Are the Seven Liberal Arts a Classical Education

May 26, 2011
Over at the Mentor that discussion I mentioned has continued. Somebody has asked why virtue is important to classical education and whether the seven liberal arts are enough (I hope I am not mangling the question while transferring it here). Since this question goes right to the heart of the matter, I though I'd post my rambling reply here as well. I hope it formats correctly. The seven liberal arts are not enough because how they are taught matters. Modern teaching is analytical, which means, in practice, that it is reduced to something that can be contained in a text book, communicated to a large group of students (say, 5,000,000) the same way everywhere, and assessed the same way everywhere as well. Classical education teaches the seven liberal arts SO THAT students will develop the intellectual virtues they sustain. If you don't orient your instruction toward cultivating virtue, you'll undercut the very arts you are trying to teach. Secondly, the seven liberal arts are not the whole classical curriculum. They are preceded and permeated by gymnastic, which is the training of the body and by music, which is the training of the soul. Music as one of the liberal arts is already a reduction from music as the essence of learning. It took a further reduction when it became something limited to singing and instruments. Furthermore, the fine arts train the virtues of seeing well and are, therefore, essential. And the seven liberal arts are means to a higher end, which is to gain knowledge. They are arts because they produce something other than themselves (as the art of painting produces the artifact of "a painting"). The liberal arts produce knowledge. So a classical education also includes the domains of knowledge that follow the seven liberal arts and take a lifetime to grow through: the natural sciences, the moral sciences, the philosophical sciences, and the theological sciences. In fact, as much as I love the seven liberal arts, I have to acknowledge that they are of a time and place in history. Aristotle and Plato did not think in those terms, though they moved us in that direction. Augustine probably didn't, but around his time they were formulated. In the Renaissance they start to break down. Virtue never breaks down. The seven liberal arts were developed because the medieval world saw how effectively they developed the intellectual virtues. When virtue was their pole star, the seven liberal arts became their sail. When virtue was displaced as pole star, the seven liberal arts lost the wind. To mix the metaphor, the pole star of virtue is the wind in the sails of the seven liberal arts. The intellectual virtues cannot be gained apart from the seven liberal arts (understood as realities, not formulas). The seven liberal arts will not be sustained (as what they are) unless a school or family values the intellectual virtues. QED?
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Andrew  Kern

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is the founder and president of The CiRCE Institute and the co-author of the book, Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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This is a very helpful, towards healing, post. "Virtue never breaks down."

When you say "virtue," do you then mean exclusively "intellectual virtue"? And when people like Russell Kirk or John Henry Newman say that virtue cannot be taught in schools or universities, are they talking about "moral virtue"?

I see that classical education includes more than the liberal arts (e.g., the sciences) and I see that the seven liberal arts are not rigid (astronomy doesn't get a lot of attention at our school), but broadly speaking, even as a means, are they not necessary to classical education (withough which, not)? And if so, wouldn't it need to be part of the definition?

You did explain well why classical education cannot be the liberal arts alone. I better understand that now -- thank you.