A Lesson from the Liberal Arts

The Seven Liberal Arts

The Seven Liberal Arts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A modern liberal arts education bases itself on the seven liberal arts of the middle ages.  These are grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmony.  The first three comprise the trivium; the last four the quadrivium.  For students, mastery of the trivium was essential before going on to the quadrivium.

Today this strikes us as a minimalist curriculum.  If we were to try to categorize today’s individual academic subjects into one of the seven liberal arts, we would soon come up short.  Foreign languages could fit into the grammar category, arguably; but where would we place history, for instance?  Point is, for most schools today, even schools that advertise themselves as liberal arts schools, curricular choices are much more extensive.

Why is this?

Well, for one thing, times have changed.  Our cultural context is vastly different than the contexts whence liberal arts developed.  Or so I’ve heard.  Still, they’re called liberal because they were for the free person.  It was the education given to and received by the leaders of the next generation.  The best education money could buy, in other words.  And, while we don’t live in a society today that consists of slaves and free persons; while we see class distinctions as lines for blurring, not emphasizing; while we have a choice today of public, private, or even home education, why not offer the best education we can as a society to the next generation?  The thing is, I think we all want to give our children the best education we can.  But the seven liberal arts of the middle ages seem to many to be, well, outdated.

But there is a second reason, perhaps more significant, that we don’t consider the seven liberal arts a viable option today.  Namely, we want our kids to become specialists, experts in their respective fields–their chosen fields of preference–when they grow up.  So, now, while they’re young, the reasoning goes, we shouldn’t stifle them with so narrow an education.  Rather, we should expose them to as many fields as possible in the hopes that somewhere along the way they will be seized with an interest in something, an interest that is so passionate that they simply must pursue it for the rest of their lives.  Grammar is good and all, and most definitely should be studied.  But what if my son wants to study snake species in the Amazon?  An education that educates only in the liberal arts, so the reasoning goes, will never allow my son to discover this about himself.  Exposure to this and that and the other thing, then, is the name of the game.

But there is an irony here.  I’ve seen it happening in the schools where I used to teach and where my kids have attended.  I’ve seen it happening more broadly too, in society at large, and in the Church.

For in our desire that our kids find passions to pursue, more often than not they don’t–unless Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or gaming are considered passions.  But even when they do, the exposure to so many things, and the curricular requirements imposed upon them to complete their myriad assignments in order to convince school administrators that they are being adequately exposed indeed, they end up graduating high school not having mastered anything, passions or otherwise.

On the other hand, an education in the liberal arts has mastery in mind from the outset.  The focus is narrow.  But the product is broad, a graduate (in theory) who can adapt, learn, and grow–characteristics needed in a leader.

The key concept here is adaptability.  The modern-day approach produces young adults who have never mastered anything.  But the liberal arts approach educates students to learn a foundational mastery.  It produces adults who can grow, change, and adapt as needed; who can wear many hats as it were; who end up being good at any number of jobs, regardless of particular skill sets.

Speaking of which, in society we place a lot of emphasis on acquiring skill sets.  “What do you do?” is a question all too common at cocktail parties.  When we have a problem with a car, we take it to the expert, the mechanic.  When good leadership is needed, we call in an expert, a consultant.  When disagreements surface, we call the experts in, mediators, lawyers.  Elementary teachers, not parents, are seen as experts of child development.  Herbal remedies are seen as quack medicine; pharmaceuticals are expert.  And so on.

In the Church we want to specialize too, don’t we?  I’ve seen incredibly specific job titles for priests and pastors: Pastor of Adult Formation; Associate Priest to Seniors; Executive Pastor; Associate Priest of Pastoral Care; even Pastor of Technology.

Now, whether you agree with this focus on skills or not, it is what it is today.  (Personally I feel that clergy ought to be more generalists than specialists as they are called to be leaders of multi-faceted congregations.)  Still, even with the skill-set focus of today, and even with generalist professions becoming fewer and farther between, what seems the better way to educate tomorrow’s leaders?  Teach them to master something while they’re young, I say.  Exposure can come later.  Bring on the trivium!

I believe there is a lesson to be learned here for the Church’s leaders.  Houses of worship often try to be all things to all people.  That is, they focus on attracting people by offering exposure: the approach modern-day education takes.  Maybe somewhere in the flea-market a potential parishioner will stumble upon something to be passionate about.  But, instead, shouldn’t the Church adapt more of the mastery approach of a liberal arts education?  Churches are called to be places of worship.  Worship of Christ defines them, in fact.  Other places and organizations–not just churches–practice hospitality, feed the hungry, serve the downtrodden, counsel the psychologically needy, market what they have to offer, conduct weddings and funerals, educate children, heal the sick, and so on.  Only gathering to worship Christ is unique to the Church.  All these other things comprise parts of the Church, sure, even good parts.  And therefore churches should not stop practicing the love of Christ in these (and other) ways.  But why does the Church need pastors of outreach, technology, young families, seniors, administration, and so on to make these happen?  Laypeople can do all of these things very well–and clergy can and should encourage and enable them to do so.  But only corporate worship of Christ around the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist is uniquely the Church’s.  Shouldn’t this, then, be the special focus of ordained ministers?


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