Book Review: The Liberal Arts Tradition (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian theology of education. Find all the posts here.

Classical education is not a term which is easy to define. It is used of ancient and medieval and modern movements. It may be pagan or Christian or secular. I have tried to the past to make sense of some of the variety of what is out there. Today I have one more take on classical to add to that list: The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). 

Of all I have read on classical education, this volume is the most likely to make me veer in that direction. (That is actually high praise as I have been fairly critical of other classical sources I have reviewed.) There is a lot in this book so I will likely spread it out over a few posts. Today I’d like to try to introduce Clark ans Jain’s philosophy to you and to focus on what makes it classical, what makes it Christian, and where it stands in the broader field of classical ed. 


Purposes and Intellectual Context

The authors offer two justifications for their book. They argue that “the seven liberal arts were never meant to stand on their own” and that “the curriculum must develop more than just intellectual virtue.” (p. 2). The first of these refers to how the various fields of knowledge relate to one another. The second alludes to the goals of education.

The bulk of The Liberal Arts Tradition addresses the first goal — providing a paradigm for how all fields of knowledge relate to one another. Many of the term used are familiar from other (neo-)classical sources, but Clark and Jain provide a new understanding which often uses the same words in different ways. They give them their own spin to words like grammar and dialectic and rhetoric, trivium and quadrivium. This actually made the book a bit hard to read; it is hard to see a word you think you know the meaning of and to remember that it now has a different lexical range than what you are used to. This is not meant to be a criticism, however. Overall I much prefer what Clark and Jain have to say, but it is a warning that one may need to put in a little more effort here to keep definitions straight. 

It is in the realm of goals that Clark and Jain do the most towards taking classical traditions and putting them in a Christian context. Though the purposes of their approach to education are stated in various ways through the course fo the book, in the introduction they give perhaps the fullest definition:

“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 fit 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 . . . ” (p. 3)

Each of these could take quite some time to unpack. Before diving into specifics, I’d like to try and place Clark and Jain within the field of classical and Christian classical education. Though they are very polite about it and never openly criticize anyone else’s work, it is clear that Clark and Jain reject some key aspects of what may be called modern classical education, that which began with Dorothy Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning.” At least in practice, modern classical can become a very stiff, rote thing with lots of memorization and strict stages of learning. There is little of that here. Though the same terms are used, new meaning is given to them. From the authors’ perspective, they would say that the terms so typical of modern classical — grammar and trivium, for instance — have been misunderstood and therefore misapplied.

Clark and Jain look back instead to the ancient Greek classical roots and to medieval Christian ones. They speak of Aristotle and Plato and Socrates, though they also acknowledge that we must see their contributions through the lens of Christianity which they did not have. Among Christian sources, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are heavily cited. So, for example, the authors cite Plato when giving reasons for the study of mathematics (p. 66), but the Trivium and Quadrivium are rooted in medieval sources (p. 44).  I will add here that Clark and Jain themselves seem to be fairly solid evangelical and even reformed Christians (the end of book bios tell me both attended Reformed Theological Seminary). 

Knowledge in The Liberal Arts Tradition

One of the major contributions of this volume, relative to other modern works on classical education, is to provide a fresh paradigm for how we understand knowledge. Clark and Jain have a few pictures on their book of trees or concentric circles with words like trivium and musical knowledge and the like arranged in them. As I read the book I also found myself making little charts to illustrate what they were saying. Here is the picture I made (think of it as my narration):


The liberal arts are the subject of education. The top line shows that they are interdependent with common arts and fine arts. (Common arts are those things that have a practical end — blacksmithing or plumbing for example. Fine arts are those which produce beauty.)

The pyramidal shape below “liberal arts” shows its constituent parts. Theology is the top of the pyramid, the highest of the liberal arts. At the bottom are those subjects which the youngest children begin with. Gymnastics refers very broadly to “the entire physical conditioning of a child” (p. 25). Gymnastics, like all education, trains abilities humans already have (p. 29). Musical education is likewise a very broad subject and the term music is perhaps misleading to us. It refers to all those things which the Greek muses covered — poetry and art and music but also history and astronomy (p.26). At this age (though specific ages are not given) the learning is all “musical.” It is what James Taylor termed “Poetic Knowledge” in his book of that name. The focus at this stage is very much on the imagination and on wonder (p. 33). Clark and Jain call it “soulcraft” (p. 32). Piety has to do with knowing one’s place in the order of things. It encompasses a proper attitude towards God, one’s parents and society (pp. 15ff). These three form the foundation of all later learning.

