by Laura Berquist – © 2011

Download this talk: The Beginning of the Liberal Arts and Philosophic Sciences

First of all I want to thank you for this honor. When Andrew called me to tell me that Mark and I had been chosen to receive the Russell Kirk Paideia Prize, I was honored, surprised, but honored. I wanted, nevertheless, to refuse to accept it, as I did not feel qualified, certainly not in the company of many of you who have equally given your lives to Classical Christian education. But then I realized that in a very real way, having us accept this award is much like giving it to all of you. We have all worked together, not always knowingly, but nonetheless truly together in God's Providence, for the great goods that are to be gained from a classical education. Once we realized that, or put it to ourselves that way, we were happy to accept the Paideia Prize. (Note: This is not the first time Russell Kirk has been instrumental in a great good in my life. It was through him that I learned about Thomas Aquinas College.)

Mark and I have both worked for sound thinking through classical education, but on different fronts. I have worked in preparing young students, both in schools, and especially, in home schools, for the classical curriculum in its fullness. Mark worked in colleges offering a classical education, most notably Thomas Aquinas College, the school I attended, and Mark helped found. [Mark was teaching there, at Thomas Aquinas College, from its beginning until his death, 40 years after the college first opened its doors.]

Though we have concentrated our efforts on different fronts in the battle for classical education, we have both always had in mind the same end of this education.

Classical education is an education that acknowledges the true nature of education, the true nature of man and the true nature of God so as to facilitate sound thinking on the best and highest things, and most importantly, ultimately lead us to union with God. We are made in God's image and are most conformed to Him when we actually know and love Him. In Q. 93 of the Prima Pars, Articles I and IV especially, St. Thomas lays out this doctrine clearly and beautifully. He says,

"...the image of God may be considered in man in three ways. First, inasmuch as man possesses a natural aptitude for understanding and loving God; and this aptitude consists in the very nature of the mind, which is common to all men [thus we are all made in God's image and likeness]. Secondly, inasmuch as man actually or habitually knows and loves God, though imperfectly; and this image consists in the conformity of grace. [So those of us who are actually knowing and loving God are more perfectly in His image and likeness.] Thirdly, inasmuch as man knows God actually and loves Him perfectly; and this image consists in the likeness of glory. . . . The first is found in all men, the second only in the just, the third only in the blessed."

The classical curriculum, at every level, is helping man on the road to achieve his greatest good, union with God. There are steps in such an education. One can't begin by studying the very highest things. One doesn't take out the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas and begin a study of the nature of God with one's second grader. Why not? Because the student won't be able to understand what he reads. He needs to do some preliminary work. But that preliminary work is ordered to eventually understanding the very highest truths.

In college this will include the liberal arts in their fullness (the Trivium: Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic and the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy), the sciences to which they are ordered, such as the Physics (the study of nature), the study of the soul ( De Anima), the Ethics and Politics, then natural theology (Metaphysics) and ultimately Sacred Theology. At this point, the student has arrived at the second level of conformity to the image of God that I noted above, because he is actually knowing and, therefore, able to love, and, hopefully, actually loving, Him. Before the student gets to this level, though, he can prepare for these more theoretical disciplines, and their ultimate end, by developing his power of making images, his habits of thought, and he can do the beginning of every one of the liberal arts.

All learning is cyclical. We learn first on an introductory level and then we come back to the same objects at a deeper level. This is easiest to see, I think, in mathematics. When one first masters counting, the very next step is to learn the four operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) with respect to whole numbers. The rest of one's mathematical career is spent learning the power of those operations. One adds, subtracts, multiples and divides fractions, then decimals and percents, then algebraic expressions, then trigonometric functions and then he uses them in calculus. This process is clearly a deepening of one's understanding of what is first learned on a very simple level.

We follow the same process in every field, including the liberal arts and sciences. What young children do, if those who direct them are knowledgeable of the ends of education, are exercises that will prepare their minds and hearts for the deepest level of natural, and, finally, supernatural, knowledge.

