Classical Education and the Arts of the Beautiful

Kevin Clark argues that the liberal arts and the fine/performing arts stand and fall together.

The Arts and the Liberal Arts

The traditional seven liberal arts are part of the wealth we have inherited from the classical world. The divisions of our school—Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric—bear the name of the first three of these liberal arts, which are often called the Trivium (from the Latin, meaning “the three paths”). The latter four—Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy—do not get as much press, but are nonetheless part of our core curriculum. The Ancients believed that these “arts” were not merely subjects to be mastered but sure and certain ways of forming in the soul those intellectual virtues that were necessary for acquiring true wisdom. Necessary, that is, but not sufficient. In order to acquire wisdom, one needs more than mere intellectual formation. This leads us to the fine arts, poetry, music, and drama—but not quite yet.

Knowing Truth, Doing Good

This year, our school community has been thinking and talking a lot about piety. Indeed, we are thankfully not merely thinking and talking, but praying and reading the Scriptures. This is not mere accoutrement, however; it is part of the day’s education. For, in the classical Christian tradition, faith and learning go together. But the interesting thing is that this is an inheritance from both our Christian and our classical forebears.

Educators in classical antiquity saw too that wisdom required not only the formation of the intellectual virtues but also the formation of the moral virtues: the practice of piety. While it is true that, being ignorant of the scriptural revelation of God that we enjoy as Christians, these men worshipped pagan gods, they nevertheless saw that the piety a person owed to the gods, to his family, and to his city or community is essential to and inseparable from true education. So much is this the case that such famous teachers as Plato and Aristotle express their doubts as to whether a man lacking moral formation is truly capable of reasoning. For them, the man who thinks rationally must act piously; that is, in some profound way, the moral and the intellectual are connected intimately together. This notion is also thoroughly biblical, I think. Consider the Proverbs, for example, where one finds that mere knowledge without piety (the fear of the Lord) is condemned as folly.

So, in the classical and Christian tradition, faith and learning, reason and piety, are integrated. But where and how does this integration take place? Our answer to this question is twofold and brings us finally to the role of the Arts of the Beautiful— music, drama, poetry, drawing, painting and sculpting—in the classical curriculum.

The Natural Location of Integration

In order to appreciate fully the answer to this question, we must keep in mind an important distinction: whereas the liberal arts are theoretical in nature and piety is practical, the Arts of the Beautiful are poetic and aesthetic. That is to say, while the liberal arts are primarily concerned with thinking and piety, with being and doing, the fine and performing arts are directed towards creating and adoring. Without delving too deeply into philosophy or theology, I should point out that this list—being, thinking, doing, making and adoring— are a human being’s principal acts. We exist, we think, we do, we create, and we love because we are human beings made in God’s image, and it is as united human beings that we do each of these things. The same man who loves is the one who thinks; the same one who creates acts ethically; and, of course, one has to exist to do any of these things. All this to say that human beings are themselves naturally integrated: One is variously employed in each of these acts, but is yet one person.

Integration, then, is not simply or even primarily a matter of thinking through our curriculum; it is a matter of our anthropology, our understanding of what makes human beings human. The children we are seeking to educate are integrated beings themselves and they need to be given an integrated education because this respects their nature as human beings made in the image of God. I would maintain that the Arts of the Beautiful are essential to our curriculum because they appeal to, develop, and resonate with our natural human capacity to create, to love, and to adore beauty. Failure to cultivate these arts is failure to recognize the nature of the children we are educating and, as such, is failure to achieve education in anything but a truncated sense.

Where then does the integration of faith and learning, reason and piety take place in our curriculum? The most basic answer to this question is that it takes place in the student, the integral human being made in God’s image. That is to say our curriculum is integrated because it flows from and is governed by our anthropology. But this is only the first part of our answer. As I indicated above, the full answer is twofold and is bound up with the Arts of the Beautiful. For, as we will see, these arts play an essential role in tuning the heart and nourishing the moral imagination.

A Surprising Discovery

When I first became interested in classical education as a teacher, I began to search everywhere to see how the great pedagogues of the past ordered their curricula. As I searched, I was amazed at what I found: the great teachers of the past had almost completely inverted the curriculum I expected to find. If classical education is anything, I thought, it is primarily an academically rigorous intellectual formation. It certainly is at least that, but as I read the early masters—Plato in his Republic and Aristotle in his Ethics—I found that they placed primary importance not upon intellectual formation but upon music and gymnastic, the tuning of the heart and the training of the body.

