The liberal arts allow us the freedom to become more fully human by sharing as fully as possible in that which makes us distinct, and the freedom to flourish through the reality of our nature, our humanity, and, yes, perhaps even our divinity…

Why My Favorite Nun Was Right: The Recovery and Renewal of the Liberal Arts of Language for a Liberal Education

Dedicated to my Students in The Trivium

I. Introduction

Liberal ArtsI should say up front that I don’t have the right to have a favorite nun: I am not Catholic (or even Christian). But I studied under a teacher who, one year short of ordination as a Jesuit priest, decided to leave the Church and teach instead (because he wasn’t sure he believed in God, but was quite sure he was gay); eventually, he ended up a professor of English at a state university, where he labored to enlighten young, slacker barbarians (that’s where I came in), and he gave a number of us, who could not get enough of his classes, an education informed by the Catholic intellectual tradition. I ended up becoming a professor myself and by chance (or providence, my students would say) took a post at a Catholic university, where I have loved my teaching life, including the students and colleagues whose faith I do not completely share, and where I have been teaching so long that I have become a kind of cultural Catholic.

So I came to have a favorite nun, Sister Miriam Joseph: Her Shakespeare and the Arts of Languageinspired me to become a Shakespearean; then, when I decided to teach a course in the liberal arts of language, I discovered her book, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric; Understanding the Nature and Function of Language (only an early twentieth-century nun could get away with a sub-sub-title).[1] She was a teacher at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana, who, inspired by Mortimer Adler, inaugurated a year-long course in the trivium, the book arising out of the course. The students of my course in the trivium love the fact that their pagan teacher loves a nun. Sometimes, after a student has challenged one of my articulations of a point, I turn the class to the photograph of her in the back of the edition: There she is (lovely in her regal headdress), exuding angelic severity. “I must be right,” I tease them, “Sister says so.” Her Trivium informs my argument throughout.[restrict]

One ought to be suspicious of those who recommend educational reforms since, as George Orwell explains, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”[2] So many well-intentioned educational reformers have flogged so many poor students with so many novelties—curricular, pedagogic, technological—that one can barely resist thinking of such reformers as Larkin thought of parents:

They [mess] you up, your mum and dad [educational reformers, too].
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.[3]

I say this because I will be recommending an educational reform of some scope and consequence—though not as comprehensive as Dorothy Sayers’ suggestion in “The Lost Tools of Learning” that the trivium govern primary education altogether[4]—and, like saints, I should be judged guilty until proven innocent, and my reform presumed to be (at best) redundant and (at worst) full of fault. That reform is simple to articulate: the study of English in the first-year composition course required of almost every student in college should be informed by the trivium’s liberal arts of language—grammar, logic, and rhetoric. (The trivium turns out to include imaginative literature, as we will see, and I will not be encouraging the divorce of “composition” from “literature” that is weakening instruction in both.)[5] The trivium is the study of the three arts language, in themselves and in relation to one another: Grammar, the study of the nature of language; logic, that of thought; and rhetoric, that of persuasion. The trivium, it should be pointed out, does not set language and thought asunder, understanding as it does that all three arts—that of symbol, that of symbolized thought, and that of symbolized thought communicated—are, in Ciceronian terms, ratio and oratory, both parts of one orationality defining our nature.[6] Indeed, since the art is in fact social, we might call it socio-orationality. Although there are remnants of all three arts throughout the curriculum, they tend not to be taught fully nor in relation to one another, and there are many people, and some academics within the discipline of English itself, opposed to teaching them at all.[7] It was Mortimer Adler who pointed out in “What’s So Basic About English?” that the English teacher is now the specter of the trivium teacher: “[T]he English teacher is the last—and often a very frail—vestige of the liberal tradition in our education [because] he still cherishes literature and the liberal arts.”[8] My goal is to agree with Adler, offer support to those already engaged in the arts, and to persuade those not so to be so. Unlike so many in the Classical Christian school movement, though, I will not limit myself to a distinctly Christian education (though I am sympathetic to it), nor demand either that grammar be Latin grammar,[9] or that the arts be used metaphorically to encompass all learning, which they simply do not.

What, exactly, is the trivium, why should it be the universal curriculum of English, and what is its relationship with that frequently ill-defined glory of the human race, liberal education (often mistakenly called a liberal arts education)? Let me answer those questions, offering a list of questions as a broad outline of curriculum and a tool of assessment: “Twenty-One Questions Students Should be able to Answer about any Text (Theirs or Another’s).” Let me say that I would not have the quadrivium—the arts of number (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music)—neglected, nor do I think those arts metaphorically present in the trivium, but I am not qualified to offer an equivalent discussion of the way of number to that of the way of word. I hope that someone else will do so. 

