October 20th, 2019
In William Goldman’s, The Princess Bride, Vizzini gets into the habit of saying, “Inconceivable!”
To which Inigo Montoya eventually objects, saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Such is often the case when folks in the modern world hear the expression, “liberal arts education.”
Right out of the gate, in order to explain how Kepler offers students a unique and valuable education, we need to do the hard work of unpacking the meaning of this expression because it comes with an unfortunate load of baggage in the modern world.
David Goodwin humorously illustrates this point in The Classical Difference when he likened his first encounter with the confusing expression unto finding a treasure in the mud that needed cleaning off.
He writes, “My mind locked immediately on an unfortunate image: ‘liberal’ as opposed to conservative, ‘arts’ as a euphemism for joblessness, and ‘education’—a hoop-jumping, time-passing exercise that consumes the first quarter of your life.”
But as Goodwin went on to discover, nothing could have been further from the truth.
By speaking of a liberal arts—sometimes called classical—education, we at Kepler mean the Christ-centered work of preparing students for life by teaching them to appreciate, apprehend—and approximate their lives with—that which is true, good, and beautiful in the cosmos.
But this statement alone is still not enough to convey the significance of the kind of education that is meant.
In one very particular sense, the liberal arts refer to the medieval educational model comprised of the trivium (Latin: three paths) and the quadrivium (Latin: four paths) popularized by Boethius (477–524 AD) and Cassiodorus (485-585 AD) in the early Middle Ages.
The Trivium consists of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and is considered the lower or foundational division of a liberal arts education, while the Quadrivium consists of arithmetic (pure numbers), geometry (numbers in space), music (numbers in time), and astronomy (numbers in space and time) and is considered the upper division of learning.
Then again, as many have both argued and demonstrated, a liberal arts education is much more than an educational structure—although it is certainly not less than one. This compels us to define a liberal arts education another way, by analyzing the etymology of the nomenclature itself.
First, it should be pointed out that to associate the word liberal in this context with modern political culture would be grossly misleading. Rather liberal is derived from the Latin root liber which has two fundamental definitions: 1) free from; and 2) the inner bark of a tree as associated with writing, a book, volume, catalogue, or letter.
From the latter comes the Latin word, libereri (i.e. Eng. library) and from the former comes the Latin adverb libere, meaning freely; and more specifically, the Latin adjective līberālis means freedom, of free citizens, gentlemanly, honorable, generous, liberal, handsome.
As can be seen from the etymology, a liberal arts education has to do with freedom, or more specifically the education of free people, of a free society.
To this point, the late Christian humanist and educator, James Schall, aptly points out, “Certain disciplines, particularly what is known from Aristotle as ‘metaphysics,’ are called freeing subjects. Such ‘liberal’ discipline is undertaken ‘for its own sake,’ that is, the purpose of the knowledge gained is not to ‘do’ anything with it. Just to ‘know’ something is itself a pleasure…”
In other words, liberal refers to the fact that there is such a kind of knowledge in which humanity, if such humanity is to govern themselves as freemen (as opposed to being enslaved), ought to know for sheer pleasure of knowing it. Elsewhere, Schall explains what, in essence, this knowledge consists of: “The liberal arts are not one person’s invention, but rather represent the collected wisdom of many generation and nations. We should recognize, from the beginning, that these ‘freeing’ or ‘liberal’ arts are not simply a body of books to read, but a way of life enabling us to be free enough to know the truth of things.”
Next, the word art is derived from the Greek word, τέχνη (technē), meaning craft or trade. The idea of an art in this sense might best be described as the tools and skills free people need to create meaningful and purposeful lives.
As David Goodwin notes, “Two hundred years ago, art was simply anything created by a human for a purpose—very useful and beautiful stuff…But the specific category of ‘liberal arts,’ then and now, speaks of the set of tools used by free men to lead and live wisely.”
Finally, the word education might—surprisingly—be the most misunderstood of all words, because the word is often associated with job training. But as Schall notes, “Education, moreover, was not a ‘thing.’ The word educere means to bring forth, or to complete something already begun by the very fact that one is a human being.”
It could be said that education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue within a person, the enlarging of one’s soul and intellect; but one thing an education is not, is job training.
In Platonic terms, an education is to be delivered from the cave of images where the true light of the sun illuminates what is real. Additionally, to be educated, is to know and to be able to articulate truth; but it is not only to know what the truth is, and not only to be able to articulate what the truth is, “but also to be able to explain the false views …and to know “what it is to be unintelligent and vicious.” This is, Schall explains, “a considerable part of being intelligent and virtuous.”
Kepler is a consortium of teachers who believe that real education is not simply an accumulation of disconnected categories of knowledge, but that the development of a truly humane person can only be accomplished through the liberal approach of exploring the inter-connectedness of ideas and categories of human thought.
Thus, a liberal arts education engages the classic texts of the poets and philosophers—the primary sources as opposed to ‘textbooks’—whose conversation on a vast number of humanity’s perennial ideas has shaped western civilization.
Additionally, teachers at Kepler, like the historic Christians before us, believe the Christian gospel is central to education and the two cannot be separated without compromising human flourishing or diminishing culture. Therefore, teachers at Kepler are committed to historic Christianity in doctrine and morality. As will be explained in a later post, we advocate for a “Mere Christian” approach as expressed in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.
To restate it in summary, Kepler is unique because it offers students a liberal arts (or classical) education. That is, our teachers do the Christ-centered work of preparing students for life by teaching them to read the great primary texts of the Western tradition in an effort to help them appreciate, apprehend—and approximate their lives with—that which is true, good, and beautiful in the cosmos.