Monday, December 15, 2014

Looking Backward To Move American Schools Forward

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 42
Sister Miriam Joseph, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, and various authors,Quadrivium: The Four Classical Liberal Arts of Number, Geometry, Music, & Cosmology

Seems like, every few years, Americans hear again the interminable debate about reforming schools, equipping American schoolchildren better for the global market. Some push higher standards in mathematics, natural sciences, and STEM job skills. Others piously demand public schools include prayer, theology, and seven-day creationism. Various other suggestions ballyhoo themselves into an already overcrowded echo chamber. Many demands resound; nothing gets done. Meanwhile I lean back and ask: what happened to good old-fashioned Liberal Arts?

Educational theorists latterly have devalued Liberal Arts as a retrograde throwback and mere medieval nicety. Land-grant universities award Liberal Arts degrees to students who have enough credits to graduate, but no thematic core. “Liberal Arts” has become synonymous with an unpalatable slumgullion of intellectual waste. But it wasn’t always so.The term “Liberal Arts” describes seven specific disciplines dedicated to clear communication and logical thought. All educated persons, once, were expected to understand these fields.

Sister Miriam Joseph, CSC, PhD, devised her text on the Trivium based on her intensive course at Saint Mary’s College. One hour per day, five days per week, for their entire first year, Freshmen studied the skills of logic, rhetoric, and grammar. But if, like me, you hear “grammar” and flinch to think sentence diagrams, or “rhetoric” and imagine fine-sounding but meaningless political discourse, welcome to the surprise. These topics look nothing like we remember.

The Sister leads readers through a comprehensive survey of English language construction, from early times through the present. (Sister Miriam began academic life as a Shakespeare scholar.) Writing before Generative Grammar added new layers of boredom to writing instruction, the Sister instead focuses on ways we adapt language for situations and audiences. Starting with simple sentence construction, she advances through arrangement of ideas, propositional structures, and syllogisms, and into higher forms of advanced critical thinking.

These aren’t topics for mere memorization. The Sister defines nouns and prepositions, but not to simply identify them in somebody else’s pre-made sentences. She establishes early that this information only matters once you incorporate it into new sentences. We don’t study case endings, disjunctive propositions, or synecdoche to answer Trivial Pursuit questions. Clear communication is the same as clear thinking. We study language arts because, without them, we can comprehend and communicate nothing else altogether.

Where the Trivium helps students organize their thinking, the Quadrivium helps them organize the universe. Ancient Greek and Sanskrit texts recognize dynamic relationships between numbers that exist only inside our heads, and empirical phenomena in the world. Waterfalls behave in predictable patterns; anyone possessing the skill can compute comet recurrences and solar eclipses. Yet modern math courses often render these relationships opaque, leaving confused students believing mathematics is too hard, too meaningless for their lives.

School boards anymore target music first when budget-chopping time rolls around, and mostly punt astronomy into colleges and community clubs. Yet this book reclaims these topics’ scientific origins. Musical notes have strict arithmetic relationships, and our night sky demonstrates complex geometric patterns. Our ancestors recognized that music and astronomy demonstrated real-world manifestations of arithmetic and geometry, respectively. This book helps curious general readers reclaim these relationships in ways that modern classroom textbooks have long forgotten.

Indeed, harnessing newer discoveries, like harmonographs, Chladni patterns, and Harmoniae Mundi, this book exceeds Greek texts. Musical tones, which have arithmetic origins, exhibit geometric patterns on plane surfaces. Johannes Kepler proved what Aristotle only speculated, that one can compute planetary orbits on the musical scale. Our universe organizes itself in mathematically harmonic patterns, in ways even my college textbooks ignored. If students could see the profound mathematics around themselves daily, surely they’d do their homework.

These books weren’t written for twinned consumption. Sister Miriam Joseph wrote a textbook for college students, while Wooden Books has compiled, essentially, an art book. The Quadrivium book is more primarily descriptive, fleshed out with copious illustrations and diagrams, where the Trivium book remains fairly dry, without pictures. Yet, as the only two books for general readers covering what Plato or Newton studied, they offer the potential to uncover what education meant to our forebears.

“Education is the highest of arts,” writes Sister Miriam Joseph, “in the sense that it imposes forms (ideas and ideals) not on matter… but on mind. These forms are received by the student not passively but through active cooperation.” That is, education should make students think well. The Trivium guides students into better communication, while the Quadrivium coaches them to think scientifically. This, rather than skills-based or issues-driven schooling, would prepare students for modern life.

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