The Liberal Arts in Catholic Education
By Gabriel Blanchard
The Catholic Church spearheaded the development of the liberal arts,
and with good reason.
The Catholic Church has always had a keen interest in education. Even St. Jerome, who was terrified by a nightmare in which heaven accused him of being “a Ciceronian, not a Christian,” or St. Thomas à Kempis, who said that he would “far rather feel contrition than be able to define it,” reached these moments after lengthy, arduous studies that their work clearly reflects. As Kierkegaard pointed out, there is a great difference between the humility of an accomplished scholar saying that all our knowledge hardly matters, and the young student trying to use that sentiment as an excuse for not doing his homework.
The seven liberal arts descend to us from Medieval universities, which began to appear in the eleventh century. Three humanities (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and four sciences (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) formed the Trivium and Quadrivium, the basic curriculum that all pupils had to master before advancing to specialized studies—usually law or theology. (The classification of music may surprise us, since we think of it as an art and associate science with experimental proofs; but a professional musician can attest to the intricate mathematical structure of their discipline.) Grammar meant Latin grammar specifically, since it was the tongue of scholarship and international culture, as well as of the Mass; all classes and conversations were conducted in Latin, in part because teachers and students alike might come from anywhere in Europe.
Officially, the tone for the university was set by St. Augustine: “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand that thou mayest believe, but believe that thou mayest understand.” One effect of this outlook was to embolden universities to propose such topics for debate as whether God exists. The answer, already held by faith, was examined by reason in order to cast light on both the subject and the capacities of reason itself.
But are the liberal arts still relevant to a Catholic curriculum today? Some models of education dispense with them, either to align more closely with the Deweyan ideal of public schools and Common Core, or in the name of adapting to the needs of students (e.g. the Montessori movement). And it bears acknowledgment that, insofar as students do learn in different ways and at different rates, a variety of techniques—and, accordingly, of institutions—is doubtless appropriate.
Yet this necessary flexibility does not mean that students no longer need, or want, to think. The subject matter of the liberal arts, quite apart from exactly how it is taught, remains as relevant as ever. That is what the Trivium fundamentally is: grammar, logic, and rhetoric are the tools of comprehension and communication, and those things do not go out of date. Nor have the disciplines of the Quadrivium become essentially unimportant. With a modest amount of imagination, we can view them through the lens of mathematics, modern science, and the fine arts—subjects that remain as important and appealing as they were a thousand years ago.
But more than all of this, one presumes that a Catholic education will be, first of all, Catholic: that is, it will endeavor to teach its students the Scriptural, historical, theological, and ritual content of the faith. The liberal arts are perfectly adapted to this. Grammar (ideally advancing from Latin grammar to Greek and, if possible, Hebrew) is the first necessity for understanding Scripture; rhetoric and logic allow the grounding in history and philosophy that makes Catholic theology comprehensible; and the fine arts inform and illuminate the music, painting, sculpture, clothing, vessels, and architecture that embody the Mass. I know of no sounder framework for a thoroughly Catholic intellectual formation than the Trivium and Quadrivium. It is only from there that our students will be in a position to appreciate the final, dramatic movement made by St. Paul: “I have resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
If you liked this piece, you may also enjoy our recent author profile of St. Anselm of Canterbury, or Alec Bianco’s article on controversial texts used on the CLT. Or join one of our top-scoring students, Nathan Boone, for an essay on the relation between allegory and the work of J. R. R. Tolkien.