The term “liberal arts” is frequently used in a way that obscures its actual meaning. The word “art” means “skill” or “craft.” An art is a skill that produces something. For instance, the art of carpentry is a skill that produces the frame of a house, a bookcase, or an intricate piece of trim work. An art is learned through imitation, practice, and reason—a person becomes a carpenter by watching and imitating carpenters, practicing what they do, and gaining a deep and wide understanding of wood, angles, blades, and methods for joining. If a person were to only read books about carpentry, he or she would not be a carpenter. One has to to practice the skill productively in order to attain it, which requires countless repetitions of imitation, practice, and reasoning.
All arts work in this same way. The fine arts (such as painting, drawing, and sculpture), the performing arts (such as theater, dance, and music), and the common arts (such as carpentry, cooking, and navigation) require imitation, practice, and reason in order to produce a worthwhile work. While various kinds of arts seem to require or attract people who are creative, artistic creativity is properly understood to be the productive result of imitation, practice, and reason. If one wants to be creative, then he or she must first submit to the boundaries of the discipline.
Like the fine, performing, and common arts, the liberal arts are skills. They are called “liberal” because they involve freedom. In one sense, the arts themselves are free in that they are pursued for their own sake. Unlike the common arts, which are practiced for the sake of survival and material gain, the liberal arts are pursued because they are fundamental to what it means to be human. In another sense, the liberal arts provide freedom to those who pursue them. They free students to think, learn, and wisely decide for themselves. The person who imitates, practices, and reasons according to the liberal arts produces the freedom to live fully as a human being, one who is made in God’s image and can engage the world joyfully. This person does not have to live as a slave to the propaganda of advertisers, the fearmongering of politicians, or the destructive temptations of his or her own sinful desires. The person skilled in the liberal arts is able to discern truth from falsehood, goodness from badness, and beauty from ugliness. He or she listens to the right voices and productively contributes to spreading peace and justice. This is real freedom.
There are seven liberal arts, comprised of three verbal arts and four mathematical arts. Words and numbers are foundational to how we understand and interact with the world and one another. All learning, all knowledge, and all culture-making rest upon our skill with words and numbers.
Academically speaking, the most important skills for young students to learn are the liberal arts, words and numbers. If they have a deep and wide foundation in these arts, from pre-Kindergarten until 12th grade, then they will be prepared to learn and engage other disciplines in thorough, integrative, and creative ways. If students try to specialize in disciplines too quickly, if they are taught simply to cram and regurgitate information for tests, or if they never read the best writings from human history, then their ability to reason, to understand complex ideas, to pay attention to the real world, or to solve significant problems will be underdeveloped, if not non-existent.
The seven liberal arts are divided into the three liberal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the trivium) and the four mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (the quadrivium). While each one of these arts has a rich history of development and varying ways of being understood and taught, they can be summed up in the following manner:
- Grammar is the skill of reading and interpreting
- Logic is the skill of reasoning
- Rhetoric is the skill of truthful persuasion
- Arithmetic is the skill of perceiving and relating discrete numbers
- Geometry is the skill of perceiving and relating continuous magnitudes, as in lines and shapes
- Astronomy is the skill of perceiving and relating magnitudes moving in time, primarily regarding the movements of the heavenly bodies
- Music is the skill of perceiving and relating discrete number changing in time in harmonious proportion.
Upon first glance, it may seem like most of these arts are foreign to a contemporary school’s curriculum (or absent altogether). However, understanding the liberal arts as skills, it is clear that many contemporary subjects are based upon these arts. For example, the modern subject of English usually includes teaching literature and composition, which are fundamentally the skills of grammar and rhetoric. Modern subjects in mathematics, like Algebra and Calculus, are progressions of the fundamental skills of arithmetic and geometry, respectively.
The primary difference between the liberal arts and modern subjects, however, is that modern subjects are usually taught in ways that prioritize simple acquisition of information and memorization while de-emphasizing the teaching of actual skills. For instance, modern ways of teaching mathematics require a rote adherence to memorizing a formula and plugging in numbers in order to solve a prefabricated problem, with no explanation of what the process represents, what skill is being learned, or what significant ideas are at stake. Modern ways of teaching history are usually nothing more than “covering” material, with no training in how to reason through the most important ideas and practices in a given culture.
By contrast, a Classical Christian curriculum that is built around the liberal arts is able to prioritize the most important skills of words and numbers that teach students how to think, discern, and synthesize in ways that are complex and practical.