Classical schools teach the liberal arts, which developed in the early years of western history, in the civilizations that produced some of the oldest achievements still widely recognized and used today.
During the decline of Rome, the liberal arts were adopted and adapted by the great Christian teachers that shaped the civilization of the Middle Ages. Following the lead of the ancient masters, they emphasized lofty ideals that make humans the creatures that we are. Our minds were given to contemplate thoughts that transcend earthly life and inspire us to greatness in our character.
The transcendent ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty were recognized by Aristotle (330 B.C.), but also exemplified by Jesus Christ in fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. These ideals are the constant aim of classical education, meant to give young scholars an opportunity to become the best human beings that their personal gifts allow.
To understand the word liberal, one must recall that slavery was a blotch on history throughout the world before the time of America. (That’s what made the Declaration of Independence so revolutionary. It declared the fact self-evident that “all men [i.e. people] are created equal.”) A liberal education in a slave world was an education for free people (līberī in Latin). Slaves were not allowed to receive it; they had a limited, servile education. It was understood that a free citizen should be able to think independently and be informed about a wide variety of things. Think of Maximus in Gladiator. His liberal arts education (among other things) set him apart from the other gladiators, and allowed him to quickly prove himself their superior. In most places before America, free women were second-class citizens. Free girls did not receive the same education as their male counterparts. But since the 19th Century, the liberal arts were improved here by the expectation that girls and boys both deserve a liberal education. Girls, boys, human beings of every age and race are līberī.
The term liberal arts is plural because there are seven. The first three are language-oriented, and the last four take in the study of Creation. At the elementary and middle-school level the emphasis is on the first three, called the trivium, meaning “triple way” or “threefold way.” Higher level education places greater emphasis on the last four, the quadrivium.
The trivium contains three areas of study that are subjects and also stages of learning within any subject. They are called grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar is about memorizing the facts, the building blocks – the practice of young children. Logic teaches the relationships between them and nuances of meaning – the delight of middle-grade students. Rhetoric studies the art of self-expression – the intent of middle to high school students.
The quadrivium traditionally includes mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music. Today these areas branch into all parts of science and technical artistry. While the trivium absorbs most of the effort for beginning scholars, the quadrivium takes the front seat at higher grade levels.
Parents and schools should use the classical approach to education because it provides an excellent way to prepare young minds to meet the widest variety of possible future circumstances, using God’s gifts to the fullest. Our whole community benefits from classical Lutheran education because Christian civilization must be taught, and that’s exactly what classical Lutheran education does.