Let me begin by recommending this conference, and then add a few words commending the topic of it.
Classical Conversations, sponsor of this conference, is doing fine work promoting classical education for a homeschool setting. The conference features both Nancy Pearcey and Leigh Bortins. Leigh Bortins is the founder of Classical Conversations, and Nancy Pearcey is the author of Total Truth and Saving Leonardo. I have not yet gotten to my copy of Saving Leonardo, but Total Truth was fantastic. What we need is worldview thinking that does not have that deadly whiff of sulphurous pomothot, and that is what Pearcey delivers — biblical worldview thinking that actually believes the Bible . . . always a plus in my book. If you are able to attend this conference, I think you will be edified.
When I said I wanted to commend the topic of the conference, I meant beyond the time frame of this conference. I meant for years to come. Involved as we have been in the recovery of classical Christian education, the focus has been on the lower grades, and at some point we have to seriously address what we use to fill out higher education.
The medieval university used to be centered on the “seven liberal arts,” which the early father Cassiodorus identified with the seven pillars of the house of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs. First was the Trivium, and then the Quadrivium. The first word referred to a three-way intersection of subjects — grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. After that, the students took up the study of four subjects — arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
ACCS schools follow what I call the “Sayers Insight,” using the inculcation of the Trivium as “the tools of learning,” and therefore as a fundamental prerequisite for the learning of anything else (whether the subjects of the Quadrivium or not). Further, the Trivium itself has been broken out in sequential fashion, starting first with grammar, then moving on to dialectic, and then to rhetoric.
Here are some of the problems our discussion of the Quadrivium has to address. We are engaged in this labor at New St. Andrews, and I am grateful that others are taking up the challenge as well.
First, in the medieval period it was possible for a man to learn all that a university had to teach. Today that is impossible. Some of this is a function of the universities losing their way in a morass of “subjects” “majors” and “electives,” and the rest a function of us knowing a whole lot more than we used to. The tipping point was about the time of the Renaissance, and the lost ideal of a Renaissance man.
Second, a glance at the subjects of the Quadrivium doesn’t seem to us to reveal anything that is specifically liberal artsy. Arithmetic? Geometry? Astronomy? The closest cousin is music, and a modern liberal arts degree need not include a lick of music (although we allow, in a broadminded way, that it may). Just as the modern university has wandered from the way, so also the orphaned major for future English teachers has accepted a very truncated view of what it means to be educated in the liberal arts. The medieval approach included high levels of what we would call engineering, which is why the cathedrals are still standing. The modern tendency has been to divorce and isolate things that belong together.
And last, a classical education that truly equips the modern student needs to include subjects that were not part of the medieval system, but needs to figure out a way to do so that is not an insult to this ancient structure of education. A cathedral is not a structure that cannot have an addition built centuries later. That has been done many times. Not only so, but it has been done in atrocious ways, and in ways that matched the original genius. That is an image that we need to have in mind as we figure out where to put the calculus and the American history.
But in any case, we have a lot of work to do.