As the child moves into more traditionally academic subjects, the Trivium and Quadrivium are not as much subjects as tools or ways of learning. They are what gives one entrance into the higher subjects. This represents a fundamental difference with other modern classical approaches. Broadly speaking the Trivium is how one learns language-based subjects while the Quadrivium is for math-based subjects though there is much overlap.

The Trivium has three parts: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. These are not, as in Sayers’ approach, three chronological stages though there is an escalation to them. The three together give all the tools one needs to understand a text. Grammar gives the basic tools — vocabulary and semantics and also things like the historical context (p 50). Dialectic looks at language itself and teaches one which questions to ask of the text and brings one in the Great Conversation of western civilization (p. 59). Rhetoric is about using persuasive, public language (p. 60). I am reminded of Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor which talks about all the background knowledge one needs to truly understand a piece of literature. If you have ever reread a book from your younger years and been surprised how much more you were able to get out of it with some experience and knowledge under your belt, you have a sense of what this is all about. Appreciating a text is about more than just knowing the meaning of the words and the Trivium provides all the tools needed.

What the Trivium does for language-based learning, the Quadrivium does for numbers-based learning. As its name suggests is contains four stages: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Each of these is a fairly misleading name. Arithmetic has to do with discrete numbers and in addition to the basic functions we think of (adding, multiplying, etc.) includes things like sequences and series (p. 70). The emphasis again is on wonder, not on rote memorization. If arithmetic is discrete, geometry is continuous. Everything one needs to know about geometry was known by Euclid (p. 75). Geometry teaches one to think about numbers in something akin to the way dialectic teaches one to think about text. Astronomy takes mathematical data and observations and places them in a system (p. 85). Music addresses how systems work together. It assumes that all of reality is related in proportional, mathematical relationships (pp. 89-90).

Once these tools are in place, one moves higher in the pyramid. Towards the top are three broad fields of knowledge. Natural philosophy encompasses what we would call natural science but is more than that. Much of the difference is one of attitude. Natural philosophy focuses not on mastering nature but on submitting to it. The emphasis is on imitation and wonder which lead to worship (p. 110). In the younger years especially, there is a hands-on element. The common arts are combined with natural history which seeks to observe and classify the diversity of nature (p. 112). The use of sketchbooks is encouraged (p. 284). Tracing the history of scientific discovery is also emphasized and as much as possible the student should recreate important scientific milestones.  As the student ages, there is an emphasis on the hows and whys (what Aristotle called final and efficient causes; p. 119).

Moral Philosophy encompasses all those subjects which today we term the social sciences. Again there is much more that comes into play under the heading moral philosophy and the main difference is one of outlook or attitude. Moral philosophy looks at not just what humans do but what they are and what they should be (p. 191). It seeks to shape as much as to describe. In order to proceed all these “social” subjects — subjects like psychology and economics — must have a goal in mind (p. 148). To begin with moral philosophy, then, we must have some idea of what man’s end is. The authors discuss various definitions of happiness and various ways this ultimate goal has been formulated (quoting the likes of C.S. Lewis and Augustine). We will return to the questions of man’s nature and purpose later. On a practical level, Clark and Jain argue for a “narrative formulation” (p. 193). History, surely an anchor subject, would be studied not just for what it tells us about the past but as an impetus to moral contemplation (p. 193). Many of these subjects — history, geography, economics, literature, and the like — might also be combined (p. 194).

On a somewhat higher plane is divine philosophy, aka metaphysics. This subject looks at universals, those things which are transcendent. Among them are goodness, truth, beauty, and unity (p. 196). For the Christian, a central question of metaphysics is how God relates to His creation (p. 199). What of His nature is reflected in it and how does God’s causality relate to our own?

For the ancients, divine philosophy was as high as they could go, but for the Christian, there is another layer: theology. Theology is both the apex of the pyramid (p. 206) and what informs all the lower layers (p. 207). It says that there is something behind and above even the transcendentals of divine philosophy. There is meaning behind the goodness, truth, and beauty.  It is from the Scriptures, God’s special revelation, that we learn theology (p. 207). Theology provides a framework for everything else that is studied. It gives shape and justification to everything else. For Clark and Jain, our knowledge is in some sense a reflection of or a derivative of God’s knowledge (p. 209).