II. The Human Difference of Language

The arts of language arose from the linguistic character of our nature: human beings are naturally linguistic animals. Contemporary linguistics confirms our verbal difference. As Steven Pinker puts it in The Language Instinct, “In any natural history of the human species, language would stand out as the preeminent trait.”[10] After so much theorizing about social construction, it is refreshing to see Dr. Pinker confirm that we have a biologically linguistic nature with an innate and universal potential to learn an actual language. (It is worth pointing out that the tree-like schemes he uses to define that universal potential look like nothing so much as a form of sentence-diagramming, a pedagogic practice making a comeback.)[11] Dr. Pinker uses experimental science to confirm the point that we have a language instinct, but the ancient rhetorical tradition used myth. Although Plato suggests as much in the Protagoras(319d-328d ), it is Cicero in De Inventione who offers the fullest and clearest myth of linguistic species differentiation:

For there was a time when men wandered at large in the fields like animals and lived on wild fare; they did nothing by the guidance of reason, but relied chiefly on physical strength; there was no ordered system of religious worship nor of social duties; no one had seen legitimate marriage nor had anyone looked upon children whom he knew to be his own; nor had they learned the advantages of an equitable code of law. And so through their ignorance and error blind and unreasoning passion satisfied itself by misuse of bodily strength, which is a very dangerous servant. At this juncture a man—great and wise I am sure—became aware of the power latent in man and the wide field offered by his mind for great achievements if one could develop this power and improve it by instruction. Men were scattered in the fields and hidden in sylvan retreats when he assembled and gathered them in accordance with a plan; he introduced them to every useful and honorable occupation, though they cried out against it at first because of its novelty; and then through reason and eloquence they had listened with greater attention, he transformed them from wild savages into a kind and gentle folk. (1.1.2)[12]

For Cicero, language is our opposable thumb, and one man was the first to achieve such a level of eloquent language that he became humankind’s first founder: he was, in some sense, the first human being, and gathered us into community, making us human, as well. Dr. Pinker’s account does not designate a first person; he only assumes that evolution created the linguistic nature that allows sociality.

The ancient rhetorical account of that nature is supported, though altered, by both the Bible and our most articulate U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln. In Genesis Cicero’s eloquent founder becomes Adam, the first giver of names, yet the Hebrew Bible finds the merely human power of language a moral problem: the tower of Babel requires divine retribution, a preemptive strike against the universal language which gives us divine pretensions, re-scattering gathered humanity into different languages. As the LORD Himself says in Genesis 11.6-7,

Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.[13]

The account of universal language confounded by God to punish human presumption explains much, including the one language shared in universal grammar among many languages confounding mutual understanding. The Hebraic account is more sobering than the Hellenic one, of course, given that universal grammar was vitiated by sin, but both accounts offer intelligibility about our linguistic nature (whatever its exact character) as an inheritance of the history of the human race.

Lincoln offers a distinctly American version of the myth in his lecture “On Discoveries and Inventions,” in which he leaves the origin of language—“whether Divine gift, or invention”—ambiguous, but, like Cicero, makes language a distinctly social fact of our nature:

Speech, then, by enabling different individuals to interchange thoughts, and thereby to combine their powers of observation and reflection, greatly facilitates useful discoveries and inventions. What one observes, and would himself infer nothing from, he tells to another, and that other at once sees a valuable hint in it. A result is thus reached which neither alone would have arrived at.[14]

Yet Lincoln is aware that a merely oral language is limited in scope to a sociality of the proximate and the living. Writing, though, is not:

Writing—the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye—is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general concept of it—great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space; and great, not only in direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. (7)

Written language (especially after the advent of print) is, for Lincoln, the source of all culture and prosperity: “Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it” (8). It is worth reminding ourselves that one of this president’s favorite books was Samuel Kirkham’s Grammar. Hebraic, Hellenic, or American, the myths all agree upon one thing: we are animals whose language establishes our human nature.

