These two: classical education and liberal arts education are frequently thought to be interchangeable. But is this true?
Before we answer this, perhaps we first ask the question, "Why is there a resurgence in the Deschooling thought of the 1960's?" once made popular by Fr. Ivan Illich? Virtual school, homeschool, and non-traditional schooling is on the rise like never before. It is thought these are responses to a perceived inefficiency, ineffectiveness, or downright corruption of our education systems in The United States.
In response to this perception many have tried to return to a Classical Education which focuses on the formation of the total person. As Catholics we know this is our authoritative teaching on education as expressed in Gravissimum Educationis Pope Paul VI in 1965:
For a true education aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of his ultimate end and of the good of the societies of which, as man, he is a member, and in whose obligations, as an adult, he will share.
It would seem Classical and Liberal Arts both agree upon this tenet. So where do they differ? They differ in two places. The first is that Classical Education has only been preserved both historically and philosophically through The Catholic Church. This means it is more than an abstract idea, but it habituates its students into being Catholic humans. Part of this qualifier is it emphasizes the Catholic element, which works like yeast into the flour forming a distinct dough, a distinct "Catholic human:"
Since all Christians have become by rebirth of water and the Holy Spirit a new creature so that they should be called and should be children of God, they have a right to a Christian education. A Christian education does not merely strive for the maturing of a human person as just now described, but has as its principal purpose this goal: that the baptized, while they are gradually introduced the knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become ever more aware of the gift of Faith they have received, and that they learn in addition how to worship God the Father in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:23) especially in liturgical action, and be conformed in their personal lives according to the new man created in justice and holiness of truth (Eph. 4:22-24); also that they develop into perfect manhood, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:13) and strive for the growth of the Mystical Body; moreover, that aware of their calling, they learn not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them (cf. Peter 3:15) but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world that takes place when natural powers viewed in the full consideration of man redeemed by Christ contribute to the good of the whole society.
In other words, "Classical Education" attempts to make one a "good person," a "good citizen," and a "good Catholic." Now some may think we're splitting hairs. Others may be thinking, "That's historically nice, but are not a Classical Education and Liberal Art Education simply the Trivium: grammar, logic, rhetoric & the Quadrivium: arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy -- and by that definition the two are the same!"
True. The terms get used interchangeably. But there is, if I risk repeating myself, a historical difference which still bears a mark today. The big difference is the definition of "person." Liberal Arts Education is notably an attempt to "recover" Classical Education from its Greek and Roman sources during The Renaissance by Humanism. Ironically the Humanists have a different definition of "human" than Classical Education, though both can claim "roots."
Classical Education thinks a Person/Human is a social animal, an individual of a community, following Aristotle.
Liberal Education thinks a Person/Human is an individual creature, alone in the cosmos, who may choose to join a community, following the Stoics.
Depending on what definition one begins with, or reasons to, their education will be dramatically different.
To go with Aristotle is to end with the question of what one's duties, responsibilities, and rights are in terms of the interlocking social circles one belongs to as a member of a species: family, community, city, State, Church, City of God.
To go with the Stoics is to end with a long rant about how everything one's family, friends, community, State, Church, etc. do is a limitation of one's "freedom" and a rejection of their "identity" as a unique species.
Arguably the quick conflation or ignorance of this difference is what gets us into trouble. If one assumes the Stoic position, which is a dominant American and European position after the rise of Classical Liberalism in the 14-17th centuries, no matter of education will help one's student -- the foundation is rotten. This conflation how created famous works like The Great Books which as a whole are a philosophical mess, giving one the idea that somehow Liberalism's notion of the "Person" in thinkers like Locke, Hume, Hobbes, Berkley, are in line with each other (which isn't true), and what's more that they're consonant with thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Aquinas, etc.
And thus Catholic Consumerism is born around education. I can "buy" my way to education. The Ancients would have scoffed as if one had missed the whole point. Anyone who has read Plato's Symposium will associate this idea of education with Pausanias' theory on love, that one "pours into another," a most ridiculous idea when virtue cannot be taught, and definitely cannot spread like one spreads a flu or exchanges a glass of water. If only education were so easy!
The only way to avoid this problem is to return to one essential tenant of Classical Education: one needs a Master. A famous example of this is Christ and his Apostles. And this is passed down as we hear of Philip in Acts:
And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
The lesson of this eunuch reading is that in the ancient world people were not so presumptuous as to think they could just pick up a text and understand it. The eunuch recognizes the need for a Master. Post-Reformation most of us think anyone can just pick up a Bible and understand it. This is folly. The ability to educate another is limited by our Mastery of life.
But perhaps the largest issue is simply lack of reading. "Consumption of information" has replaced "wrestling with texts." The results are obvious. Look around. If we do not read, we can't hope to educate our children to a Classical Education, which sees reading as a kind of labor which cultivates the mind to its full actuality. Before we can argue about which tradition is the true "Western Tradition," if there is one, we would need a community well read. Without that, every generation will only seek to overthrow their forefathers.
I close with an "Easy Essay" (easyessays.org) entitled "Back to Newmanism" by Peter Maurin. Peter Maurin began the Catholic Worker Movement (whose disciple was Dorothy Day). "Newmanism" denotes a return to Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, perhaps the most famous Anglican convert of all time, who is most well known for his work The Development of Doctrine.
Back to Newmanism
President Hutchins, of the University of Chicago, says: “How can we call a man educated who has not read any of the great books of the Western World? Yet today, it is entirely possible for a student to graduate from the finest American colleges without having read any of them, except perhaps Shakespeare. Of course the student may have read of those books, or at least of their authors. But this knowledge is gained in general through textbooks. And the textbooks have probably done as much to degrade American intelligence as any single force.”
Cardinal Newman says: “If the intellect is a good thing, then its cultivation is an excellent thing. It must be cultivated not only as a good thing, but as a useful thing. It must not be useful in any low, mechanical, material sense. It must be useful in the spreading of goodness. It must be used by the owner for the good of himself and for the good of the world.”