The Trivium’s Procrustean Problem
In the summer of 2010, Ravi Jain presented some of the material which would later become The Liberal Arts Tradition to a faculty in-service at Westminster Academy in Memphis. At the time he was given the task of explaining the Quadrivium, the liberal arts of number, and their role in teaching math and science. But a few teachers in the audience heard in his presentation some ideas that might have profound, even unsettling, implications for the curriculum of our school, indeed for the Classical Christian Education renewal as a whole.
The topic of teaching science was, unsurprisingly, divisive in a small Christian school such as ours. But the sciences posed a double-threat to a Reformed K-12 school marching under the “classical” banner; not only were there unresolved tensions between certain theological convictions and modern scientific theories, there was no obvious place for teaching scientific methods within the framework of a Trivium-centered classical education as it had been articulated. Where do Biology and Physics fit into the Trivium?
And what about Algebra, Trigonometry, and Calculus? College preparatory schools had decisively raised the bar in terms of what is expected in a competitive college application. To teach math with a sense of wonder and delight could mean slowing progress into higher mathematics for some students. Slowing down and enjoying the ride probably meant truncating the curriculum. We seemed faced with a decision to dilute the rigor of the college prep model or compromise the ideals of classical education. The walls were closing in, and none of us wanted to make the hard decisions.
At the time all of us in the CCE movement took for granted that the arts of the Trivium, “the lost tools of learning,” now recovered, were central to our mission as teachers. But were they the whole education? Or were they one aspect of a larger picture of education? Part of what sort of education? No one knew. Most would answer the question by asserting that liberal arts were skills, pure and simple, that could be applied to any content. This is sensible, to a point. You do have to read, write, and speak in any discipline — math and science included. But those who were not so fortunate to be teaching subjects with a clear language arts component began to speak in an odd code language: the elements of design became “the grammar of Art”; time lines were now “the logic of History”; and the study of Creation gave us “the rhetoric of Science.” On the Procrustean bed of of the Trivium, teachers were forced to stretch or contort their disciplines to fit a stale and increasingly sterile theory of CCE. It felt anything but liberating.
Even setting aside those contemporary controversies, the Trivium-centered approach troubled teachers for other reasons, since the model did not even explicitly justify attention paid to the Good Books, the Great Books, Holy Scripture, or anything worth studying in particular. One could invoke Truth, Goodness, and Beauty to justify the study of anything (that is what makes them transcendentals!); that rhetorical pivot — to rationalize what we were already doing with reference to metaphysics — felt forced and inauthentic, especially given the deep dualism at the heart of the philosophy of CCE: skills trumped content. Some would claim that Classical education meant “teaching students how to think, not what to think.” This mantra can’t be taken seriously, of course, since it flies in the face of anything deserving of the name education. Imparting received wisdom, dogma, creed, tradition, moral truths, stories, or any knowledge usually bestowed upon children in a school calling itself “Classical,” let alone “Christian,” did not receive its blessing easily from the Trivium-centered model of CCE. Some took to reversing the name of the movement, calling it “Christian classical education,” to put the emphasis on the dogma rather than the skills; but this honorable gesture did little to safeguard tradition or the classics in the eyes of frustrated teachers and the skeptical masses who were beginning to sense that the center of CCE was dissolving. Indeed, it was.
PGMAPT and The Platonic Turn
The first time I heard a compelling way forward in this dilemma was during Ravi’s explanation of PGMAPT framework — offered, at the time, as context for his presentation of the Quadrivium. It made immediate and intuitive sense that the Liberal Arts had to be situated in a larger narrative “grounded in piety and governed by theology,” and that there were proper objects of these arts found in what the tradition called “philosophy” — the love of wisdom with respect to nature, humanity, being, and the divine. Furthermore, much of what we all intuitively knew must be included in the art of raising children — stories, songs, history, art, exercise, diet — all found their natural and proper place in Music (the arts of the soul) and Gymnastic (the arts of the body).