III. The Liberal Arts of Language

Whether understood mythically or scientifically, the human instinct for an art of language is, in the most important tradition of instruction, an instinct for arts. The liberal arts of language, the three ways of the trivium, are often said to have origin in the ancient world, an account which is partly right since grammar, logic, and rhetoric in the West are the inventions of ancient Greece, but, once the three are brought together into a system, it is the creation mostly of the medieval world, a creation that influenced language arts instruction certainly until the early modern period but probably well into the modern one. The history of that bringing of the liberal arts of language together has been told by several people, perhaps most interestingly by the founder of Media Studies—Marshall McLuhan—in The Classical Trivium.[15] There is not space here to review that history—it turns out to be a history of the West, and not just a history of education—because, as each of the arts has been understood differently (given the contingencies of actual language, culture, and religion), its relations to the other two have been understood differently, as well. The non-historicized account of the trivium I offer, then, is true, but only generally so. It would be worthwhile historicizing the arts, but I won’t be doing so here. Though Sister Miriam Joseph’s treatment of the trivium is Thomistically Aristotelian, moreover, I do not believe that the arts are necessarily bound by that metaphysics, although I am pretty sure she would not agree. It must always be remembered that the three arts are really sub-arts of one art of language. The order here is significant, as well: It is very difficult to study logic without knowing grammar; even more so to study rhetoric without grammar and logic. The arts of language are increasingly encompassing arts, each one fulfilling potentialities of the one before: one must be able to symbolize in order to think, and one should be able to think in order to persuade. A caveat here: a full treatment of each art would require a book. What follows will be a brief introduction of the arts, apart and together, with a Shakespearean illustration in honor of Sister Miriam Joseph.

III. A. The Liberal Art of Grammar

Our students are not often enough philologists—lovers of language. Few own dictionaries, unfortunately, and the virtual ones they use seldom encourage the philological browsing which is one of the paths to a large vocabulary. During grammar, we will need to teach them to use dictionaries: how to see in their entries the pronunciation, etymology, elements (prefix, base, and suffix), part of speech, meanings, and history of any word. As a consequence, our course should have at least a brief lesson on dictionary entries. Depending on the degree of active literacy of the students, one might want to introduce them to the Greek and Latin roots that constitute such a large portion of English words, especially the more abstract ones. We might advise them to study one of the ancient languages.[16]

Yet grammar proper is the study of three elements: 1) the parts of speech, 2) their functions within predication, and 3) the available genres of sentence. (I leave to the side the debate between prescriptive and descriptive grammarians, handled best by Bryan A. Garner in his prefatory essay in Garner’s Modern American Usage, “Making Peace in the Language Wars.”)[17] Allow me to offer my first seven questions, those pertaining to the art of grammar, and a brief explanation:

  1. What are the word’s pronunciation, elements, and etymology?
  2. What is the meaning of any word?
  3. What is its part of speech?
  4. How is the word functioning in its group of words?
  5. Is the word-group a phrase, clause, or sentence?
  6. What kind of sentence is it?
  7. What is the effect of the sentence type?

These seven questions presume quite a bit of grammar.

I find the best way to ensure they know grammar is through their reading and their writing. I have them exhaustively parse the sentences of their own favorite writers (in English since that is the grammar studied), an exercise which achieves two wonderful ends: One, it exposes their own limitations of knowledge of grammar since one can’t fully identify what one doesn’t know; and, two, it reveals to them that the system of grammar not only explains a great deal, but also falls short of explaining everything in fine writing. In the medieval trivium, literature was studied during instruction in grammar (the monks didn’t want to give up all their Latin poetry), and in our contemporary trivium certain briefer genres—lyric poetry, short stories, letters, speeches, essays—would allow students a certain mastery impossible to achieve over epics, novels, or even plays. The isolation of a single sentence for analysis is illuminating. Literary texts in English (of whatever scale) should be included here and throughout, allowing students to see that literature and composition are the same subject matter from different perspectives, those of making and receiving. Allow me to use Shakespeare’s Sonnets to illustrate grammar as an art of both composition and interpretation. The opening quatrain of the first sonnet, which is in fact one sentence, establishes the argument of the entire sonnet sequence:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s Rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory.[18]

A student with the knowledge of English grammar could explain the grammar of the very first predication: “From fairest creatures we desire increase.” An opening prepositional phrase precedes the clause whose direct object it modifies: “From fairest creatures” is composed of a preposition, “from”—which here may mean “coming from” or “occasioned by”—a preposition whose object is composed of a plural noun, “creatures” modified by its superlative adjective: “fairest.” The predication is composed of a first-person, plural, personal pronoun—let’s call it the aesthetic “we”—whose verb, “desire,” is a first-person plural, indicative verb in the present tense—here that of expressing natural or habitual action—and an object of desire, the singular noun “increase.” It is the first clause of a compound-complex sentence. The single most important part of the study of grammar is this: the ability to determine when writing or reading a predication—the noun or noun phrase functioning as the subject and the verb or verb phrase functioning as the simple predicate. In his essay on the rhetoric of grammar in The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver is right that the noun, especially when (by itself or as the heart of the noun phrase) it constitutes the subject of a sentence, and the verb, because it is the heart of its predication, are the two most significant parts of speech:

The verb is regularly ranked with the noun in force, and it seems that these two parts of speech express the two aspects under which we habitually see phenomena, that of determinate things and that of actions or states of being. Between them they divide up the world at a pretty fundamental depth.[19]

This fundamental division is on display in Shakespeare’s Speaker’s first and central predication: “we desire.”

A short essay in which a student exhaustively parses the grammar of one of his or her own favorite writer’s sentences goes a long way in confirming, augmenting, and refining whatever grammatical knowledge has been acquired, and, of course, in the teacher’s evaluation of it, s/he can admire, question, or correct the student’s own grammar. Style is not at all reducible to correct grammar, since style, properly speaking, belongs to rhetoric. Good grammar is not sufficient for good style; even so, it is necessary. I have yet to see a good student writer who did not know any English grammar. That may be only an anecdotal correlation, but I have been teaching writing for almost twenty-five years. Weaver is right that knowledge of grammar gives one “language citizenship,” which “makes one a potential magistrate, or one empowered to decide” (142), and one begins to see why the education of a free person might need to begin with grammar. One is never free from one’s language; one is only free through it. That freedom comes in degrees: the greater one’s knowledge, the greater one’s freedom. There is little so tragic educationally than students enslaved by a language they do not understand, little so educationally unjust than teachers who teach them everything but the knowledge of symbol that might set them free.

III. B. The Liberal Art of Logic

Grammar is necessary, but not sufficient. Once one knows one’s language, one must learn how to think: one must learn logic. I realize that logicians debate the relative merits of traditional and symbolic logic, but, while they do so, students frequently learn neither. While recognizing the limits of traditional, Aristotelian logic, I teach it, nonetheless, since it is less abstract that symbolic, which is why, I suspect, it governs so much instruction in “informal logic” in “critical thinking” textbooks and courses.[20] In traditional logic, I concentrate on induction and deduction, of course. With respect to the former, I emphasize generalization (with its tests of accuracy, plenitude, and representativeness) and analogy. With respect to the latter, I emphasize the term (especially definition and division), the proposition (including the square of opposition), the relation of propositions in syllogism (the categorical, the hypothetical and the disjunctive), and the most common fallacies, formal or material. It should be pointed out that, although students often arrive at college with some grammar, most arrive with no logic. The art of symbol needs to be supplemented with that of thought, here reduced to the next seven questions:

  1. How accurate, numerous, and representative are its inductive statements?
  2. Which word in a statement is a logical term?
  3. What is its central proposition, and what kind is it?
  4. What is the relationship between and among its propositions?
  5. If it is a syllogism, what kind, and is it valid and true?
  6. If it is an enthymeme, what is the missing premise?
  7. Does it commit a fallacy?

Answering these questions would require a fair degree of knowledge of logic.

The first sonnet of Shakespeare’s Sonnets turns out to be a categorical syllogism. The first quatrain establishes a new definition of the human—no longer as a rational animal but as a desiring one:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s Rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory. (1.1-4)

The term to be defined is “human being,” here inhabited as “we.” Our genus is “desire,” not reason, and the differentia is the object of our desire: “increase” of beauty in response to beauty’s apparent mortality, a mortality that can be transcended only by procreation. The major premise of the Speaker’s argument to the Fair Youth is the A proposition of a categorical syllogism: “All human beings want to increase beauty in order to extend its life.” The minor premise is an inductive observation that the Fair Youth, in refusing to procreate, does not want to do so, as we see in the next two quatrains:

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding. (1.5-12)

It is difficult to be discrete when discussing Shakespeare’s Sonnets, but the Speaker is not suggesting that the Fair Youth’s inhuman refusal to procreate arises from his celibacy; instead, he is saying that the young man has joined the ranks of Onan—in contemporary British English, he’s a “wanker.” The second and third quatrains are reducible, logically, to the minor premise of our categorically syllogistic reasoning:

All human beings want to increase beauty to extend its life.
You do not want to increase beauty to extend its life.

