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Definitions of Terms

EDUCATION is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty. It should be distinguished from training (for a career), which is of eternal value but is not the same thing as education.

CLASSICAL EDUCATION is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the seven liberal arts and the four sciences. Historically, classical education has followed two streams that frequently flow together:

  • The Rhetorical, in which teachers guide their students to contemplate great texts and works of art, believing that such contemplation will enable them to grow in wisdom and virtue 
  • The Philosophical, in which teachers guide their students through analysis of ideas via Socratic dialogue, believing that insight into the heart of things will enable students to grow in wisdom and virtue.

These two emphases, which have often been in conflict historically but are not mutually exclusive, gave rise to two modes of instruction: the Mimetic and the Socratic.

CHRISTIAN EDUCATION is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the seven liberal arts and the four sciences so that, in Christ, the student is enabled to better know, glorify, and enjoy God.

As Thomas Aquinas expressed it, summarizing the teaching of the church fathers, “Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.” Christian classical education purifies and perfects the great achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans. You can see this clearly in St. Augustine’s writings, from the Confessions to The Teacher. It was the progressives and pragmatists of the 20th century that set about to undercut these achievements. St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is the man fully alive.”

AN ART as used in the “liberal arts,” is a mode of producing something other than the art itself. The liberal arts are ordered to produce knowledge and therefore are the arts of thinking. In fact, the Latin word “artes”, from which we derive our word art, is their translation of the Greek word “techne,” from which we derive words like technique and technology. When a person learns an art, he directs his attention to learning a skill, not content or information about a subject (even if that subject is called “art”). The liberal arts are not, therefore, concerned with a general familiarity with a wide range of subjects. Instead, they are concerned with the foundational skills of thinking that are needed to learn any subject.

A SCIENCE is a mode of inquiry or a domain of knowing that arises from that mode of inquiry. The word “science” comes from the Latin word “scientia”, which means “knowledge” and is by no means limited to the knowledge provided by the natural sciences. Below you will see that the sciences include the natural sciences, the humane or moral sciences, the philosophical sciences, and the science of theology. This order is rooted in the common experience of all people everywhere.The goal of a science is to know the causes of things. In the 17th century, natural scientists began to arrogate the use of the term science to their own inquiries, rejecting anything that stood outside their tools of investigation. As classical educators, we reject this assertion and use the term in its more accurate and more classical sense.

THE  SEVEN LIBERAL ARTS are the arts of thinking. According to the Christian classical tradition, human rationality sets mankind apart from other animals. In particular, humans are uniquely able to think using symbols including words, numbers, shapes, and musical and visual representations. Thus the skillful and fitting use of verbal symbols (language) is essential to the full development of our humanity. The arts developed to refine our ability to use language are the three arts of the Trivium:

  • Grammar
  • Logic/Dialectics
  • Rhetoric

Additionally, no other animal can use numbers and shapes like men can. Even music arises from our ability to hear with our soul the relationships of numbers in their ratios and proportions. The arts developed to refine our ability to use numbers, shapes, and their relations are the four arts of the Quadrivium:

  • Arithmetic
  • Geometry
  • Music
  • Astronomy

Together the Trivium and Quadrivium are called the liberal arts because they are both the arts that every free person is free to master and the arts that are required to be free. A community that fails to master them cannot be a free community. For example, he who is not a master of the art of logic is a victim of manipulators, both external (in society) and internal (in the soul), while he who is not a master of the art of rhetoric will be unable to express his thoughts appropriately.

THE TRIVIUM consists of the three verbal arts of grammar, dialectic (or logic), and rhetoric. Grammar comes from the Greek word “grammatikos”, which is best translated “letters” and carries all the meanings of our own word “letters”. Grammar cultivates the skill of interpreting symbols. First we interpret individual letters or phonemes, then we interpet words, and ultimately we interpret texts, works of art, and artifacts. Dialectic, or logic, is the art of formal and material reasoning. Formal logic asks, “How do we think correctly?” (i.e. “What is the form of valid thought?”) Material Logic asks “What do we think about?” (i.e. “What is the matter of thought?”). Rhetoric is the art of the fitting expression, though Aristotle reduces it to the art of persuasion. We have developed The Lost Tools of Writing as the foundation for a rhetoric program and we humbly recommend it to your consideration. In addition, Dorothy Sayers developed a theory and application of the trivium that suggests that each art corresponds to a general stage in a child’s growth. Much of the modern renewal of classical education feeds on this interpretation.

