Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education

I enjoy writing book reviews. I love reading, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts and recommendations with my friends and online groups because (as many of you know) I am also passionate about the power of books to nourish our souls. I have often said that I believe that stories and books provide the fertile soil in which Truth, Goodness, and Beauty can take root in our hearts and grow into wisdom and virtue. So when I read a great book—fiction or nonfiction—that nurtures my heart and soul in that way, I cannot wait to share all about it with my friends here at Plumfield and Paideia.

Until today.

The truth is, I have been procrastinating writing this review for months now and, even as I sit down to write, words fail me. It’s not that the book is hard to review; it’s just that it is so good and so important that I am afraid I cannot do it justice. My Plumfield and Paideia partner, Sara Masarik, and I joke that we often just want to say over and over, “This book is just SO good…read it!” And that is exactly what I want to say about The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain. This book is just SO good. Read it.

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There have been so many discussions about Christian Classical Education in recent days. People are asking: what is Classical Education? Why is it important? Why do the “experts” seem to disagree on what it entails? What is the Trivium? How is classical education different from modern educational philosophy? What do I need to know in order to teach classically? Novices and veterans alike have lent their voices to the conversation as they attempt to recover an understanding of the fundamentals of a philosophy of education that has been out of fashion for decades (or centuries). It can all be a bit mind-boggling.

That is why I am profoundly grateful to Clark and Jain for their contribution to the conversation via The Liberal Arts Tradition. I felt that, as I was reading it, I was able to sort through the cacophony and gain a solid understanding of the history, development, and importance of a true Christian classical education for the first time.

Clark and Jain come right out of the gate with a somewhat controversial thesis:

“The seven liberal arts were never meant to stand on their own as the entire curriculum, for they are designed particularly for cultivating intellectual virtue. Since human beings are more than just intellects, however, the curriculum must develop more than just intellectual virtue. Creatures formed in God’s image must be cultivated in body and soul – mind, will, and affections.”

Now, I had always had an inkling that there was more to Classical Education than grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the Trivium). When I learned a bit more about the other four liberal arts (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—the Quadrivium), I thought that perhaps I had found the missing piece of the puzzle.  According to Clark and Jain, however, the seven liberal arts are part of a much larger model that makes up the education of the whole person–mind, heart, and body. In other words, there is much more to Christian Classical Education than even the seven liberal arts. For a girl who cut her “classical” teeth on the understanding of the Trivium from Dorothy Sayers, and who originally planned her curriculum via The Well Trained Mind, this idea was somewhat revolutionary for me.

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Clark and Jain argue that the seven liberal arts actually fit within a much larger educational narrative that is “grounded in piety and governed by theology.” It includes not only the seven liberal arts, but also gymnastic, music, and philosophy. They use a somewhat awkward and hard to remember acronym to describe this comprehensive model of Christian Classical Education: PGMAPT (Piety, Gymnastic, Music, Arts, Philosophy, and Theology).  And although the acronym itself may be forgettable, the model it represents is remarkable. They assert that:

“This full-orbed education aims at cultivating fully integrated human beings, whose bodies, hearts, and minds are formed respectively by gymnastic, music, and the liberal arts; whose relationships with God, neighbor, and community are marked by piety; whose knowledge of the world, man, and God fits harmoniously within a distinctly Christian philosophy; and whose lives are informed and governed by a theology forged from the revelation of God in Christ Jesus as it has been handed down in historic Christianity.”

And, in my humble opinion, they deliver. Although the book is a short 150 pages, they cover each of the components of their model in great detail. They explain how, even before one begins education in the seven liberal arts, one must start with a foundation of piety, gymnastic, and music. And education doesn’t end with the Trivium and Quadrivium either; it continues, ultimately, with philosophy and theology. Thankfully, they lay out all of the components of the model each step of the way. For this reason, this book is essential for every classical educator, whether veteran or novice, and regardless of the age of the student. My boys are 7, 5, and 3, and I am deeply grateful that Clark and Jain have provided a roadmap for how I should approach the education of my young children if I want to give them a Classical Christian Education, even though we are not yet ready for the Trivium.

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Clark and Jain are particular about terminology and seek to bring clarity to the muddy waters that the differing definitions of terms has caused in the Christian Classical Education conversation. Their treatment of each person who has contributed to the Classical Christian Education revival thus far, from Sayers to Susan Wise Bauer to Littlejohn and Evans, is deeply respectful. I believe that regardless of where one is in her understanding of classical education or what model of classical education one currently follows, The Liberal Arts Tradition can provide coherence and insight into the fundamentals of the educational philosophy and methodology as a whole. More philosophical than practical, it allows educators to lean into the Holy Spirit as they implement the ideas that they put forth. Clark and Jain do provide extensive footnotes and bibliography for further reading and study, as their book seeks to serve as a mere introduction to Christian Classical Educational philosophy.

I think this is essential reading for anyone who is interested in Christian Classical Education, particularly if you are like me and agree with Clark and Jain that:

“If education is enculturation, then we are not just fighting for our schools. We are fighting for the entire culture of Western Civilization.”

In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain have given us extensive ammunition to fight for the preservation of our civilization through a Christian Classical Education.

This book is just SO good. Read it.

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