Purpose and Goals

With the exception of the top layer of theology, much if not all of what Jain and Clark have laid out can be found to some degree in classical, non-Christian sources. But their philosophy of education is inherently Christian and it is at the level of purpose or goals that this becomes most apparent. Though they give a statement of purpose early on (quoted above), on first reading I found it a little hard to discern what they would say the goal of education is. On further examination, I realized that this is because they speak of purpose at very levels. That is, studying language has one goal, moral philosophy another, and the whole enterprise one overarching goal. These are not radically different or contradictory goals. One might say they are layered, as their view of knowledge is layered. Thus the goal of rhetoric is to cultivate innate human potential so that men may lead souls through language (p. 62) whereas “the goal of moral philosophy is the cultivation of virtue for human flourishing” (p. 133). Elsewhere they speak of “the love of wisdom” (which is the literal meaning of philosophy) as “the common aim of both Christian and ancient education” (p. 202). They quote C.S. Lewis who says that one should pursue wisdom to “‘conform his soul to reality'” and Augustine who says that virtue “ordered loves” (p. 140). Considerable time is spent in the section on moral philosophy discussing how happiness has been identified. The authors seem to agree with Martin Seligman whom they quote at length that the highest and best form of happiness is to find meaning in attachment to something bigger than oneself (p. 160).

I have argued myself that the purpose of education is found in the purpose of man’s life. INSERT LINK There is no one clear statement in Christian thought of that purpose (though the Westminster Catechism — “to know God and enjoy Him forever” — is oft-quoted) so perhaps we should not be too hard on Clark and Jain if they do not offer one clear definition. Having read their book and listened to Jain on a podcast or two [1], I would sum up their goal as follows: Education transmits the culture of the Church which is itself formative in that it trains innate human abilities. Virtues are cultivated but these virtues themselves flow out of the foundation of piety (right relationship to God and man) apart from which they would be impossible (p. 230). There are also practical outcomes as one’s knowledge becomes wisdom which in turn leads one to serve God and neighbor (p. 7).

What I Liked

While I was a bit confused on first reading [2], I have to say I am quite enamored of the purpose of education as Clark and Jain lay it forth. It is actually quite similar to what I have been saying — the education serves a role in sanctification and that knowledge is itself transformative. LINK I particularly like the use of the phrase “fully integrated human beings” in the first quote above. We have seen this idea of integration as the goal of education from a number of other Christian writers on education (for example, Lockerbie and Gaebelein). My favorite definition of what this integration is comes from Henry Schultze who connects it with the biblical idea of being whole-hearted, that is, having an undivided heart which is unified and in line with the will of God. While Clark and Jain may not use the same words, I think we are all trying to get at essentially the same thing.

The bulk of the book, as we have seen, outlines the authors’ view on how all the fields of knowledge relate to one another. I found this discussion quite helpful. One problem any Christian philosophy of education faces is how to get from the theoretical to the practical. What does it mean, for instance, to say that we want to teach math or history or economics in a Christian way? Jain and Clark go a long way towards answering these questions. For the most part, they don’t get quite down to the nitty-gritty of, okay, what I am going to teach my kids today, but they provide a framework to help us understand these subjects (and most others one could think of besides) and it is thinking about these subjects in a Christian way that we really need, not Bible verses appended to a page of math problems. (I do hear that there are various curricula coming out from Jain and others that will help with the even-more-practical questions.)

What I Have Questions About

There is a lot in The Liberal Arts Tradition and I think I will do at least one more post on it in which I deal with the minutia. For today I’d like to concentrate on the big issues. The two major goals Clark and Jain laid out in the introduction to their book had to do with the relationships between the fields of knowledge and the purpose of education. On both of these, I have a significant amount of agreement with them. So while what follows may be more critical, it should be taken with the understanding that there is quite a lot here which is good and thought-provoking.

