Only Natural: Poetic Resonance between the Common and Liberal Arts

Chris Hall makes a case for reviving the common arts as part of the science curriculum.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

The lengthy split on its well-worn seat and the obtuse cant of its wobbly back attested to two things. First, the frequency of its use, and second, its immanent consignment to the dumpster. A note prominently attached to the pitiful figure read: “Can anything be done to save this?” The old footstool had shown up in my lab, part science space and part old school shop, with a heart-felt, hand-written hope for help.

In no time, the old footstool had become a lesson. It was brought back to the kindergarten classroom from whence it came, where the students gathered around its decrepit form to hear a tale of what it would soon become. Glue was applied, along with some speed clamps. Sanding took place, followed by some spot fixes and buffing. Strategic woodscrews placed tension here or there where it was needed most. To top it off, a new candy coating of bright yellow paint. The restored stool re-entered service within the week, but it occurred to me that the functionality of that stool far surpassed that of its physical form alone.

For these kindergarteners, and more than a little bit for their teacher, that stool was a model of redemption, and of the liberating power of the common arts. Without a little knowledge, hope had been lost. Brokenness was beyond repair. But with a little shop savvy and some elbow grease, what was lost was made anew, and in the process, changed the way these students understood their relationship to the physical world around them.

The liberal arts were named at a time when the most important skill for freemen was to be able to participate in civic matters, which required moving beyond the concerns of simple crafts to the art of statecraft. There is no debate about whether or not the liberal arts are important for us to impart to our children today, but what if our culture has moved us so far from the experience of the real that a driving need of our children today, particularly our youngest learners, is to balance their experience in the liberal arts with a return to learning about the non-virtual world through their hands and their senses? And even more pressing: what if their education for the Kingdom demands this paradigm shift as much as their education for the world of men?
Richard Louv, in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, coins the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the increasing lack of natural experience that children face today as their entertainment becomes centered around electricity-driven virtual realities1. In losing touch with the natural world, the very world which Jesus uses to frame up so many parables, our students are losing touch with the source of their physical and metaphorical daily bread. They are losing the ears by which they could hear. Jaron Lanier, pioneer of digital media, in his book You Are Not A Gadget laments that “A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become” due to the de-humanizing effects of recent technological saturation2. In losing touch with a real social landscape and pursuing the fruits of vainglory, our students are placing themselves first and their neighbors second. And perhaps the most quoted of all, C.S. Lewis laments in the third chapter of The Abolition of Man that the modern aims of applied science are more akin to that of the medieval magician, who sought to bend nature to his own desires, than to the wisdom of the men of old, who sought to know nature that they may be in resonance with wisdom, with God3. In losing our humility and recasting our place in the natural world through the social imaginary of a detached, omnipotent science, are we training our students to be the wild vines in the vineyard?

We need to ask ourselves: if we teach our students in the purely modern, secular way, are we foregoing
the opportunity to show them nature in light of charity, holism, and thanksgiving? Can we develop a pedagogy that maintains the rigor necessary to become world-class scientists while also preserving a vision, not only of creation but of the practice of science itself, that is deeply in dominio Dei?

Fortunately, John Milton had an answer to these questions in 1644. Speaking squarely from the middle of the time period in which our modern paradigms about science were being formed, Milton advocated a holistic educational experience based upon the liberal and the common arts working in concert:

And having thus passed the principles of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and geography, with a general compact of physics, they may descend in mathematics to the instrumental science of trigonometry, and from thence to fortification, architecture, engineering, and navigation…. To set forward all these proceedings in nature and mathematics, what hinders but that they may procure, as oft as shall be needful, the helpful experiences of hunters, fowlers, fishermen, shepherds, gardeners, apothecaries;…. And this will give them such a real tincture of natural knowledge, as they shall never forget, but daily augment with delight.4

Milton is advocating nothing less than a meeting in the middle between the liberal and the common arts. The trivium and quadrivium form the academic foundations, while the common arts form the “tincture of natural knowledge”, the experiences in real application, that will allow the student to become not only fully functional, but fully charitable, in the world. The lessons of the book are not detached from the lessons of the heart through the hands, and in so doing, the head, heart, and hands are united in a holistic education.

Consider this list in light of typical school settings, and it becomes clear that every discipline could be refracted through a common art. Warfare is generally precluded, but the skills of hunting could just as easily be taught by switching one set of optics for another: trade rifle scopes for cameras by creating a photography elective, and teach students how to set up for shots in the wild. Medicine makes its way into PE/Gymnastics through training in First Aid and CPR. Simulations in history class can lead to excellent experiences in trade: could your school develop an internal economy that honors the biblical admonitions to love your neighbor and avoid usury?

However, the easiest of all applications is in the science classroom. Each of these arts involves a rooted, real-world, applied understanding of physics, chemistry, biology, and/or earth science. Framing instruction in science could be as simple as hinging your curriculum on these arts and letting the information fall into place within the context of formation: as each is practiced, the science that undergirds each is explored and experienced first hand.

Three examples of applied common arts in our science program at The Covenant School are the Skills of the Tracker, multi-generational gardening, and the Ancient Technology Project.

Skills of the Tracker: Hunting Without Hunting, for Children

Our youngest learners are literally primed to make sense of the world by using their senses. These God-given gifts, meant to be used in an orderly way, are there to help them perceive the world all around.

They are also primed for narratives. Stories impart wisdom, and through them, students learn to make sense
of what they experience. Narrative frameworks set the interpretive frameworks by which future experiences can be understood.

