The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

Education is debatable: that much is old news. But what is the stuff being debated?

Given it is about everything, knowledge-in-general is a slightly unwieldy thing. It is conventional to divide knowledge into separate provinces, or fields, or topics—or, as they are called in classrooms today, subjects.

The problem of exactly how to divide knowledge into its constituent subjects has long been contentious. It may sound like useless nitpicking; how much does it matter, really, whether geometry is classified as an independent subject or a subtype of mathematics? It may also sound hopeless, given that knowledge is always developing. In 1923, there was no such subject as computer science; in 2023, few of us can go a whole day without dealing with computers. Moreover, there are pronounced cultural differences in the way we categorize knowledge. If, say, Geoffrey Chaucer could have seen the curriculum promoted by the Hongwu Emperor, he would doubtlessly have been baffled by the fact that none of the “six arts” of Chinese education said anything about training students in dialectic—only to be met with the Hongwu Emperor’s own scoffing at the fact that in Chaucerian England, students were apparently going their entire academic careers without learning a word of li,* that propriety by which society functions and good order is maintained in all relationships; clearly the Western barbarians didn’t think much of public morals!

Pedantry, cultural context, and our inability to see the future all constrain our ability to classify kinds of knowledge. If what we want at the end is a knowledge taxonomy that will satisfy not only ourselves but all subsequent generations with its exhaustiveness and symmetry, that may indeed be impossible. But whether we want that or not, dividing knowledge into fields and fields into specialties is a practical endeavor, and at a practical level, it exists for the same reasons as the divisions of labor: not everyone is interested in or good at the same things.

Let’s try a version of it ourselves. If all knowledge is in some sense an answer to the question What’s that?, giving our mental grammar its nouns, then subjects (or at least some of them) will be its adjectives: they answer questions like How many?, How much?, Which one?, and What kind?

Observant readers may notice the correspondence of that first pair questions to the idea of quantity, and of the latter two to quality. These seem to suggest two poles (or opposite ends of a single pole) around which human intellectual activity revolves. The world we live in is one of qualities: scents, colors, temperatures, textures, sounds. This suggests the world of æsthetics and the study of the fine arts. Yet the mind, which does all this processing and organizing and interpretation of experience—that mind seems to be designed with a strong preference for quantity over quality. Numbers, and things that can be measured in numbers, are pleasingly simple; moreover, we always seem to want to measure, rank, list, count, compare; in a word, to quantify. That indicates the subjects of deductive logic and mathematics.

From here, we might continue our “grammar of ideas” with verbs, which convey activity. Accordingly, verbs introduce the subject of history. Combining that with the descriptive and classifying powers of the adjective, we can declare the adverb the father of ethics, since it tells us how a thing is done, the most basic adverbs being simply “well” and “badly.” Pronouns, since they represent nouns, can be marshaled into representing the study of language itself; conjunctions, of interdisciplinary studies; and what are prepositions but the rudiments of the subject of geography?†

The exercise is entertaining, and may even have some merit (though that is scarcely the present author’s to say). It also has obvious flaws; for instance, why do “qualities” suggest the fine arts and not the sciences, which are equally centered on the study of quality? But let us push on to an overview of the principal subject divisions actually observed in the history of Western education. This will give us a little context for the connections our forebears drew between one idea and another.

By "image" we mean a certain existence which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation, but less than that which the realist calls a thing,—an existence placed half-way between the "thing" and the "representation."

From the fourth century BC, if not earlier, all the way down to the Victorian era, the base curriculum for all students was built on the traditional list of seven liberal arts—so named because they were considered the proper study of liberales, free men, as contrasted with servi, slaves (who might be expected to study servile arts such as commerce). These were divided into three humanities and four sciences: the humanities, or trivium, were grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric; the sciences, or quadrivium, were arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. In antiquity, the next step for those who wanted the equivalent of an advanced degree would likely be to head to Athens and join one of the great philosophical schools there, or else to the Musæum on the coast of Egypt (named for the Nine Muses), the institution governing the Library of Alexandria. A little later on, depending on one’s location and religious persuasion, one might go to Origen‘s school at Cæsarea-by-the-Sea in Palestine, or make one’s way to Rome and Milan like St. Augustine did, or head for the cathedral seminary of New Rome (or Constantinople as it was also called, after its founder).

