Are the Seven Liberal Arts a Classical Education

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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