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The Liberal Arts

A classical education is grounded in the seven liberal arts, divided into the trivium (the three paths) and the quadrivium (the four paths), which have formed the basis of a sound education for centuries. The three paths of the trivium, the art of language, are grammar, the transmission of basic information and concepts; logic, the arts of thinking and conversation; and rhetoric, the art of persuasion, writing and speaking well. The trivium also follows the stages of the child’s development, so that grades K-5 are offered important and foundational concepts, sixth – eighth graders begin to grapple with logic, and high school students begin the practice of rhetoric. The four paths of the quadrivium, the art of numbers, are arithmetic, the learning of numbers and their relationships; geometry, numbers in space; music, numbers in time; and astronomy, numbers in space.

While the trivium leads students to think well, write well and speak well, the quadrivium leads them to the reality and wonder of the world. Altogether, the seven liberal arts are integrated throughout the curriculum, finding their expressions in the contemporary curriculum, and addressing the whole of human flourishing, preparing students to be human beings who are free to be all they were meant of be. It was the education of the ancients, the medieval scholars, and the founders of our nation. It is an education that has withstood the test of time.

The ancient idea of “liberal” meant to be educated in way that would set a human being free to be all he/she was meant to be. They were labeled liberal “arts” because they were more than just subjects; they were ways, or paths, to making knowledge and to making wisdom and virtue. This time-tested tradition of education served well the medieval scholastics, renaissance thinkers and scientists, and the founders of our nation. It serves well today’s student because it is an education that truly liberates.

Dorothy Sayers, who was largely responsible for the latter day revival of classical education, in her “Lost Tools of Learning” related the trivium (three paths) to the developmental stages of a child’s life. Grammar, the first of the three paths, approximated the stage in a child’s life when the acquisition of information and facts was easy and natural. The logic, or dialectical stage of the trivium began when children were ready to ask probing questions and to understand and construct logical arguments. The rhetorical stage occurred when students began to express their arguments in speeches, writing, debates, and through other means. While these descriptions are helpful, the seven liberal arts encompass much more than the developmental stages of life. The trivium (three paths) addresses the arts of language: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These are not specific subjects, but are rather the art of learning language that is woven into the fabric of the curriculum. Grammar is the art of grasping basic concepts; logic, or dialectic, is the art of conversation; rhetoric is the art of persuasion. The quadrivium (four paths) addresses the arts of mathematics: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Arithmetic is the art of numbers; geometry is the art of numbers in space; music is the art of numbers in time; astronomy is the art of numbers in time and space. In the ancient world, the seven liberal arts prepared the student to study the higher things: natural science, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and theology.  In a contemporary setting, each of the liberal arts and the higher sciences has its counterpart.

At Millennium Charter Academy, grades K-8 use the curriculum of the Core Knowledge Sequence, fashioned originally by E.D. Hirsh, Jr., to ensure the transmission of important Western cultural thought to the generations to come. This curriculum is rich in literature, history and science and lends itself well to teaching classically.  The North Carolina state standards provide a framework for teaching skills, and the Core Knowledge sequence fills the framework with rich and meaningful content. At the high school level, the curriculum framework is modeled on that of other successful classical schools while also meeting state requirements. Teachers who are themselves classically educated develop these courses, providing our high school students with a rich, meaningful and thoughtful education.