Central to any philosophy of education is one’s understanding of the human person. Human beings are created by God to know themselves, the created order, and their Creator. They are endowed with natural faculties that empower them—to the extent they are able—to grasp the true, the good, and the beautiful. Truth is the proper object of the human mind. The very possibility of education is based upon the confidence we can have of coming to know the truth. But simply knowing the truth is not sufficient. The one who encounters the truth recognizes the vital connection between acknowledging the truth with one’s mind and choosing the good through the exercise of one’s will. Knowing the truth, willing the good, and apprehending the beautiful lead to true human happiness.
Freedom is a vital condition for happiness. Without freedom, we exist in a state of slavery. Even if we are free of external, physical bonds, we may nevertheless be fettered by internal bonds, such as disordered passions, false judgments, or even simply ignorance of our own nature and end. Education, properly understood and properly executed, contributes substantially to living a free and fully human life.
By coming to know the truth, we are liberated from ignorance and false opinion. Knowing the truth about our nature—its strengths and its weaknesses, its capacities and its limitations—enables us to make progress in the life-long endeavor of self-rule. Those capable of self-government are able to live freely, directing their whole being to contemplation and action, to thinking and acting in accord with the way things really are. So there is a fundamental, crucial connection between a well-ordered education and the good life.
Liberal education is the education of a “free person,” that is, one who is willing and able to live a mode of ethical and political life that is truly free. Toward that end, liberal education has for centuries begun with the liberal arts: the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
The trivium comprises the basic arts of the word. The student’s formation begins with a fundamental understanding of words and how they signify and relate to one another (grammar) and continues with the relation of propositions to form arguments (logic) and finally to the employment of words to persuade others in various ways (rhetoric).
The arts of the quadrivium are the four basic arts of number, or quantity. As words are the way human beings communicate with one another, so numbers are an important way we come to understand our world. Numbers reveal the intelligibility of our world and point in various ways to its Creator.
From the modest beginnings one can make through a study of the liberal arts, liberal education opens up to a broad array of disciplines—mathematics, natural science, literature, history, politics, philosophy, and theology, to name a few. These and other disciplines have developed over the history of the Western tradition as a natural outgrowth from first principles. Since all these disciplines and the liberal arts themselves are ultimately grounded in the truth, students can confidently pursue a liberal education, knowing that it all has its source and origin in God, who is Truth.