My own view is that education is a life-long enterprise. This is a natural outflow of the place I give it as a subset of sanctification. In this life we are never perfectly sanctified and so we will never reach the end of our education. Youth is a time in which education is particularly concentrated, but it is not confined to one’s youth. Clark and Jain never explicitly say that education has an end but in a number of places they do speak as if there is an endpoint at which the student could be said to be educated and would then enter into a new stage of life. They say, for instance:

“When the students have fully learned and assimilated this curriculum, then  . . . they would be ‘bachelors of arts’ . . .” (p. 255)

And again:

“Once the students have been discipled unto Christ, received the culture of the Church, and been brought into the fellowship of friends who love the truth and can celebrate a feast, then, they are ready to become teachers; they are ready to be imitated.” (p. 256)

Discipleship, like sanctification, is a lifelong process. That statement looks not only forward but backward. That is to say, even while I am being discipled and I can and will disciple others. I am reminded of my 2- to 6-year-old Sunday school class. Those 2-year-olds are watching and copying everything the 6-year-olds do. Whether they are aware of it or not, the 6-year-olds are discipling others, sometimes into bad things, occasionally into good ones. I don’t believe there is a point at which imitation starts or a point at which we can say, “Now I know the culture of the church. Now I know the truth.” Our knowledge is always partial. Hopefully it will increase but there is no clear line I see between “educated” and “uneducated.”

This may seem like a minor point (and I suspect if I could talk with the authors that our positions would not really be terribly far apart), but there is also a deeper principle at stake. It has to do with the nature of the child and his standing before God. As Clark and Jain have phrased things, it sounds as if there is a point when children are grown and can begin discipling others and therefore can enter fully into the life of the Church.I would argue that covenant children are always a full part of the Church. They have a relationship to their Creator and a standing before Him. They are held accountable for sin and are capable of faith (by grace, of course). God is working in their lives as much as He works in the lives of their elders and they are just as able to serve Him. I don’t think Clark and Jain mean to do this, but there are those who almost make children a separate species (though not Christian, the Waldorf method is the most egregious example of this). We need to be careful not to do so. Children are fully human. There is no point at which they become ready to serve God; they should already be doing so.

To somewhat counterbalance what I have just said, I will add that I do like that Clark and Jain speak of education as developing children’s innate abilities. One does not need to produce these certain faculties in children but to direct what is already there (p. 29). This does seem to respect the personhood of the child and his completeness.

Though The Liberal Arts Tradition does not use a Sayers-like staged approach to the Trivium, there is a progression up the pyramid from one kind of learning to another. The youngest children learn piety, music, and gymnastics. At one point Jain and Clark speak of filling up the imagination of younger children (p. 55) as a precursor to later learning. While this may not be the rote learning of those who follow Sayers, it still seems to present a kind of “grammar” stage which is for learning facts before more advanced learning can begin. I tend to follow Charlotte Mason on this subject and to say that ideas are always the food of the mind, even for the youngest children.

In the middle comes a stage in which the Trivium and Quadrivium are the focus and then later the various philosophies — natural, moral, and eventually divine philosophy and finally theology.  The role of theology in particular is a bit confusing to me. While it is at the apex of the pyramid, it also is said to be foundational. I am not grasping what this means practically speaking. I am reserving judgment at this point, but I am wary of such a staged approach. I would not, for instance, say that young children should be spared from theology. There is, of course, some progression in what people can understand, but, in that what we present to children in their education are the things of God, I tend to favor giving them a rich diet which does not shy away from real, meaty issues. I would not say theology is reserved for higher ages.

Having touched upon what are some of the largest issues, I think I will leave things here for now. In part 2, I will look at some more secondary concerns.

Until then,


[1] See “Ravi Jain on the New Edition of ‘The Liberal Arts Tradition‘” from Forma (Circe Institute) December 6, 2019.

[2] In his interview on the Forma podcast Jain speaks of having been thrown the classical use of the word virtue and it is this word that has also often put me off of classical formulations. It is nice to hear that I am not the only one who has been put off by the term and also to hear Jain speak of the relationship of virtue to faith and sanctification. He clearly states that one can only begin to achieve virtue through union with Christ.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Cindi Dennis on April 12, 2020 at 1:07 pm

    Thanks much for getting this book and d reviewing it. I need to reread your post several more times and go back through the book. It has given me lots of food to chew on.


  2. […] Clark and Ravi Scott Jain (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2019; revised edition). In part 1, I tried to look at the big issues — what Clark and Jain have to contribute to the discussion […]


  3. […] authors I have looked at (who would term themselves classical) — Taylor, Hicks, Wilson, and Clark and Jain — would probably match all but a few of these […]


  4. […] part 1, we looked at what Clark and Jain have to contribute to classical education and where they stand in […]


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