In her seminal essay ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’, Dorothy Sayers said “To have learnt and remembered the art of learning makes the approach to every subject an open door”. The principles of the Liberal Arts, founded on language, reason, and persuasiveness, have underpinned the greatest thinkers in the last 500 years. It’s an axiom that contemporary society has access to more information than ever before. With all of this data are we just over informed and under knowledged? Saturation, distortion, hyperbole, have become commonplace, and thus, the ability to discern what is high quality and what should be avoided, have never been more paramount. Surely, now is the right time to argue for a modern version of this Medieval school of thought.
In this post, Leon Conrad, writer, poet, storyteller and educator, shares his passion for reviving the integrated approach to teaching the liberal arts, and in particular the Trivium of logic, grammar and rhetoric.
Could you describe your job?
I work in education – with people of all ages. In a nutshell, I help people realise and fulfil their potential. We’re all different, but we all have much in common – we all think, we all use language, and we all communicate. In practical terms, I help people think more clearly, use words more effectively and communicate the best of their thoughts more effectively in writing and in speech.
I also help people improve the quality of their voice through specialist voice training. And that’s not just for public speakers. Voice training can help everyone. In an age of electronic amplification and open offices, it’s more important than ever to be aware of and tap into the power of the human voice to inspire, inform, and entertain.
With adults, I encourage people to speak in public with authenticity and purpose. I also tutor students at different levels – but specialise in working with bright young people who are preparing for competitive entrance exams for top selective schools. It’s really more of a vocation rather than a job – it’s a calling. I love what I do. My approach to teaching is rather different to the conventional approach found nowadays where schools follow a national curriculum split into different subjects. My approach to education is inspired by the classical Liberal Arts, which are central to my teaching.
What do you mean by the classical Liberal Arts and why are they important to you?
The classical Liberal Arts were originally conceived of as a ‘circle of learning’ (enkuklios paideia in Greek). Originally encompassing a search for general knowledge and understanding of the universe we live in, they came to be grouped into two families of subjects – the word-based subjects of grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the Trivium), and the number-based subjects of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (the Quadrivium). In contemporary terms, the word-based subjects remain as relevant as they have ever been. The number-based subjects are, in essence, the same – arithmetic being the study of number in one dimension; geometry, the study of number in 2 dimensions (planar geometry) and 3 dimensions (solid geometry); music the study of harmony and proportion which – if you think about it – is behind all of the sciences; and astronomy being the study of bodies in motion, which equates to a modern concept of mechanics (although the Liberal Arts view is much more connected to an integrated view of the cosmos and the forces which hold it together).
For me, the Liberal Arts are an integrated and integrative tool for learning. Sister Miriam Joseph, author of ‘The Trivium’ – an excellent book which I’d recommend to advanced students – writes of the Liberal Arts as acting on us like an intransitive verb – a verb denoting an action that starts and ends in the subject: the rose blooms, for example. They are designed to draw out and connect what is already present within us – and all we have to do is acknowledge it’s there. Dorothy Sayers called the word-based subjects of the Trivium ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’.
What’s the biggest misconception about The Liberal Arts?
It’s not so much misconception, but a different view of the Liberal Arts. In America, a Liberal Arts education has come to be seen as a general ‘mix and match’ multi-disciplinary education in the humanities. Multi-disciplinary is not the same as cross-disciplinary and the connections between the subjects chosen – if any connections are made – are for the student to find. They do not form part of the core teaching ethos in my experience. This is very different from the integrated and integrative view of the Liberal Arts as a tool for finding one’s place as a living word in a great cosmic poem. The Liberal Arts were often seen to lead to philosophy and on to union with the integrating and integrative mystery at the heart of the cosmos, which we find deep within us. Everyone has a different way of articulating this – but it is this connection that I find gives meaning to one’s life. I sadly find this lacking in most modern accounts of a Liberal Arts education.
What are the most challenging parts of learning about the Liberal Arts for those unfamiliar?
Everyone’s different – so what one person finds easy might be challenging for another person. However, these very challenges are the most fun things to work on. At the end of the day, it’s pretty simple. It’s all about thinking and communicating clearly, consistently, concisely, and captivatingly. That happens best in two-way conversations. That’s why in some of the top schools and universities, students have tutorials, where they can engage in conversation about topics they find challenging, and, through talking through these, find solutions. The tools we need to engage in these liberating conversations are … guess what? Those ‘lost’ tools for learning that Dorothy Sayers was so passionate about rediscovering – the tools of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, the classic subjects of the Trivium.
Could you tell our readers what they should look for when considering how to approach the Liberal Arts for the first time?
The best way of finding out about the Liberal Arts is to experience their effect. There’s a very simple thought experiment that you can try out for yourself: Pick something concrete that you can point to (a book, or a mug, or a dog, for instance) and think about what it is: its essence. Move from ‘book’ to ‘bookness’ – the quality common to all books, in the widest sense – thought of as containers of knowledge. That could include notebooks, scrolls, papyri, inscribed monuments. Do the same with something else. How does ‘bookness’ differ from ‘mugness’ or ‘dogness’? On the other hand, they’re all things – so what about ‘thingness’? The point of this exercise is to think about something very familiar in an unfamiliar way – and to recognise that what makes things what they are is not their materiality, but their essence – and that is something that connects every-thing. Aristotle called this ‘Substance’ – and he referred to it as the thing that makes the difference between a man and a corpse. In On Interpretation (De Interpretatione) 21a20, where Aristotle writes about the relationship between substances and their attributes, if you want the specific reference. He goes into the distinction in more depth in his work on the Categories of Being: The Categories, especially 2a11ff).
What do you think the future of the Liberal Arts looks like?
It is less the future of the Liberal Arts that concerns me – it’s the present. They are tools that we have embodied in us – when we connect to them, we free up our thinking. It’s challenging, and sometimes uncomfortable, as we have to face up to inconsistencies within and around us. But how else can we find harmony? The Liberal Arts are tools for the here and now – they can help us balance emotion and reason, instincts and urges. They offer us an integrated and integrating way of seeing, thinking, speaking, acting. They can help us steer a course through past, present, and future, by showing us that our journey starts and ends in timelessness.