THE QUADRIVIUM consists of the four mathematical arts. To be able to reason both logically and aesthetically, the individual must be able to interact with what the ancients called magnitude (geometry and astronomy) and multitude (arithmetic and music or harmonics). The mind not trained in the quadrivium is not yet educated. Arithmetic is the art that learns the properties of numbers, that is, “how do numbers behave?” What happens to seven if it meets five? What will eight do if we multiply it by four? Geometry is the art that learns the properties of shapes. It asks, “How do shapes behave?” It is essential to deductive logic and spatial reasoning. Music is the art of ratios and proportions. It asks, “How do numbers behave in relation to each other?” Algebra is a super-efficient and abstract way of expressing musical properties. However, to fully benefit from music, it should not be reduced to algebra. Music is the window or even the doorway between the physical and the spiritual. When a student listens to mathematically sound compositions, the order of mathematics sings directly to the soul through the ear, not needing to pass through the understanding, as it does in arithmetic. Astronomy is the art of shapes in motion. It asks, “How do shapes behave when they are moving?” Practically, it is the doorway to physics and the sciences.

THE NATURAL SCIENCES are the sciences of the physical order, such as biology, chemistry, and physics. All other sciences either combine or refine these three. A science is a domain of knowing ordered by a unifying principle (logos). Biology is ordered by the attempt to know the causes of being and change within and among living things. Physics is ordered by the inquiry into the forces that bring about change in the physical realm. Chemistry is ordered by the inquiry into the elements of which physical things consist. The mode of inquiry of the natural sciences is investigation into the material and efficient causes. Observation and measurement are particularly apt to this domain. The goal of the natural sciences is to know the causes of change in the physical world so that one can act wisely and virtuously in relation to the cosmos.

THE HUMAN SCIENCES are the sciences of the moral order; that is, they are the sciences of human behavior and the soul, namely ethics and politics. Ethics asks the question, how does a human being fulfill its potential (i.e. how does it attain excellence or its own flourishing). In a word, how does a human become virtuous. Many studies come under ethics so understood, such as psychology. Politics asks the question, how can a human community enable its members and itself to fulfill its potential, to attain excellence, to flourish? How can a human community cultivate the virtue of its members. Studies that come under politics so understood include economics, history, etc. Prior to the 17th century, what we now call aesthetics was a humane science, having to do with human behavior. The humane sciences are built upon but higher than the natural sciences. The mode of inquiry suited to the humane sciences is a dialectical engagement with works of art, historical inquiry, and close reflection on the movements of the human soul. The goal of the humane sciences is to know the causes of human behavior so that one can attain virtue in oneself and cultivate it in others.

THE PHILOSOPHICAL SCIENCES are the sciences of metaphysics and epistemology. The unique tools of philosophical inquiry are a highly refined form of dialectics and contemplation. The goal of the philosophical sciences is to know the causes and limits of human knowledge and to know causality itself. It is in metaphysics that the distinction between modernist education and classical education is most clearly seen. To the modernist, especially after John Dewey, metaphysics is a waste of time because we can only know what the natural sciences reveal to us. Thus modern education is driven by experimentation and measurement. The modernist educator has determined that knowledge is the adaptation of an organism to its environment. The classical educator is deliberately metaphysical and does not approach philosophy with despair. He believes that the world we live in is real and that it is knowable. Therefore, for the classical educator, knowledge is gained when the seeker encounters an idea embodied or incarnated in concrete reality. When the modernist educator teaches, his goal is an adaptation to the environment, or what is commonly called a practical application. When a classical educator teaches, his goal is wisdom and virtue. This will have plenty of practical applications, but it will also include the ability to know when not to adapt to the environment — when to resist it and when to be martyred by it. The irony is that the modernist disables his student from sound practical applications because he has misrepresented reality and thereby made it difficult to adapt to it. Meanwhile, the classical educator has enabled the student to think in terms of circumstances without abandoning virtue.

THE THEOLOGICAL SCIENCES are the sciences concerned with knowledge of the first cause, or of God Himself. All of the tools of the lower sciences are used for theological knowledge, but the Christian recognizes that Divine Revelation reveals things that the other sciences cannot discover. The goal of theology is to order all knowledge to that first cause.