In the earliest years one helps the student strengthen and make docile his imagination by exercises in observation, memorization and sequential ordering. One does this with a matter that also prepares the mind and heart for those later deep truths. At this level children make their acquaintance with salvation history, something they will study all their lives. They also are introduced to the good and the beautiful in many areas, as a preparation for the true, as such, later on. They learn the basis of all arithmetic, develop an acquaintance with the geometric figures, are exposed to great music, and study God's effects in nature, including in the heavens. These are the beginnings of the arts of the Quadrivium. They learn the basis of all language arts, reading and writing, which constitutes the beginning of the Trivium.

As the student matures, he continues to perfect these methods and subjects; he keeps coming back to them at a deeper level, developing his habits of thought. For example, in language arts preparation one is clearly preparing for the Trivium done in its fullness. The Trivium, as we have noted, consists of the arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric. It is worth also noting that all of these have to do with speech in some way or another. Grammar is concerned with the construction of the sentence, and its principles are the ways of signifying that determine the parts of speech. Logic concerns the common method of procedure in all the sciences, and principally considers definition and reasoning, both of which are carried on through speech. Rhetoric is the art of speaking persuasively. In all of these there is a sort of making: one makes a statement, one makes an argument, and one makes a speech. In every curriculum in our schools we work on perfecting these first connections with the arts that will lead to the sciences that will lead to natural and sacred theology.

Further, young students work on argumentation, so that they can eventually use rhetoric in the service of the truly noble. We teach our students to summarize, which is to order items according to importance instead of chronology, we teach them to identify an argument and then construct their own arguments. We teach them to develop their thoughts in paragraphs, so that they can develop them later in essays and papers using the rhetorical modes: exposition, argumentation, description and narration.

We explicitly, with our older children, introduce the ends of rhetoric into their regular assignments. Rhetoric is of three kinds: the political, the forensic and the ceremonial. The political aims at establishing whether a proposed course of action is expedient or inexpedient; the forensic, whether an action done was just or unjust; and the ceremonial, whether someone deserves praise or blame. In our high school programs we discuss and write about all three types of actions and characters. In my experience, the student in the rhetorical stage is interested in the high and noble, he cares about what is good and bad, and about what is blameworthy and praiseworthy. So the ends of rhetoric are by nature of interest to the high school student. This is a very real preparation for, and participation in, the Art of Rhetoric.

We prepare for the sciences, too. We introduce our children to great literature. Through these works the student gains a sort of experience. The great works of literature appeal to the imagination and move the affections rightly. They present or imply profoundly important views of human life and reality as a whole. Similarly, the great works of history provide vicarious moral experience, a conception of human society, and an awareness of the greatest issues mankind faces. All of this prepares the student well to read the more difficult things, such as Plato's Dialogues, and then the Ethics and the Politics of Aristotle, at the right time. We introduce our children to the arguments our Founding Fathers had regarding the nature of the republic, and the particular "incarnation" of the form of mixed government that was appropriate to us, in this new land. This is the beginning of the study of the Politics. We have the children study natural science, particularly animal behavior, as a beginning to the study of the soul. For those of us who are consciously aware of the fullness of the classical curriculum, there is an intentional ordering of the parts of our curricula to that curriculum, so that the fullness of the classical curriculum can be achieved as excellently as possible when the time is right.

As regards the highest object of the classical curriculum, God Himself, the end of natural and supernatural theology, we are preparing our children for that knowledge from the moment they are born. We do that by the way we live, by the example we give them of Fatherhood, and of sacrificial love, and by the doctrine we teach them as soon as they are able to reason. All of this is their first introduction to the greatest truths, and to the object they will, with God's grace, contemplate in eternity.

As I said, this has been my emphasis in education. I have most applied myself to the beginnings of the classical curriculum. This was a natural outgrowth of my own education at Thomas Aquinas College.