Book reviews

Kevin Clark’s and Ravi Scott Jain’s The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education (Classical Academic Press, 2013)

Everybody knows that public school secondary (and even primary) education is inferior.  Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain aim to convince us that the essential way to overcome the feeble educational structures of today is to do something truly bold, even revolutionary.  They want students to read books.

And not just any books, but the foundational, ancient works which are the canon of Western civilization, such as the works of Aristotle and the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Clark and Jain discuss and argue for the return of the seven subject areas of the Trivium and the Quadrivium, categorized in the acronym PGMAPT, which stands for piety, gymnastic, music, the liberal arts, philosophy, and theology (3).

It is a joy to read authors who cite with approbation (and not ridicule as contemporary politically-motivated “educators” do) several dominant concepts from the ancient and medieval worlds which inform Western culture, including St. Anselm’s “credo ut intelligam”, “I believe that I may understand” (4), and the ancient maxim that “Imitation precedes art” (5).  Plato’s idea that “the songs we sing, the stories we read, and the art we make and admire, form our souls” (27) is damning for those who think that rap and trap music meet the transcendentals of goodness, truth, and beauty.

Moreover, it is an especially delightful ecumenical joy to read the authors’ opinion of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica: “In this text the reader finds a careful consideration of every known perspective on every conceivable theological and philosophical problem” (43).  High praise indeed!

Contemporary readers may be shocked to learn that the people of the medieval period, dismissed as mere peasants under the domination of what some would criticize as a patriarchal and oppressive Catholic Church, espoused ideas strikingly “modern”, such as the fact that “appeals to reason were the strongest form of medieval proof” (8).  Reason, therefore, did not just pop into the world with the advent of the bloody French Revolution, which was supposed to be the philosophical summation of reason.

Similarly, the ancient and medieval periods believed that gymnastic was important because “the body and the soul are united in such a way that failure to cultivate the capacities inherent in either is failure to cultivate the whole person” (22).  Catholic readers know that this unity is an essential criterion of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  Thus, it is good to see Protestant Christians recognizing the importance of the ancient belief in human beings consisting of both a corporal and a spiritual element, a belief always held by the Catholic Church.

One noteworthy idea needs to be emphasized.  Contemporary college and university professors will agree with Clark and Jain when they claim that today’s academics are like the ancient Sophists, as when professors argue, for example, that truth is relative (89).  Clark and Jain write further about “postmodern anti-realism, which is perhaps a variant of the ancient sophism” (112).  Any college or university academic who is forced into diversity or equity sessions promoting the  irrational and illogical support for the mental disorder of transgenderism will agree with the authors that such anti-realist efforts prove that contemporary academics are indeed more sophist than philosopher, let alone professorial.

There are two flaws in the work worth mentioning.  First, the footnotes expanding ideas in the text are often lugubrious—so thick that the train of thought in the original paragraph can be lost.

Second, the work is obviously a Protestant treatise, and the inability to identify the Roman Catholic component of Western civilization is not only intellectually dismissive, but also annoying.  The authors refer to the “medieval” world and its authors, but seem hesitant to mention an important descriptor of such authors: they were not merely Christian, but Catholic, and even more specifically Roman Catholic Christian (in contrast to Byzantine or Greek Catholic or Orthodox Christianity).  Maybe this hesitancy occurs because the authors wanted to appeal to a Protestant Christian audience which may not appreciate the efforts of 1,500 years of Catholic Christianity, continuing, by the way, well past the Reformation.  I hope that the hesitancy is not due to an inherent anti-Catholic bias, like the kind that secular and atheist thinkers in contemporary education have.

Despite these flaws, the work is a helpful handbook for those entering, for example, an academy which uses the Great Books or which operates in contrast to public or parochial schools which fail to stimulate sufficient wonder in their students, whether their charges are elementary or secondary students.

In fact, college faculty may find the authors’ premises helpful to reorganize their higher education curricula so that college and university education does not simply parrot the leftist nonsense promoted by certain political factions in society vying for their fifteen minutes of fame.  We college professors already know about the Trivium and the Quadrivium.  Clark and Jain make a compelling argument for their return to academia.

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