MIMETIC INSTRUCTION applies the Christian classical idea that humans learn and become virtuous by imitation. However, in classical theory imitation is a far cry from mere aping. When we learn by imitation, or mimesis, we experience four stages:

  • Perception of the idea through the senses (i.e. hearing or seeing beauty in a great work of art)
  • Absorption of the idea into the soul through the “common sense.” The common sense is where the physical senses meet the soul — it puts all the other senses together to identify the thing perceived as, say, a work of art instead of merely the lines, colors, etc that the senses perceive individually).
  • Apprehension of the idea with the mind, or understanding. How well this is done depends largely on how well the idea was absorbed into the soul, which depends in turn on how well the observer perceived the idea, all of which depends on the observer’s attentiveness.
  • Re-presentation of the idea in the student’s own manner. Here the student incarnates the idea in a new form. He might, for example, perceive justice in the way a teacher treats a student and then apply the principle of justice in the way he treats his sister.

Mimesis is an imitation, not of the outward form, but of the inner idea — not ultimately of an action, but of the idea expressed in that action. Every art and skill is mastered through these stages, whether in school or out. It is a modified inductive form of instruction in which students are led to understand ideas by contemplating models or types of them. These models can be found in literature, history, mathematics, the fine arts, music, other human arts and activities, and nature.

When the teacher practices Mimetic instruction, she naturally progresses through seven stages:

  • Preparation (raising to the student’s awareness what he already knows about the lesson)
  • Gap creation (provoking the question in the student’s mind that the lesson will answer)
  • Presentation of types
  • Comparison of types
  • Understanding and expression of the idea
  • Application of the idea
  • Confirming comprehension of the idea

When the student learns through Mimetic instruction, he naturally progresses through the same seven stages but understood from his perspective: 

  • Gathering (the student reviews the knowledge that is prerequisite to learning the new lesson)
  • Wondering (the student asks the question, often only in his mind, that the lesson will answer)
  • Attending (the student pays attention to the types the teacher presents)
  • Contemplating (the student looks for similarities and differences among the types that will determine what is essential to the lesson and what is not)
  • Defining (the student either describes the idea or describes the steps that make up the skill taught in the lesson)
  • Mastering (the student practices by applying the idea)
  • Resting (the student receives confirmation from the teacher that he comprehended the lesson)

Mimetic instruction is rooted in the idea that humans can only learn by moving from the particular (specific, concrete things) to the universal (general, abstract ideas). Since this is so, it is best to teach people “with the grain,” as Dorothy Sayers expressed it.

SOCRATIC INSTRUCTION is the dialectical process of examining an idea by “deconstructing” it to find weaknesses and inconsistencies in one’s understanding, and then “reconstructing” it to clarify or purify one’s understanding. These two stages are accomplished by engaging in reflective discussion (dialectics) with the student, not to destroy, but to purge, his understanding. This reflective discussion is accomplished through the use of penetrating questions by the teacher.

The first stage of Socratic instruction is called the “Ironic” stage because it is attempting to gently reveal the errors contained in the participants understanding of the idea (for example, he might conclude that Achilles was a sissy for crying to his mommy. The teacher would not correct him by telling him the truth about Achilles, but would guide the student to reflect on his assumptions by asking him questions). This stage often includes identifying a brokenness in the student’s soul (the organ of truth perception) that may be preventing his accurately perceiving the truth, and then uses the reflective discussion and penetrating questions to begin healing that brokenness.

The second stage of Socratic instruction is called the “Maieutic” stage because in it the teacher attempts to “midwife” the birth of an idea in the student’s mind (maieutic means mid-wife). This stage can only begin when the student acknowledges his error in the first stage (metanoia — repentence). At that point, the teacher can continue to ask questions, guiding the student to see the truth he thought he knew earlier. The clearest instance of this process is found in the Plato’s Meno, in which Socrates teaches geometry to a slave boy. We highly recommend a close analysis of that short exchange to the teacher who wishes to teach Socratically.

Both teacher and student move closer to an accurate understanding of an idea through this process. Socratic instruction is rooted in the idea that truth is knowable, but that usually we are careless about how we go about knowing it. We draw conclusions too hastily and then apply them too widely. To mature in our reasoning, we must purify our thinking through a critical Socratic dialectic.