The couplet of the sonnet offers the Fair Youth a disjunctive imperative. Change your minor premise—“Pity the world” by increasing beauty through procreation—or define yourself as inhuman, monstrous—“or else this glutton be, / To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee” (1.13-14)—thus providing a standard form of the human category:

All human beings want to increase beauty to extend its life.
You are human.
Therefore, you should want to increase beauty to extend its life,
especially your own, you wanker.

The forms of inductive and deductive reasoning, both in their flourishing versions (true and valid) and in their corrupted ones (false and invalid) inform human expression, even that expression of the most emotional topics. All human discourse is symbolized, which is why we need to teach grammar, but it is also thought, which is why we need to teach logic.

III. C. The Liberal Art of Rhetoric

Grammar and logic are necessary, then, but they are still not sufficient for a full understanding of speech. Once one knows one’s language and the rules of reason, one must learn how to persuade. That is, predication becomes proposition, and proposition becomes proof. Symbol and thought yield to communication and persuasion. Rhetoric is the consummate art of the trivium, the one that includes and fulfills the other two and draws the art of language toward the ethical and the political, for one may symbolize and think alone, but one communicates and persuades together with others. Students will have learned some rhetoric, but they tend to arrive in two different groups: those who are suspicious of rhetoric because they mistakenly equate it with sophistry, and those who also equate it with sophistry but like it for that very reason. Like us, our students tend to be too philosophically virtuous or not philosophically virtuous enough.

Like us, they need the next seven questions:

  1. What is the rhetorical situation?
  2. Is it essentially deliberative, judicial, or ceremonial?
  3. What is its argument?
  4. What are its logical, ethical, and emotional appeals?
  5. What is its design principle—beginning, middle, and end?
  6. What characterizes its diction, sentence rhythm, and figures of speech?
  7. How should it be delivered in recitation or performance?

These seven questions encompass the art of rhetoric.[21]

The Speaker is, of course, our rhetor, and his sonnet is essentially deliberative since he hopes to dissuade his audience, the Fair Youth, from his onanism and persuade him toward good, old-fashioned reproduction. Persuasion is his proximate end; the Fair Youth’s own survival is his further end; an increase of Beauty Itself is his ultimate end. Because the sonnet indicts the Fair Youth, it is also judicial; indeed, since it assumes that the Fair Youth is Fair, it is also epideictic. The argument is clear, and he deploys logospathos, and ethos. But his central appeal is an appeal to the emotion of fear, a fear we see in the second option if the Fair Youth does not “[p]ity the world” through sexual reproduction—the fear of being a monster, a fear aroused by the Speaker’s figure of speech for the option: “or else this glutton be, / To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee” (1.13-14). There is here a metaphor: To fail to reproduce sexually is to be a particular kind of glutton, an auto-cannibal, a self-eater of one’s own beauty. This horrifying metaphor should frighten the Fair Youth into pitying the world, a horror that should be audible in delivery through both the onomatopoeia of “glutton” and the guttural and dental sounds of the lines themselves: “this glutton be, / To eat the world‘s due, by the grave and thee.” The closing line should sound as monstrous as the opening ones sound lovely: “From fairest creatures we desire increase, / That thereby beauty’s Rose might never die . . . .” The invented, arranged, and stylized argument must be delivered.

My introduction to the three arts of language in the Trivium and my trivial analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnet have been introductory and selective. A full treatment of the arts and an exhaustive analysis of the poem would require a course. But I hope they have revealed the content of the arts and a degree of their creative and explanatory power.

There are innumerable relations between and among the three arts, but why are they, ultimately, three sub-arts of one art of language? Because they share one essential concern: human language and its central wonder—the human capacity to symbolize, think, and communicate an assertion. The proof of rhetoric is a proposition, and the proposition of logic is a predication. Ultimately, it is this potential which makes us different, whether by degree or in kind, from the other animals, the central and integrated power that makes it possible to learn at all. I don’t know which came first, the opposable thumb or the grammatical predication, but of one thing I am certain—the linguistic difference is the human difference. Aristotle is right: We are the animal with the most logos. If as he would have it in the Nicomachean Ethics, an art is “the reasoned capacity to make” (1140a5), then the trivium is the reasoned capacity to make grammatical predications, logical propositions, and rhetorical proofs.

