Can I Incorporate the Liberal Arts into a Non-Classical Education?

By Bailey Steger

Elements of the liberal arts can fit in a wide-range of educational environments.

You’re intrigued by the idea of a liberal arts education for your student, but for myriad reasons, you don’t find “classical” education doable. Maybe another kind of curriculum or schooling situation fits your family’s needs better. Maybe you teach at a school that wouldn’t know what the liberal arts even are. You admire the liberal arts, but you wonder: “Is a liberal arts education an all-or-nothing deal, or can it fit into a more mainstream education?”

Good news! You can use can use the liberal arts’ ideas and methods to enhance any number of educational approaches. Find your preferred educational philosophies below and see how to supplement your student’s education with wisdom from the liberal arts tradition.

If you love Charlotte Mason’s idea of “living books” or use literature-based curricula…you’ll appreciate the liberal arts’ emphasis on great works and primary texts. A liberal arts education values good, interesting books—specifically, literature with historical and cultural significance within the Western tradition. Whether or not we moderns agree with their specific conclusions, this Western canon comprises the “Great Conversation” that has shaped our present-day understanding and identity. In the liberal arts tradition, the best way to understand what our cultural ancestors’ meaning and influence is to engage directly with whole works and primary sources.

How to incorporate it: → Supplement history textbooks with primary sources. Any time you’re reading about an important document or literary work, try reading the actual work or document itself. When curating reading lists, include a few books from the Great Conversation.

If you prefer project-based learning or unit studies…you’ll value the liberal arts’ commitment to context, interdisciplinary pursuits, and a logical learning progression. A liberal arts education traditionally involves the trivium: the verbal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, introduced sequentially as the child’s education progresses. You don’t need a curriculum structured around the trivium to benefit from the philosophy behind it. Eventually, students need to know not only that a particular event happened but why it happened, and what they think about it—the natural progression from grammar (basic facts) to logic (figuring it out) to rhetoric (arguing an opinion). An interdisciplinary approach enables students to make these connections naturally.

How to incorporate it: → Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, suggests using history as the organizing factor for science and literature. As she writes in “What Is Classical Education?,” “The student who is working on ancient history will read Greek and Roman mythology, the tales of the Iliad and Odyssey, early medieval writings, Chinese and Japanese fairy tales, and (for the older student) the classical texts of Plato, Herodotus, Virgil, [and] Aristotle.” For science, she’ll study “biology, classification and the human body (subjects known to the ancients).” You pick the curriculum for each subject!

If you find inspiration in child-led and nature-based learning, such as unschooling, Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia…you share the liberal arts’ focus on experiential learning over learning about things. Despite the stereotype of grammar school students chanting rote facts, the liberal arts tradition is full of experience, wonder, and imagination. The liberal arts’ use of the quadrivium—the mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy—illustrates this perfectly: The quadrivium forms the basis of a liberal arts education not because it is useful for career success or everyday tasks, but because it elevates the soul and teaches the mind to explore the world’s order and beauty. “The knowledge at which geometry aims,” explains Plato in his Republic, “is knowledge of the eternal, and not of anything perishing and transient. Geometry will draw the soul towards truth, and create the spirit of philosophy, and raise up that which is now unhappily allowed to fall down.”

How to incorporate: → Experience and contextualize science and math as much as possible. Recreate the science yourself. Read biographies of scientists and mathematicians. In “The Purpose of Mathematics in a Classical Education,” Thomas Treloar advises, “Bringing this context into the classroom allows students to see the interrelatedness of various ideas in mathematics and science and better understand the creativity involved in the discovery of these concepts.”

If you prioritize real-world, practical learning…you’ll value how the liberal arts center critical thinking skills. Logic is central to a liberal arts education, both as a formal subject and as the reasoning behind many so-called “impractical” subjects, such as advanced math or music. Practicing an instrument, learning calculus, or dissecting a literary passage exercises students’ critical thinking skills. They might forget the exact details of that passage or equation, but the skills they used to study it will become a part of how they think and who they are.

How to incorporate: → If formal logic intimidates you, include board games that develop critical thinking skills into your math and science times.

If your religious faith or moral convictions play a big role in your curriculum…you’ll understand the liberal arts’ aim for an education that leads to a virtuous life. This is the liberal arts’ precise goal: to develop the student into a virtuous person through exposure to the good, the true, and the beautiful. Even if you can’t incorporate the trivium and quadrivium as practiced in Western tradition, even if your student isn’t as interested in the Great Books as you’d like, there is room within any curriculum to incorporate good, true, and beautiful things. When selecting a curriculum—whatever your preferred philosophy—you can use the liberal arts standard to guide you: Does this inspire wonder and imagination? Does this require critical thinking and perseverance? Does this deal with real, important issues? Does this create a hunger for more goodness, truth, and beauty?

How to incorporate: → Surround yourself with good, true, and beautiful books, art, music, and nature as a way of life, not just a part of school.

No matter what your educational constraints or preferences are, a liberal arts education is within your grasp. It’s not limited to private schools or to one particular method of education. Any student, in any school setting, with any curriculum, can benefit from the rich liberal arts tradition. All it takes is a simple shift in mindset, a few good books, and some of the above-mentioned strategies.

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