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Liberal Arts Overview

The Liberal Arts at Living Water College

n order to provide an education for the artist, rather than for the philosopher or theologian, it is important to tailor the Liberal Arts so that they suit the student with an artistic disposition and interest.

The essence of the Liberal Arts is that they are arts, more than subjects. They are skills which have to be developed, rather than information or knowledge to be memorized. These skills are the three arts having to do with thinking properly (the Trivium: Logic, Grammar, Rhetoric), and the four arts having to do with the things to think about (the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music), which together lead to philosophy.

At Living Water, the Liberal Arts curriculum is distinguished by its method of instruction and by its Catholic context. In its method of instruction, the college uses the “Great Books” as the subject matter. Students assimilate the teachings of the great authors not through lectures or textbooks, but through reading, seminar discussions, dialogue and writing. This method of learning, called Socratic dialogue, is incomparable in its effect on the students. The Great Books study forces them to wrestle with the fundamental thoughts proceeding from truth (without preconceived notions obtained from second-hand interpretations normally conveyed through lectures). In discussion, students express these thoughts in an atmosphere aimed at an educated open-mindedness. Under the guidance of a tutor, they review the opinions around the table candidly, trusting that their fellow students are companions, not critics, in their search for truth.

What distinguishes it as Catholic is that all of the liberal arts, while retaining their classical form, are ordered toward Philosophy, and ultimately toward Theology. This spirit of Christianity infuses the entire program at Living Water College, starting with the personal faith of each student and reaching into the daily classrooms and studios where their training develops.

 

Why the Liberal Arts at Living Water College?

The person is a unity of different parts. With St. Paul, we can reflect and pray, “May God keep you …spirit, soul and body…until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Just as our bodies cannot function without our souls, so the artist cannot truly flourish without developing his intellect. The artist who has grasped the truth in his mind, will be much more effective in the expression of beauty through his art. His expression and artistic creativity will be grounded in truth, formed in truth, and be a living reality because it will point to the truth.

 

What are the Liberal Arts?

Today, one can attend nearly any university and find a Liberal Arts department. Most people know the Liberal Arts simply as “the Arts” or “the Humanities”: literature, philosophy, history. Modern or non-Christian approaches to the Liberal Arts have robbed them somewhat of their full meaning and importance; and being taught as material to be memorized rather than concepts to be wrestled with has robbed them of their greatest impact. Traditionally, always presented by means of Socratic dialogue, the Liberal Arts have formed our culture. To truly understand and appreciate their necessity, we must look at their origins and developments in Ancient Greece and Rome and their subsequent flourishing within Christianity and Catholic European culture.


Roots in Ancient Greece and Rome

Allegory of the Seven Liberal Arts,
Marten de Vos


The Liberal Arts have been foundational in the development and formation of Western culture and civilization. They find their roots in the classical Greek and Roman worlds. The Greeks, and later the Romans under Greek influence, attained a certain ‘golden age of learning’ between 500-336 BC. The pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty were highly valued. Democratic beginnings of government were discussed and implemented. Important questions were asked and pondered: why is there something rather than nothing--what is man’s purpose on earth--what is the proper ordering and function of a city?


The Pursuit and Ordering of Knowledge

Through this pursuit of knowledge and wisdom (philosophy--love of wisdom) they began to articulate and communicate what it is men and women seek and desire. Various branches of learning, different disciplines began to emerge. The most basic was philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge in the broadest sense; also, the methods used to reason--logic, argumentation, dialogue, rhetoric; questions of the city and the people were directed towards politics and government; geometry, astronomy, music and even medicine find their roots in this blossoming of learning.

The word liberal is from the Latin word liber, meaning free. The attainment of knowledge was something that distinguished free men from slaves. Beyond this literal meaning there is something much more than free access to education. The Liberal Arts free us from ignorance and indifference and prepare our minds and hearts for the desire and reception of the truth.


The Liberal Arts and Christianity

With the coming of Christ and the spread of Christianity, the pursuit of knowledge found its fulfillment for people of all time, all places and all cultures. Knowledge that had been attained by human thinking and reasoning was deepened by the revelation of God in Christ. Christ revealed himself as the Truth and continues to do so to each of us.

During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was the strongest proponent of education throughout Europe. The cathedral schools, and later the universities, were a result of the Church’s support for the Liberal Arts. In Medieval Europe the Liberal Arts were divided into two sections, based on the classical Greek and Roman roots. The first was the Trivium which included grammar, rhetoric and logic. Mastery of the Trivium was then complemented by the Quadrivium--geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music.

The Trivium equips our minds, giving us the tools necessary for analysis and critical reasoning. Knowing the structure of language--grammar, its persuasive use--rhetoric, and reasonable argument and discussion--logic, enables us to use our reason to its fullest capacity, to go in earnest pursuit of the truth in whatever discipline it may be found. The Quadrivium reveals the order of the universe, of reality, the harmony of nature and knowledge. Intellectual ability in these areas prepares us to ask the deeper questions and pursue philosophy, placing us on the threshold of the ultimate truths. Within Christianity this approach opens us to Divine Revelation and knowledge of the Person of Christ.


Why study the Liberal Arts?

The Liberal Arts open the soul to the only reality that will ultimately satisfy--the Truth. As Saint Augustine said, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him. We could add that the intellect, or the mind is dissatisfied until it has found the Truth. Since God designed the intellect for truth, it is our responsibility to seek out and fulfill this need, this hunger. Only then do we realize our true worth and purpose--to rest in God, to fix our minds upon the Truth. Because the Liberal Arts train us to think logically, to examine reality, they prepare us for the Truth. Aside from this ultimate goal, the Liberal Arts are in many ways, a very practical education as well. Some of the benefits these benefits are outlined below:

Education for Life

The Liberal Arts prepare us for life--both in this world and in the next. Throughout life each of us experiences joys and sufferings, blessings and trials, challenges and setbacks. Knowing the framework of reality--where we have come from, where we are going--is a great security. When we can work within a framework we know is authentic, we are much better equipped to handle life in all its ups and downs. The Liberal Arts, while not solving all of our problems per se, nevertheless give us assurance that we do not need to be determined by our circumstances. They keep us focused on what is truly important, what ultimately matters. They help us put first things first.

Critical Reasoning

Grammar, rhetoric, and logic especially, should be viewed as the athletic program of the mind. The mind, just like the body, if not kept in shape, will become lazy, lethargic and unable to function to its fullest. Whether we write a letter expressing a view on a political issue, become involved in debate on a moral issue, need to give persuasive answers at a job interview--or a host of other situations throughout life--it is necessary for us to be able to reason critically if we even hope to be understood, let alone convince others of our position.

Reading, Writing and Communication Skills

Critical reasoning could be considered the backbone or the root of these other skills. Unless we can reason well, we will not be able to read well, write well or communicate well. Reading, writing and communicating--whether through speaking, or in the case of the artist, through his medium, are the things that put flesh on the backbone of our right reason. Our reading, writing, communicating, artistic expression, are all things that point to the truth we as persons have discovered. An education in the Liberal Arts is the best preparation for an authentic and effective expression of the True, the Good and the Beautiful.