All three arts are taught in the university, yet often too obliquely, and often their integrity is diminished. Students receive vestiges of grammar (in some form) in remedial composition and regular foreign language courses; rhetoric (in some form) supports speech and communication departments and writing programs; and logic (again, in some form) is the subject matter of critical thinking courses. Though this characterization is based on my long and varied experience in academe (and therefore limited by the imperfections of the anecdotal), I think it generally accurate: The instruction in all three arts is neither systematic nor extensive enough; it severs the arts from one another and loses the relations between and among them; and it too often divorces the study of the arts from the study of literature—broadly understood to include all the writing that Matthew Arnold classifies in Culture and Anarchy under “the best that has been thought and said in the world” in all of its traditions—from the study of the arts such writing exhibits in the highest and most inimitable forms.[22] A “Great Books” curriculum without the trivium is like a chess board with pieces but no rules, and a “skills-based” without literature, like a chess board with rules but no pieces.

A university’s English, Speech and Communication, and Philosophy Departments could work together on a year-long course in the trivium, during which all three arts could be studied in full and in their integrity, and the students could read, discuss, write about, and deliver texts, the focus always on the “trivial” characteristics of them—grammatical, logical, and rhetorical. Short of that, any one of the above departments could use its Core or General Educational requirement to do so—English, for example. What a relief if English professors had to study logic! I would recommend inter-departmental participation for the intellectual health of the university. Short even of these possibilities, let me recommend that people offer The Trivium as an elective in any appropriate department, and that they offer some version of it in the “basic skills” courses required of an increasing number of students entering college or university without the most elementary knowledge of the arts of language, both of which I have been able to do at my own college. Inarticulate students are the ones most difficult to retain, after all, and, as colleges and universities begin to attend to the number of students not only admitted but also graduated, we will all have to do better at equipping students with the arts of articulation they require to understand the material in their coursework. Since these three arts inform the very arts of reading, writing, speaking, and listening that constitute such a large portion of their college and university work, we should teach those arts—fully and together.

IV. Liberal Education

Perhaps no term in contemporary education is as misunderstood as “liberal education.” When the curricular menu of liberal educational institutions grows year after year with course and program after course and program, all of whose ends are disciplinary, vocational, or social, one has a right to accuse those institutions of confusion.

Often, that confused menu calls itself a “liberal arts” school, even when students might not have to demonstrate mastery of any of the actual liberal arts, either of language or of number. Yet, without those arts, one cannot pursue a liberal education; with them, one is prepared for such an education which, recursively, illuminates the arts themselves, all of which concern our central human characteristic—sociorationality. Let me defend the necessity of the liberal arts of language for liberal education, using John Henry Newman’s Idea of University to discuss them.

My thesis is simple: The arts of language are means of liberal education, for one simply cannot engage in liberal education, however envisioned, without the liberal arts of language in some form, taught before and/or during that education. Yet the arts can later be studied as objects of liberal education reflection, as well, understood in a more ample sense due to the education they have prepared for. The trivium is propaedeutic, parapaedeutic, and metapaedeutic.

John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University is one of the greatest articulations of what, exactly, a liberal education ought to be. In it, he argues that such an education can achieve for the student both goodness and power as intellect is cultivated in relation to the circle of knowledge within which all the subjects reside. Newman articulates perhaps the best definition of liberal education in Discourse V as the education that is an end and not a means to any other end. Sister Miriam Joseph too distinguishes between the transitive and the intransitive forms of education and argues that liberal education is intransitive, developing the student prior to his or her making or doing anything with it. As Newman puts it, “[T]hat alone is liberal knowledge, which stands on its own pretensions, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed . . . by any end, absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation.”[23] Such a formulation terrifies the pragmatic in our own era since so much of even university education is productive or servile, and we have more and more difficulty imagining anything good unless it first show itself useful. Newman both assuages and challenges such utilitarianism by pointing out that a thing can first be a good, then be a power: As he explains it, “prior to [liberal education] being a power, it is a good; that is, it is not only an instrument, but an end” (84). I take this to be a refutation of two prominent educational camps at war in contemporary academe: those who reduce all education to service, even careerism, and those who refuse to imagine the uses of liberal education once experienced. Newman’s vision should be an object of meditation to all those who teach college because it does not reduce liberal education to that false disjunct:

A great good will impart great good. If then the intellect is so excellent a portion in us, and its cultivation so excellent, it is not only beautiful, perfect, admirable, and noble in itself, but in a true and high sense it must be useful to the possessor and to all around him; not useful in any low, mechanical, mercantile sense, but as a diffusing good, or as a blessing, or a gift, or power, or as a treasure, first to the owner, then through him to the world. I say, then, if a liberal education be good, it must necessarily be useful too. (124)

Sister Miriam Joseph too distinguishes between the transitive and the intransitive forms of education and argues that liberal education is intransitive, developing the student prior to his or her making or doing anything with it. Her metaphor for this is a flower blooming. No one looks at a flower blooming and asks, “What is the use of a flower?” even if that flower, once in bloom, might be put to any number of uses.