Imagine if our youngest learners learned science not in the lab, but in the garden, where senses and story are the gateways to a whole world of experiences, and you have the essence of the Skills of the Tracker units.

These experiences run progressively through grades 1-3. At the first level, students start with a story: Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen. This beautifully written and illustrated story about a father and daughter out on a winter’s night calling in an owl frames the experiences to come. Students learn that they need to be silent, to be brave, to “make their own heat”, and to follow the lead of a mentor who knows what to do in order to be successful. Students are taught how to walk silently, how to extend their hearing with “deer ears” and to use blurred vision to capture animal movement in the visual clutter of the leaf canopy. They practice hearing bird language, and interpreting the calls that our local birds make as they forage, call companions, and flee from danger. They learn the rudiments of natural history by taking time to sketch what they see outside, and not just the big picture: sometimes they are called to pay careful attention to the tiniest objects, which reveal their complexity when not quickly passed over. Through this experience, coupled with Scripture readings that highlight and place what they see in context, students learn rigorous scientific observation without learning to see the world as something to be dominated. They graph their findings, use field guides, keep field journals, and use the tools of science, but they do not catch the narrative that says that science is there for us to dominate nature. Rather, they learn that science is a way to see God smiling back at us from the garden no matter where we turn.

In the later grades, students continue to hone their basic skills while also exploring tracking pits, the movement of the sun (and its relation to timekeeping), observing from a single spot through all the seasons, and more. As they engage these experiences, they learn the scientific facts and processes within a context that is larger than the information itself. They also learn within a framework that is inherently cross-curricular: history plugs in at every step, as well as reading, writing, mathematics, and the fine arts.

Multi-Generational Gardening: Agricultural Mentorship

In keeping with the Christian practice of hospitality and the building of community, we are taking steps towards a multi-generational approach to gardening. In a chapter of his book The Dumbest Generation called “Betraying the Mentors”, Mark Bauerlein laments the loss of mentorship in a culture of self-expression. Mentors are seen as getting in the way of expression, rather than as guides who have already walked these paths before, and are here, in charity, to share their wisdom.5

In seeking to actively undermine this cultural paradigm while also building our school community, we have asked not only parents, but grandparents, to share their expertise with our young students in our box and field plot gardens. From vegetable whisperers to flower powerhouses, we are drawing our constituents into our common space to share knowledge and to cultivate beauty. We are also actively breaking the standard school year cycle by asking our end-of-year 2nd graders to plant the corns, beans, and squash they will share with next year’s 2nd graders in their annual 2nd-3rd potlatch supper.

All of these practices refine the sense that mentorship is valuable. It can come at many different levels and in many different forms, and as such, it forms cross- connections within our community and timeframes that might otherwise go unnoticed, or simply become lost, in the hustled pace of modern living.

Ancient Technology Project: History Meets Science Meets Shop Class

Our 6th grade students finish a History unit on Ancient Greece and Rome at about the same time they finish a Science unit called Awesome Architecture, which deals with the basics of atomic physics, chemistry, and mechanics. Bringing these two units together is as simple as asking one question: How would a modern understanding of materials help us to recreate ancient technologies using authentic materials? The answer to this question involves applied science, history, and power tools.

After picking an artifact to create, say a Roman lorica segmentata, students research a historically-accurate design, trace its history, and prepare a list of materials necessary to build a working model. Students render complete rough draft plans on paper, including all measurements and expanded diagrams of engineering challenges. While they are doing so, they alternate class days between the library and the shop, where they learn the basics of tool safety, selection, and technique. Students prototype portions of their design, test them, and make improvements upon their design before crafting a final artifact for presentation to parents and other school constituents at our annual STEM Night. Their presentations not only involve their craft, but also a refinement of their eloquence: students are provided a list of questions ahead of time that they must prepare to address.

There are plenty of success stories and failures along the way. Students realize, not just by instruction but through their hands, that wood has a grain or that metal is microcrystalline by working these materials themselves. They apply their knowledge of chemistry and mechanics to devise ways to craft, solve problems, analyze failures, and improve designs, all the while cultivating the virtues of fortitude, prudence, patience, and careful observation.

Students also acquire a skill set and disposition that is lacking in our disposable culture: things can be fixed, and we have the capacity, if we have the knowledge and the frameworks of understanding, to fix. This is as liberal as you get: it frees the self from being utterly at the whim of those who know how, while coupling the knowledge of the hands with that of the heart and of the head.

This is also STEM at its best, while mitigating its worst. There are no pre-fabbed materials, virtual problems, or even the simplicity of telling a machine what to do. This is craft. It requires all the logic, all the problem-solving, plus an additional embodied element of craftsmanship that is lacking in many modern, boxed programs.

Doug Stowe, a blogger who writes “Wisdom of the Hands”, posted the following quote. It was subsequently quoted by Matthew B. Crawford as an opener for the first chapter of his 2009 book Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into The Value of Work.

[I]n schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving
of their full attention and engagement…. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.6

Contained within this quote are all the reasons why the common arts are resonant with the liberal arts. Without a context, we run the risk of decontextualizing what we teach, and in so doing, unwittingly perpetuating frameworks which allow for scientism to become a force within our culture. If we can reclaim some ground by re-instituting the common arts within our programs, we not only foster the best of the head, heart, and hands within our students, but we also give them a freedom that cannot be had simply by the exploration, no matter how broad or how deep, of a world of abstract ideas alone.