More on the Need to Teach Arts Instead of Subjects

"It seems to me that taking a simple idea and making it complicated is something at which we humans exel. But doing the reverse does not come naturally." - Darla Sowders
Dec 19, 2016

The fundamental task of a teacher, beyond all others (at the practical level), is to take something complicated and make it simple enough for students to apprehend at their level of capacity.

But Darla Sowders is right, it doesn't come naturally. It requires genuine knowledge of the discipline being taught, love of the student, and an understanding of how people learn. Moreover, it requires a specific understanding of the student's readiness for a given lesson. 

None of these things are developed by a subject or textbook approach to learning.

First, it doesn't come naturally. We learn from the obvious and vague to the less obvious and clear. But then when we see the less obvious and clear we forget the journey we went on to get there, so we tell others what is clear to us rather than guide them on the path that made it clear to us. 

Part of the reason for this is that by nature we have no desire to have to relive that (always difficult) pilgrimage. The goal of it, after all, was to get to its end. Nobody want to live in the anxiety and uncertainty of a math problem they have not figured out. But the delight of living in the solution is one of life's true joys. Why would I want to revert back to darkness and anxiety and self-doubt? 

Now, math is analogous of all learning, with this benefit: what you learn in math is so abstract that you can see the mind itself with vivid clarity, at least compared with what it is doing in, say, literature. And here is the application: the emotional state of a person learning math is the emotional state of a person learning anything but more manifest and less easy to hide. 

If you prioritize learning the seven liberal arts you can become a truly great teacher.  

Therefore, just as nobody wants to live in the anxiety and uncertainty of a math problem they have yet to figure out, so nobody wants to live with anxiety and uncertainty at all. So the person who knows something, who has figured out something, doesn't want to have to relive the experience of learning it. 

But teaching is reliving that journey. That makes it more anxiety-inducing than many teachers realize. We fear that a student might not make the needed discovery just as much as we once feared that we wouldn't. To do away with that fear and to turn teaching into an act of pretending, we use highly controlled text books to teach highly analyzed subjects and pretend that students can learn them without having to go on the journey. 

It can't be done. You can't discover for your student what you had to discover for yourself. You can, however, guide them on the path and, most importantly, equip them to walk it on their own. That is what the liberal arts, properly understood as arts and not a collection of subjects, does. 

Second, it requires genuine knowledge of the discipline taught. It often surprises people to learn this, but only the master of a subject knows the basics of that subject. The rest of us have to learn what is obvious and work our way to the basics, which are rarely, if ever, obvious. 

Take chemistry, for example, For millenia people thought there were four elements of which all matter was composed: earth, air, fire, and water. Now there are more than 115 of them. If you start chemistry by teaching the students the table of the elements, you will be teaching them something that they cannot possibly understand (which does not necessarily mean you shouldn't teach them). In fact, I'm fairly convinced that very few chemists can be said to "understand" the table of the elements. 

From Arts to Subjects: What Could be Wrong?

Among the most profound mistakes of our era, I am convinced we would have to list the shift from

It is a mistake to try to teach students the basics of a subject first. Teach them what is obvious.* Subjects and textbooks are typically addicted to basics and rarely teach what is obvious. 

Third, over time we can move from the obvious to the basic. But that means we have a degree of mastery. Once we see the basics, we don't want to relive the journey. But as I said above, that journey is learning and reliving that journey with a student is teaching. 

If you are not willing to go on that journey, it would be better if you did something other than teach. I would especially entreat you not to develop curriculum guides or textbooks. Not to put too fine a point on it, or to be too arrogant, but, at least in terms of classical education, you can't know what you are doing. 

More positively, as a teacher, teach arts not subects, and go on the journey your students need to endure. Some won't need you as much as others, so an occasional pointer will suffice. But nobody gets far in any human endeavor without guidance and training. Prioritize training in the seven liberal arts above everything else. If you don't feel adequate, that's good: you aren't. But if you prioritize learning the seven liberal arts you can become a truly great teacher.  

* This is the fatal flaw of the "new math". It tries to teach set theory as basic, which it apparently is; but what is obvious and memorable is that 2+3=5, so they can memorize that easily and readily while set theory blows their minds and leads them to give up. 

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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