What exactly, though, is the education that puts its students into bloom? For Newman it is “the cultivation of intellect” that he discerns as the one true habit of the philosophical disposition. Sometimes, he calls it “cultivation of mind.” Liberal education brings the mind into form by cultivating its rational character.[24] And it does so as the intellect encounters subjects—those disciplines and studies arising out of the natural, human, and divine orders of being—no one of which, especially Theology, according to him, can be dropped from the circle of knowledge without distorting a student’s understanding of the whole of knowledge. Newman expects a liberally educated student to have an intellectual habit of mind and a body of comprehensive knowledge, none of which is possible (I would add) without some grammar, logic, and rhetoric, not only because intellect requires language but also because the subjects studied arise, in part, from the arts, at least to the degree that the subjects are textual. Newman is assuming that students receiving a liberal education can speak, listen, read, and write rather well; I would add that the better they can do all four, the better the education they will receive—not simply prior to their arriving at college but indeed while they are there. They must be studied before and during liberal education, and they may be studied after.

One of Newman’s great contributions to a distinctly Christian form of liberal education is that he reminds one not only that Theology itself cannot be dropped from the circle of knowledge without making it incomplete but also that that Theology must be natural, not revealed, and that the distinctly Catholic character of Catholic liberal education should not interfere with its liberal character. Although I am sure that Newman believes that a cultivated intellect will end up Catholic, he is clear in his Preface that the University is “independent” of the Church even while the Church “steadies” the University (xxxvii). I cannot reduce that paradox any further here, but Catholic liberal education should not neglect the God Who created all subjects of study and the arts by which we study them, even as the Church should entrust it to its own activities, nor should secular educators neglect Newman’s great work.

V. Conclusion

The liberal arts of language are certainly means to the end of liberal education, but the subjects, especially the texts, of liberal education can also become means to understanding the liberal arts, at least in the form of illustration, thought of now as ends. Each can illuminate each. For example, one would hope that students receiving a liberal education would read Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. To do so well requires an education in the liberal arts of language. Even so, that text can then become an example of those arts in their highest exercise.

Both arts and education can be studied liberally, as goods in and of themselves, bringing the mind of the student into fuller form. They should be taught with the liberal character that ought to accompany instruction in the liberal arts of language, arts too often thought of as “remedial,” too often taught only instrumentally. If, though, language is the highest aspect of us as human beings, knowledge of the nature of language and the characteristics of a language is the highest knowledge, and its study need not be transitive but can be intransitive, the fulfillment of the knower before he or she does anything practical, let alone professional, with it, the development of the faculty of articulation in the broadest sense of the term. The plenitude of human language—as arts and as living artifacts of culture—is both good in and of itself and useful for other ends. At the beginning of any liberal education, in the middle, and at the end, teachers and students should study the language which is the medium and content of the education. In a Catholic sense, as my ex-Jesuit English professor certainly knew (a sense I am still trying to understand), one might say, then, that liberal education studies—first and last—the Word made flesh. I am not qualified to explain the theological significance of that Johannine term logos, but even this old, public-school pagan from California, set on his course by an even older ex-Jesuit Professor of English who introduced me to my favorite nun, can discern in the prologue to the Book of John the result of recovering and renewing the liberal arts of language in liberal education: “In the beginning was the Word….

What is that result of the recovery and renewal of the liberal arts of language for liberal education? The greater freedom which defines both the arts and the education, making them liberal. That freedom is intellectual, artistic, and spiritual: the freedom to actualize the essential human potential to the greatest degree possible, the freedom to become more fully human by sharing as fully as possible in that which makes us distinct, the freedom to flourish through the reality of our nature, our humanity, and, yes, perhaps even our divinity.

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[1] Paul Dry Books: Philadelphia, 2002.

[2] He makes the point in the very opening of “Reflections on Gandhi” from A Collection of Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1945), 171-180. I don’t think he treats Gandhi fairly in the essay, but his general point is right.

