Before the student gets to this level, though, he should prepare for these disciplines by doing the beginning of every one of the liberal arts and sciences and by developing his intellectual powers and his habits of thought. Both aspects are important. This is the beginning of classical education, so it is classical education for children in grades one through twelve.
I would like to discuss the beginning of the arts and sciences first, and then talk about developing the students’ intellectual powers and habits of thought. All learning is cyclical. We learn first on an introductory level and then we come back to the same objects at a deeper level. This is easiest to see, I think, in mathematics. After one masters counting, the very next step is to learn the four operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) with respect to whole numbers. The rest of one’s mathematical career is spent learning the power of those operations. One adds, subtracts, multiples and divides fractions, then decimals and percents, then algebraic expressions, then trigonometric functions and then he uses them in calculus. This process is clearly a deepening of one’s understanding of what is first learned on a very simple level. All of this pertains to the foundation of the liberal art of arithmetic.
We follow the same process in every field. What young children do, if those who direct them are knowledgeable of the ends of classical education, are exercises that will prepare their minds and hearts for the deepest level of natural, and, finally, supernatural, knowledge.
The children learn the basis of all arithmetic, develop an acquaintance with the geometric figures, are exposed to great music, and study God’s effects in nature, including in the heavens. These are the beginnings of the arts of the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). They learn the basis of all language arts, reading and writing, which constitutes the beginning of the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic).
As the student matures, he continues to perfect these methods and subjects; he keeps coming back to them at a deeper level, developing his habits of thought. For example, in language arts preparation one is clearly preparing for the Trivium done in its fullness. The Trivium, as we have noted, consists of the arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric. It is worth also noting that all of these have to do with speech in some way or another. Grammar is concerned with the construction of the sentence, and its principles are the ways of signifying that determine the parts of speech.
Logic concerns the common method of procedure in all the sciences, and principally considers definition and reasoning, both of which are carried on through speech. Rhetoric is the art of speaking persuasively. In all of these there is a sort of making: one makes a statement, one makes an argument, and one makes a speech. In every course in our curriculum we work on perfecting these first connections with the arts that will lead to the sciences that will lead to natural and sacred theology.
Further, young students work on argumentation, so that they can eventually use rhetoric in the service of the truly noble. We teach our students to summarize, which is to order items according to importance instead of chronology, we teach them to identify an argument and then construct their own arguments. We teach them to develop their thoughts in paragraphs, so that they can develop them later in essays and papers using the rhetorical modes: exposition, argumentation, description and narration.
We explicitly, with our older children, introduce the ends of rhetoric into their regular assignments. I have found this to be very important for the high school student and I will talk about it later on in more detail. Rhetoric is of three kinds: the political, the forensic and the ceremonial. The political aims at establishing whether a proposed course of action is expedient or inexpedient; the forensic, whether an action done was just or unjust; and the ceremonial, whether someone deserves praise or blame. In our high school program we discuss and write about all three types of actions and characters. In my experience, the student in the rhetorical stage is interested in the high and noble, he cares about what is good and bad, and about what is blameworthy and praiseworthy. So the ends of rhetoric are by nature of interest to the high school student. This is a very real preparation for, and participation in, the Art of Rhetoric.
In the commentary of St. Thomas on Boethius’ De Trinitate, previously referenced, St. Thomas notes that the arts of the Trivium are used to produce compositions, and discourses, as well as syllogisms. We work on those throughout the curriculum.
We prepare for the sciences I have mentioned, too, such as the Physics, the De Anima, the Ethics, the Politics and the Metaphysics. We introduce our children to great literature. Through these works the student gains a sort of experience. The great works of literature appeal to the imagination and move the affections rightly. They present or imply profoundly important views of human life and reality as a whole. Similarly, the great works of history provide vicarious moral experience, a conception of human society, and an awareness of the greatest issues mankind faces. Such experience is necessary for judgment. All of this prepares the student well to read the more difficult things, such as Plato’s Dialogues, and then the Ethics and the Politics of Aristotle, at the right time. We introduce our children to the arguments our Founding Fathers had regarding the nature of the republic, and the particular “incarnation” of the form of mixed government that was appropriate to us, in this new land. This is the beginning of the study of the Politics. We have the children study natural science, particularly animal behavior, as a beginning to the study of the soul. For those of us who are consciously aware of the fullness of the classical curriculum, there is an intentional ordering of the parts of our curricula to that curriculum, so that the fullness of the classical curriculum can be achieved as excellently as possible when the time is right.
As regards the highest object of the classical curriculum, God Himself, the end of natural and supernatural theology, we are preparing our children for that knowledge from the moment they are born. We do that by the way we live, by the example we give them of Fatherhood, and of sacrificial love, and by the doctrine we teach them as soon as they are able to reason. All of this is their first introduction to the greatest truths, and to the object they will, with God’s grace, contemplate in eternity.
So the first point about classical education for children is that it is an education that prepares students for the content of the classical program in its fullness by giving them the beginning of every one of the disciplines: the Liberal Arts, the sciences, metaphysics and Sacred Theology. We prepare the children to do those arts and sciences fully by giving them the beginning of every one. These arts and sciences are ordered to an understanding of the causes of reality in the different disciplines, and all of it is ordered to an understanding of the Cause, Himself, in so far as that is possible in this life, through the study of metaphysics and ultimately Sacred Theology.
There is another point to consider, however. I have alluded to it already when I talked about intellectual powers and habits. To make this clear I want to talk about the difference between excellence and perfection. I think classical education is not only or even primarily an excellent education, but rather it is a way of perfecting the intellect, and there is an order in that process that has to be observed. Let me explain.
I once heard a speaker at a conference talking about excellence in education – her view was that more is better. More work, more facts, more expectations for the student. She didn’t want to hear any talk about flexibility – she thought that was simply a way of excusing mediocrity. Listening to her made me think about the word excellence, and how it should apply to education. It also made me wonder about the difference between perfection and excellence.
When we say something is excellent, like an excellent apple pie, we are saying that it is very good, but there is room for variation. Your apple pie and my apple pie may both be excellent, even though they are not identical. Or think about student papers. I often receive several excellent papers on the same topic, but they are certainly not the same. There can be different excellences in one order.
Perfection is different. God is perfect, not merely excellent. I can draw an excellent circle, one that is nearly perfect, or I can draw a perfect circle. (Well, I can’t, but if I could it would be something more than excellent.) Perfect has the notion of complete in it. When something is perfect, it can’t get any better. That means there is no potential in the subject that has not been actualized.
This is an important concept, both in itself and for our discussion of classical education. Potency is the ability to be, either to be simply, or to be in a certain respect. The wood of a tree, for example, has the ability to be a chair. It does not have the ability to be a knife. When the wood becomes a chair, it has been perfected in that respect – that is, its ability to be a chair has been actualized.
Now a student has the ability to learn, and when he actually learns we can say that he has perfected that ability. His intellect has a certain ability, or potency, with regard to knowledge, and as he learns, he perfects, or actualizes, that ability.
So when we talk about excellent education there are two notions we should consider. One is excellence – something that is very good in its order. And by itself, that notion allows for quite a lot of variation. But the other notion is education itself – which is the movement from ignorance to knowledge, the perfecting of the intellect. That seems to me the more important idea. How does one perfect the intellect? What is the best way to move the mind from ignorance to knowledge?
[Part II of this article on Perfecting the Intellect will appear in the next issue of The Journal.]