Reclaiming the Medieval Seven

Less than a year ago, I suggested that maybe it was time to resurrect the medieval curriculum of the Seven Liberal Arts — I’m sorry to say that there was limited response to the idea, most of it negative.

The core reaction to it, I think, stems from the idea that it’s old, and so far back in time as to be useless.  How can one teach what it is to be a ‘modern person’ within a structural framework of study that’s hundreds, if not thousands of years old?  And yet.  And yet, it’s the case that many kids today do poorly on standardized examinations that are supposed to test them on words and language and their reasoning ability, yet rarely do so beyond any sort of superficial level.  And we know how well that whole testing process is going for most schools.  We know we need a change.  The question is, what kind of change will get us where we need to be going in education?

Does anyone know?

Talking with one of the beat cops in my neighborhood the other day, I mentioned that my school has a very clear mission statement: provide a quality education that gets kids into a college-prep program.  He allowed that this was a good thing, but that not every kid needed or wanted to go to college, and anyway it was very expensive and probably not for everyone.  Some kids need to go to technical school, and some need to graduate high school with a more wide-ranging grasp of the universe and human culture than they’re currently getting.  The official subjects of English, Math, Science, Social Studies, Foreign Language, and some art and music here and there aren’t really serving them well.  From where we were standing and talking, it would have been easy for us to spill our coffee on any of a half-dozen hangers-on and hangers-out who gather outside the coffee house to while away their afternoons.

They’re part of the ranks of the new unemployed.  They haven’t got jobs to go to, or they’re underemployed in the jobs they do have.  They have minimal incentive to learn new skills, because those skills aren’t going to earn them extra cash.

The thought we both had is that public schools, and quite possibly private schools as well, need to undergo a kind of dissensus — that is, a breakdown of the monoculture of the standard nine-subject course of study, in favor of a range of types of classes and a range of schools that differ from one another both in terms of curriculum, and methodology.  That is, our idea was that it wasn’t about implementing one solution, but trying out many solutions in many different schools.

A comment in last week’s post on John Michael Greer’s blog, the Archdruid Report, made me wonder if one such school program could be a middle-school version of the seven liberal arts program of the medieval university.  Middle Schoolers and medieval university students are almost the same age:  OK, middle school students are a little young in sixth graders to have gone off to the 12th century Sorbonne or Salamanca or Bologna.  But it’s still possible.  The medieval liberal arts curriculum was deeply concrete and specific, at least at its inception.

For those who don’t know, the Liberal Arts were divided into the Trivium — grammar, rhetoric, and logic — and the Quadrivium of arithmetic, astronomy, music and geometry.  My thought is, in this modern school, that sixth graders and seventh graders would spend the majority of their time on the Trivium, studying writing, speaking, and the dissection of argument (as well as the construction of argument).  The Quadrivium would be the subject of the second half of seventh grade and all of eighth grade — late nights looking at the stars, efforts to build navigational instruments and learn to sequence stars, playing musical instruments and learning the theories of how strings produce sound, and finding both evidence of mathematics in nature, and learning the equations that govern it.  If the school goes all the way through ninth grade, students take a longer time with the Quadrivium while continuing to work with Trivium materials and getting periodic refresher classes to remind them of what they’ve already learned.

Thus, rather than asking sixth graders to take on eight subjects all at once, we ask them to concentrate on three — communicating, writing, and thinking clearly.  Perhaps logic also includes training in computer programming.  Once they show a strong grasp of the structure of ideas, they have to make a practical demonstration of their skills — by designing an application for a computer, or winning a debate, or writing a book.

As I learned in The Abacus and the Cross, the study of Pope Sylvester II and the inception of Arabic numerals in the western world, even the geometry of the medieval liberal arts was largely about the discovery process.  Students were expected to uncover and make use of what ruler and compass could do, and how they could be applied to art, architecture and the study of nature.  Geometry, for the modern student, would be a multidisciplinary approach to the study of physics, biology, engineering and pattern-recognition.

The purpose of studying astronomy, though, in conduction with geometry and music, would be to reveal that there are fundamental patterns throughout nature.  Those patterns influence how the planets move, and how a guitar sounds, and how a sunflower grows.  By learning to apply logic and pattern recognition skills to nature as well as human activity, students in this school might learn to see the underlying order of nature, and to experience themselves as interwoven with it.

We couldn’t truly resurrect the medieval curriculum.  But perhaps, by starting with the medieval seven liberal arts as the basis of one school’s program of study, we could raise some students who didn’t feel that they didn’t learn anything useful or connected to their own lives in school.

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