[3] The poem is available at

[4] She is able to make the case because she very quickly uses the terms “grammar,” “logic,” and “rhetoric” not only literally in the essay, but also metaphorically, frequently to cover subjects properly belonging to the quadrivium—Beware the pedagogue who speaks of the grammar of math!—or even to more advanced subjects. Her essay is quite good but has had an impact on Classical Christian education rather out of proportion to its merits. Her address is available at

[5] See John C. Briggs’ Forum report for the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers, “Writing without Reading: The Decline of Literature in the Composition Class,” in which he concludes, “We are obliged to act, again and again, upon the idea that literature, properly combined with composition, offers our students an indispensable means of getting an education” (22). The report is available here:

[6] On Cicero’s conception of rhetoric, see my “An Art of Gathering Scattered Humanity: Ciceronian Civic Humanism and the Defense of Responsible Rhetoric in De Oratore” in Ramify 2.1 (Spring 2011): 67-92.

[7] The argument against grammar, for example, by now a default position among many compositionists, is explained and refuted by David Mulroy in The War Against Grammar (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).

[8] Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind, ed. Geraldine Van Doren (New York: MacMillan, 1990), 150-164, 151. In the essay, he defends “English” as essentially concerned with the Trivium.

[9] Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

[10] (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1994), 16.

[11] See Kitty Burns Florey’s Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences (Hoboken, New Jersey: Melville House Publishing, 2006). The standard English grammar now used in university courses is Martha Kolln and Robert Funk’s Understanding English Grammar, 9th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2012), and they use sentence diagramming throughout. The book that inaugurated sentence diagramming at the end of the nineteenth century—Graded Lessons in Englishby Brainerd Kellog and Alonzo Reed—is available here: Kolln and Funk make some helpful revisions to the Kellog and Reed system (366-370).

[12] From H.M. Hubbell’s Loeb trans. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1960). Cicero repeats the myth in his more mature rhetoric, De Oratore (1.2).

[13] Trans. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (New York: Norton, 2004).

[14] Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859-1864 (New York: The Library of America, 1989), 3-11, 6. Hereafter, cited internally.

[15] Ed. Terrence Gordon (Corte Madera: Gingko P, 2006).

[16] I find students who have studied Latin tend to be the best prepared college students. Short of asking students to learn Latin and Greek, we could have them study Latin and Greek roots inside English. One especially fine treatment of them is Donald Ayer’s English Words from Latin and Greek Elements, revised by Thomas D. Worthen, 2nd ed. (Tucson, AZ: U of Arizona P, 1986).

[17] 3rd ed. (New York, Oxford, 2009), xxxvii-xlix. Not to be missed is David Foster Wallace’s review of Garner’s book in Harper’s, “Tense Present” (April, 2001). The grammar assumed here is traditional. For a “universal” grammar, see Joseph, 47-70; for a contemporary grammar employing both traditional and linguistic grammars, see Kolln and Funk; and for a more introductory grammar, see Robert Hollander’s The Elements of Grammar in 90 Minutes (Mineola, New York: Dover, 2011).

[18] Kathryn Duncan-Jone’s Arden ed. (London: Thomson Learning, 1997). Hereafter, cited internally.

[19] In The Ethics of Rhetoric (New York: Henry Regnery Company, 1953), 115-142, 135. Hereafter, cited internally.

[20] On traditional logic, see Sister Miriam Joseph (71-224) and Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic, 3rd ed. (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s P, 2010). I have often used selections from Irving M. Copi and Carl Cohen’s Introduction to Logic, now in a 13th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2008). The best introductory logic I have found is Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments, 4th ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009).

[21] The single best introduction to the art of rhetoric is Edward PJ Corbett and Robert Connor’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford UP, 1998). For an introduction to the art through Aristotle—warning: shameless plug ahead—see my Aristotle’s Rhetoric for Everybody (The Arts of Liberty Project, 2014):

[22] Ed. J. Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1932), 9.

[23] Ed. Martin Svaglic (Notre Dame, Indiana: U of Notre Dame P, 1982), 81. Hereafter, cited internally.

[24] Lest one think Newman’s argument limited by merely Catholic concerns, it is worth pointing out that, in her Paradoxes of Education in a Republic (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979), Eva Brann also argues for such an end to liberal education, though its form is different than Newman’s in her elevation of rational inquiry into the meaning of books (120-148). As well, in both Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1997) and Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010), Martha Nussbaum argues for Socratic reason as one of the central aims of liberal education (15-49 and 47-77, respectively). Liberal education—Catholic Christian, American republican, or progressive cosmopolitan—needs to cultivate reason in its most ample form. By means of the Trivium, it can cultivate the socio-orationality that is that form.