The universities at Alexandria and Athens gradually decayed‡ or were shut down by the state; but by the late eleventh century, new ones were popping up hundreds of miles to the west. In these, there were three basic programs of advanced study. First of all, there was medicine, then a far more general term; today we would probably refer to this subject as “natural science.” Second, there was law, which covered human behavior in general, thus embracing disciplines we would now distinguish from law and one another (such as history, ethnography, or political science). Last was the most prestigious, theology, “the queen of the sciences.” Until the Late Middle Ages, only four universities were allowed by the Holy See to staff a permanent theology department: Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, and Rome itself. This triad of medicine, law, and theology—or pentad, if you prefer to add in the trivium and quadrivium—served European scholars pretty well right down to the late sixteenth century.

In 1572, however, something unprecedented took place: a supernova. The fact and manner of this star’s death also exploded basic premises upon which astronomy, and physics in general, had been based for thousands of years; the ancient-medieval subject model could not, in pristine form at least, survive. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and those that followed, which still has not lost steam, naturally resulted in a radical reconceptualization of primary subjects and their relations to one another.

No new synthesis has yet been forged. At most, we have a vague notion that there are two sorts of subjects: STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) and “the humanities,” i.e. everything not those four. This is not, one dares to suggest, a very satisfying taxonomy. It sorts both the distinctions and the connections among subjects exceedingly poorly. The radical differences among the sciences—especially “soft” versus “hard” sciences—are completely elided; conversely, the links between mathematics and engineering on the one hand, and the fine arts (particularly architecture) on the other, go wholly ignored.

At the risk of looking foolish to posterity, the present author tentatively suggests that a heavily revised version of the medieval triad might be a better way of thinking about knowledge. The kind of reasoning chiefly used in mathematics, engineering, and the hard sciences is all “much of a muchness”—logical, systematic, deliberately impersonal. The same unity is to be found in the quite different kind of reasoning that typifies the arts—intuitive, emotive, relational.§ In between the two, we find disciplines like history, philosophy, and the soft sciences: due to their scope, they call for the rigorous rationality of STEM-type subjects, yet they are about the incorrigibly personal and emotional human race, and are apt to draw ridiculous conclusions when they forget this. Would it be possible to designate the first category as sciences, the next as arts, and this in-between one as humanities?

Suggested reading:
Aristotle, Rhetoric
St. Augustine, On Christian Teaching
Edward Sapir, Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech
Dorothy Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning
Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery
C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

*Li is (say it with me) a difficult word to translate. The most common rendering, “rites,” is literally accurate yet extremely misleading. In most Western cultures, ritual is a primarily religious or magical thing, and does not necessarily have moral content or implications; li, on the contrary, is strongly moral, meaning something like “good order” or “law,” in both the cosmic and social senses. “Propriety” or “etiquette” might do as one-word translations of li.
†Which subject corresponds to interjections is tricky. Psychology, perhaps.
‡Contrary to popular belief, there may have been no the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. Its decline took centuries, and many of its scrolls and codices were simply taken elsewhere, not destroyed. The story that part of the library (not the whole thing) was burnt accidentally by Julius Cæsar in 48 BC is quite true; however, it was promptly rebuilt, and the Musæum remained in operation. Another persistent story is that Caliph Umar deliberately destroyed the library, on the grounds that books agreeing with the Quran were superfluous and books disagreeing with it were blasphemous. While not impossible, this is uncharacteristic of his known conduct, only appears six centuries after it supposedly took place, and is first related by a religious opponent! If there was one decisive ruin that fell upon the Library of Alexandria, it probably happened in the late third century: Emperors Aurelian and Diocletian each attacked Alexandria, in 272 and 297 respectively, and might have damaged the Musæum in the process. But even if one of these is the source of the tradition about the destruction of the Library, the Serapeum (an offshoot of the Musæum) was still going strong in the fourth century, and as late as the early fifth, the celebrated philosopher Hypatia was head of a school called the Musæum (which may have been either a successor named for the original or the same institution).
§Not that either can in truth do without the other!


Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, you can find more from our series on the great ideas here. You might also enjoy our series on the men and women of our Author Bank, including such educators as Confucius, St. Athanasius, St. Hildegard, Voltaire, and Ida B. Wells.

Published on 31st August, 2023. Edited and updated on 18th January, 2024.

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