Truth for Beauty's Sake

Classical education has become popular in many home school and private Christian school communities over the last thirty years or so. Like so many ideas when they become popularized, this means that many of the principles of Classical education have been misunderstood by those attempting to classically educate. Classical education is an educational philosophy developed in the 12th and 13th centuries and based on Greek and Roman principles combined with a Christian view of the cosmos. Classical education today, however, is seen less as a philosophy of education and more as a method of education. This distinction is key.

Classical education is built around 2 courses of study: the trivium (3 ways) and the quadrivium (4 ways). Together these make up the 7 liberal arts. Most classical educators today, both home school and private school, focus exclusively on the trivium to the exclusion of the quadrivium. The trivium is made up of Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric. These were thought of as the modes of learning or skills or arts or disciplines, if you will, that equip a student to move forward into the deeper studies of philosophy and theology.

In 1947, Dorothy Sayers published an essay titled "The Lost Tools of Learning" that suggests that children have various stages of development at which they are especially suited for learning each of these disciplines. Younger children are particularly suited for studying grammar, young teens are particularly suited for learning dialectic reasoning, and older teens/young adults are particularly suited for rhetoric. Because of Sayers essay, which sparked the modern classical movement, many people today in classical education talk of the trivium as if it is synonymous with these stages. This is what I meant earlier by Classical Education becoming method rather than a philosophy. In earlier times, the trivium was not implemented in stages, and in many older classical schools that have been around since the 1800s, it is still not implemented in stages. The idea that the disciplines and skills of the Trivium can be implemented in this way is a good method, in my opinion, presented by Sayers, but only a method and not part of the core philosophy. In addition, because Sayers did not talk about the quadrivium (it was never her purpose to set forth an outline for a full-orbed classical education) many schools today ignore the quadrivium entirely.

All right, all that was just an introduction... Now on to the actual book I'm reviewing.

Truth for Beauty's Sake by Stratford Caldecott seeks to reintroduce the importance of the quadrivium and the seven liberal arts to education today. The quadrivium is made up of mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. While these things are often taught in schools today, they have lost the depth and purpose with which they were imbued in classical education. Arithmetic, for example, is seen now as merely quantitative: useful for calculating practical things for purposes of counting, engineering, programming, etc. However, though this is all part of mathematics, Caldecott points out that in a medieval Christian view of mathematics, numbers have sacred and poetic meanings, and the contemplation of mathematics can lead to deep philosophical and theological considerations. He points out that this poetic focus of math creeps into modern physics and other studies, but is not recognized in a widespread way. Geometry, likewise, is charged with poetic and sacred meaning, from contemplations on the Trinity based on pi, to contemplations of beauty based on phi. According to one legend, the discovery of irrational numbers, for example, caused the Pythagoreans to murder one of their own members in ancient times. It would be hard to think of Geometry causing such passion in modern times. Music (or harmonics, which is the old term for the study) stems from Mathematics and Geometry, and ideas about beauty and music are intertwined with those disciplines. The golden ratio (phi) in geometry, for example, corresponds closely to the major 6th interval in music which is considered by many to be the most aesthetically pleasing interval. Finally Caldecott points out how medieval astronomy was often based, not necessarily on observation, but on symbolism and meaning. It would not bother a medieval to learn that the picture he painted of the cosmos didn't correspond to reality. Indeed, in a fallen universe, he would not expect reality to conform to his ideal conception of it. Nonetheless, Caldecott believes that there is no contradiction between the empirical astronomy of today and the possibility of rich human meaning in the cosmos. 

Along the way, he emphasizes that we should think of these things (mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music) not simply as servile arts (designed for practical purposes) but as liberal arts (designed to make us free humans able to properly contemplate the creation and our Creator). Math is very useful in day to day life, but is important for its spiritual qualities even apart from its usefulness. Geometry is a great help to architecture, but both are means of expressing other truths. Learning to play music is a good skill (although actual playing of music was not included in the medieval quadrivium), but the study of music or harmonics apart from actually playing it helps us to contemplate astronomy (the music of the spheres) and mathematics and geometry in a higher way as we seek harmony in our lives and in the world around us. Finally, astronomy is good for the practical things it tells us about the universe, but, perhaps more importantly, for the things it teaches us about God.

This is, admittedly, a difficult book to read. It is scholarly and packed with footnotes. It runs the gamut from science and physics to philosophy and poetry. Caldecott writes of and integrates all of these disparate sources as if he expects that we are as familiar with them all as he is, which makes some high demands of the reader. His theology is pretty wonky in places as well, but I'll try not to judge him for that. The important thing here is to appreciate the picture he is painting for a full-orbed classical education and for the kind of person it produces.

This book is a great corrective to shortcomings in modern classical education as well as to our hyper-reductionistic modernity. It is thought provoking and bold; it is erudite and scholarly. And best of all, it approaches classical education as a philosophy (regarding what sort of person it produces and upon what principles it is based) and not merely a method (follow these three simple steps to academic excellence). If you are a teacher, administrator, or otherwise involved in classical education, I highly recommend this book!

Comments