Interestingly, for Plato and Aristotle, gymnastic and music formed the entire curriculum until about age twenty! Now I should explain that these two subjects were not as specific as they are today. Gymnastic was apparently devoted to the entire physical conditioning of a child, and music dealt with everything the ancients believed to be inspired by the Muses (hence “music”): what we now call music, poetry, drama, and the fine arts, but also history and literature. In classical antiquity almost the entire education of children (who, mind you, would be in our Pre-K–12th grade program) was directed to physical training, discipline, singing, memorizing poetry, acting/imitating, drawing, sculpting, learning of the deeds of the great men of the past, and reading great literary works.

Training the Body, Tuning the Soul

But why? Why spend so much time in these two areas? The answer is simple: they saw that the disciplined physical training of gymnastic and the aesthetic, affective and emotional training of music are foundational to the acquisition of both the moral and the intellectual virtues. Consider what Plato writes in the Republic:

And, as we were saying, the united influence of music and gymnastic will bring [the reason and the passions] into accord, nerving and sustaining the reason with noble words and lessons, and moderating and soothing and civilizing the wildness of passion by harmony and rhythm (4.442a)

Plato did not have a doctrine of original sin, but he did see apparent in his students some sort of disorder that needed to be addressed before intellectual and moral reasoning could be pursued. He found that music and gymnastic were especially well suited for this. Plato writes, Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony nd their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful… he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why; and when reason comes he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar (3.402a, italics mine)

Of course, as Christians, we must reject Plato’s idea that aesthetic experience alone imparts grace—that is the special work of the Holy Spirit. His more general point, however, is compelling: the songs we sing, the stories we read, and the art we make and admire form our souls. If Plato is right, our musical education disposes us toward (or away from) truth and goodness.

I proposed above that the Arts of the Beautiful are essential to our curriculum because they appeal to, develop, and resonate with our natural human capacity to create, to love, and to adore beauty. A second reason that they are essential to our curriculum, however, is that they attune our souls to goodness and truth. Failure to cultivate these arts, then, is failure not merely to have certain aesthetic experiences, but it will also result in a failure to recognize goodness and truth when we find them.

The aesthetic and poetic training of the Arts of the Beautiful, therefore, forms and attunes the heart. This I submit is the location where moral and intellectual reasoning are held together. We will now turn finally to at least one of the ways how they are held together.

The Arts and the Moral Imagination

In his famous book, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis considers the effects of an education that neglects formation of the heart and the sentiment. As the title suggests, the effects are not salutary. His argument unfolds something like this: 1) judgments about the good (ethics) and the beautiful (aesthetics) are not merely descriptions of one’s personal feelings, but objective responses to reality; 2) these judgments are a function of intuition and imagination and, therefore, developed differently than the way we learn, say, math or science; 3) these judgments are nevertheless reasonable because value judgments and even reason itself are upheld by this intuition or imagination; 4) the imagination and intuition are enculturated, that is, formed through the process Plato referred to above as music and gymnastic.

For Lewis, then, the arts are not just decorations for our educational program, rather they are essential, even foundational. Without a well-stocked moral imagination, without trained sentiment, without a heart, there is no human flourishing. “It may even be said,” he writes, “that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.” The last reason I will offer in this discussion as to why the Arts of the Beautiful are essential to our curriculum, therefore, is that they more than anything else we do at the school are directed toward forming this “middle element” of the moral imagination. It is with this notion of the “middle element” that we complete our answer as to how faith and learning, reason and piety, are integrated. For, it is in the unified human being made in God’s image, whose heart has been tuned and whose moral imagination has been nourished, that moral and intellectual reasoning are held together.

In years past, my school has expressed its educational goal in the phrase, “Education for Life.” I would like to submit that this phrase is perhaps more true than those who coined it may have imagined. For as we have just seen, our lives as human beings made in God’s image are intellectual, moral and aesthetic. That is to say our lives are concerned with goodness, truth and beauty. The education we provide and the curriculum we embrace reflect this multifaceted and integrated life God has given us. The goal of education is of course to form whole, fully integrated people; people who think and do, but who also love and create. This means that our curriculum must flow from and be governed by our anthropology, that it must tune the heart, and that it must nourish the moral imagination. In other words, a classical school curriculum must include the Arts of the Beautiful.

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