The Liberal Arts Are the Foundation of Catholic Education

Catholic education intends to cultivate virtuous persons, “little Christs,” who can go into the world and change the world.

Herrad of Landesburg, “The Seven Liberal Arts,” ca. 1180
Herrad of Landesburg, “The Seven Liberal Arts,” ca. 1180 (photo: Public Domain)

We are approaching the end of Catholic Schools Week. This is the week each year that parochial and independent Catholic schools highlight the many valuable things they bring to the lives of students and families, and they contribute to their communities. Annually, we hear data about ways that Catholic school students consistently outperform students from other schools, and about their better performance at the college level. While these data are true and aid our perspective, we also must acknowledge that there have been trends in recent generations that have led us astray from the Church’s vision for holistic education. If we want Catholic schools and students to thrive, we must reclaim the Church’s vision for education, which is founded upon the liberal arts.

To capture the Church’s vision for education, we need look no further than the Declaration on Christian Education from the Second Vatican Council, Gravissimum Educationis. In the opening section of that declaration, the Church envisions that students “should be trained to acquire gradually a more perfect sense of responsibility … in the pursuit of liberty …” There is no form or mode of education that helps students and communities pursue true liberty like the liberal arts. From learning to think logically and present a reasoned, convincing argument, these are the arts that foster a fulfilled life in any person who practices them.

So, what are these liberal arts that the Church presents to us? First, there is the classical trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric. This is the foundational set of disciplines that opens up basic and clear thought and communication. These three foundational disciplines are taught most effectively in primary education, and then habituated and reinforced throughout the remaining years of schooling.

After the trivium comes the quadrivium, the set of four subjects consisting of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. These can become more robust and central to curricula as students age and mature. These seven have been known for millennia, even before the advent of Jesus Christ and the Church, to provide the best foundation for human beings think, express themselves and lead truly good lives.

Further, our Catholic faith reminds us that education is about more than grade-point averages and scholarship dollars. The crucial focal point of a Catholic education is the “well-balanced perfection of the human personality” in students. It is in this balance that students become virtuous and by which their whole lives, from school to sport to civic service become “inspired by the spirit of Christ.”

In short, Catholic education intends to cultivate virtuous persons, “little Christs,” who can go into the world and change the world. The liberal arts open up that path to conversion and virtue far better than any other educational method.

To this end, the Council fathers proclaim that a Catholic school fulfilling its mission and purpose “so orients the whole of human culture to the message of salvation that the knowledge which the pupils acquire of the world, of life, and of men is illumined by faith.” This light of faith and message of salvation has largely been rejected by those imbued with the modern spirit of scientism. Charles Darwin remarked that advancements in science provides the best “illumination of men’s minds.” There is a trend in education, even in Catholic schools, to capitulate to the movement of modern culture. Many people believe that science, technology, engineering,and mathematics (STEM) are the proverbial wave of the future, not to mention the pathway for much necessary funding. But we must ask if these disciplines divorced from philosophy, theology and the humanities causes a truncation of students’ souls.

So, how does the Church stand in relation to modern trends in education, particularly the movement within our culture to focus intensely on STEM programs? It is important to remember that the classical quadrivium, the four subjects that make up the second plane of curriculum, is closely aligned with STEM. Arithmetic and geometry are mathematics, and astronomy (which includes physics) is science. Technology and engineering are the practical applications of the knowledge gained in the earlier subjects. Still, a person will have an easier time applying knowledge from the firm foundation of good grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Dr. Jeremy Rotty, director of the biomedical research laboratory at the Uniformed Services University, makes this very point as he acknowledges the indispensable place of the liberal arts, even in STEM:

I think many of my successful peers come from a liberal arts background, because it's a setting that teaches you how to think, how to write, and how to convince others of your position. I tell my students that every single thing they produce is an opinion piece, even if it is based on hard, empirical data. You have to craft a narrative. People who have not had practice at this in a liberal arts curriculum will likely struggle as these skills are applied, but not taught, in many STEM classes.

The declaration of the Church, along with statements like this from high-level academics, remind us that mathematics, science, engineering and technology flourish when they are built up from grammar, logic and rhetoric. The Catholic faith is in full favor of mathematics, science,and engineering, in their rightful places. Let’s recall that most of the advances of the modern world were made possible by Catholics’ participation and innovation in these disciplines. Still, those advances came after their innovators were well grounded in the classical liberal arts. It was only after mathematicians and scientists were grounded in grammar, logic and rhetoric that they were ready to excel in this next layer of intellectual and academic pursuit.

The Catholic faith still has something invaluable to contribute to society and culture, specifically through education. Some of these contributions may very well come in the areas of physics, biology, chemistry or geology. Yet, these contributions must be developed and presented with clarity and coherence, and in a good moral framework. Returning to the liberal arts as the foundation of education is the only way to provide such moral clarity and coherence. This is the best and strongest way to build up our children into the next generation of great thinkers, innovators, and leaders.