truly delightful. Examples are truly endless. Preschoolers may encounter evaporation firsthand as they “paint” with water on a hot sidewalk and watches their art disappear before their very eyes; kindergarteners may dissolve into fits of giggles as they learn to manipulate words by changing the first letter of “cat” to an “f”; first graders may be confronted with the difficulty of making a teepee stand on its own as they explore the difficult implications of a nomadic lifestyle; second graders alternating between laughter, frustration, and gratitude for the human form as they go about their day with their elbows tucked to their sides and only two fingers extended from their closed fists, emulating the evolutionary disadvantages of a T-Rex’s short arms and few, non-opposable digits.

Liberal arts education for preliterate learners must be marked by fostering the natural eagerness and delight of children while buttressing that posture against the empty cynicism of modern education.

It is a disservice to our children to strengthen them by building walls and obstacles against the rest of the world. Instead, we must foster a love of schola that is strong within itself by nurturing, to borrow Tolkien’s poetry, deep roots that are not reached by the frost. This creates a difficulty, addressed by the next mark of liberal arts early education.

Third: patient. 

File:First spring sprouts of Narcissus 02.jpgDeep roots are formed in secret, sometimes without measurable changes above the soil. One cannot measure wonder nor grade the gradual integration of numeracy, literacy, and reasoning into the bedrock of a child’s mind. This lack of qualitative measurement is a difficulty when assuring parents of the value of a slow and steady approach in these critical years. Parents–particularly young ones–almost unconsciously measure their children’s progress against the perceived progress of the offspring of their peers. While young students of more popular pedagogy may be able to spout off math facts or identify words memorized by sight, young liberal arts students may not necessarily display such superficial knowledge at the outset.

One student in particular comes to mind, who could barely associate letters with their sounds through kindergarten and most of first grade while her peers steadily progressed beyond her. Barring seasons of discouragement, she was engaged by the pedagogy. She paid attention, let herself be enamored by wonder at the content, but displayed little or no measurable growth. Discussions about retention were in progress. Suddenly, two weeks before the end of the academic year, she successfully sounded out a two-syllable spelling word in front of the class. Given another, she nailed it. And another. And one even more complex. Just in the nick of time, she had her breakthrough. Her determined mind had finally – and seemingly all at once – synthesized and integrated two years of patient, steady work and burst forth, shining with pride.

We as educators know the wait is well worth it, but will the parents? Will they fear the early years wasted if not immediately able to impress with shallow appearances? Will they maintain hope in the time that the seed is drinking, germinating and diving deep into darkness before it pushes through the soil to stretch in the sun? The inexperienced gardener may believe the sowing in vain and scoop up the kernels from their rich soil for fear they will never bear fruit. Therefore, without patience, the liberal arts model is unsustainable for early education. Schools will wither and die from dropping enrollment if impatient parents quickly transplant their children to shallow germination plates for sake of meeting arbitrary expectations set by trending pedagogy.

Whether metrics such as grades are appropriate at this age is a topic beyond the purview of this summary. What is clear is this: any method used to gauge the learning of preliterate students finds its proper place secondary to the pursuit of wonder and establishment of a deep love of learning Truth.

Beyond the practical need to adapt curriculum and the reality that young learners deserve freedom, it makes sense to establish the foundations of human learning from the outset of each student’s academic adventure, rather than to try and patch in human pedagogy later.

Again, these waters are somewhat uncharted, so I’ll leave it to those wiser and more experienced than myself to more fully plot them out. But consider this the official call to action.

May we indiscriminately echo the invitation given by Truth Himself to all the children: come to me.