While the PGMAPT (pee-gee-mapped) acronym may not be particularly attractive, when it emerged on the CCE scene its awkwardness felt like a sign of its authenticity. It was as if Ravi and Kevin had thrown some strange yet all-too-familiar artifacts on the table still covered in soil for all to see. It didn’t have to be pretty, because it was fresh air and promised a way to freedom. Procrustes had been slain and order would be restored in the land of CCE philosophy. After years of hearing (and admittedly using) cryptic phrases like “the grammar of history,” this unwieldy acronym was music to our ears. It was in their zeal for teaching that Ravi and Kevin at once set about trying to help other teachers understand what they had found. They even made jacket buttons bearing the PGMAPT acronym, accompanied by phrases like “Philosophy is for Lovers” and “Smile if you are a Liberal Artist.” These buttons are pinned to the wall above my desk to this day and they are a warm reminder of the beginning of the recovery of a beautiful idea — and liberation from the Trivium-centered model of CCE.
In the years following Ravi’s visit to our school I began to study Plato much more carefully (it helped that I was supposed to teach a few of his dialogues in High School), and though I had read his philosophy before, I saw it now with new eyes. Plato has become a favorite philosopher of those seeking to recover a more robust and comprehensive philosophy of Classical Christian Education, and rightfully so. Although his most famous and well-loved dialogue touches on almost every philosophical topic, PGMAPT is a fairly comprehensive outline of the education of the guardians as presented in The Republic.
One interesting feature of the Republic is that, under the influence of Pythagorean mathematics, Plato wrote it with a musical structure. Like the harmony of a chord, the argument resonates on at least two (and probably three) levels at once. The conversation begins with an attempt to understand the notion of justice in the soul; but talk soon turns to examine the ideal city which is said to be an image of the human soul writ large. The soul is a tiny city; the city is a macro-soul. And indeed the city is a microcosm of the order we observe in the cosmos, the entirety of the created order, as seen in the grand finale, the Myth of Er. The education of the individual soul is recapitulated in the growth of the city; and the growth of the city should be governed by humanity’s aspiration to live justly, in harmony with the cosmos, in hopes of friendship with the gods.
Thus, for those of us who were looking for an escape from the Trivium-centered model of CCE, Ravi and Kevin provided the outline of a narrative, yet to be filled in, but powerful enough to describe the complex realities of the nature of learning.
The Tree Diagram
A year or two later I saw Ravi at a conference and sheepishly handed him a sketch — a token of thanks for the paradigm shift he initiated. Later he requested a new drawing, with a few changes, for his book, and my wife, Rachel, happily obliged.
At the time I designed the tree I wanted to show a parallel between the cardinal virtues (Faith, Hope, and Love) and the classical transcendentals (Truth, Beauty, and Goodness) as fruit of the same tree (they are all desired fruits of education), but I also wanted them to appear as distinct (hence the banners over the two groups): the transcendentals are the fruits of contemplation seeking wisdom, while the virtues are the products of struggle in pursuit of righteousness. I liked the imagery of fruit since they made use of biblical imagery (i.e. fruits of the Spirit), but they also represent a duality: they are both the end (as delicious food) and a new beginning (as the reproductive organ) of the plant. They are both the autumnal harvest and the springtime seeds of wisdom, worship, wonder, and work.
“Metaphysics” seemed like it ought to be a banner rather than a branch, though metaphysics is often called a “branch of philosophy.” The paradigmatic problem of metaphysics is “the one and the many,” and it represents the mystery of being as at once unified and diverse. How is it that a river is both the same and yet different at each moment? How can snowflakes be called by the same name and yet be unique in every case? How can a person be the same at 9 and 92, or even from one moment to the next? The crux in the tree, where the branches begin to fan out, represents the point at which a unified picture of learning transforms into the staggering multiplicity and variety of its manifestations. The fruits of virtue and wisdom are not to be found in philosophical abstractions of the trunk but the unique particularities (the many) of the branches.
The banner at the top, “Theology,” was not intended to be a banner but the light of the sun filtering through the trees. (There is a painted version in my office which shows this much more clearly.) The “Grace” banner was a later addition requested by Ravi. Grace, the uncreated presence of God in our midst, might be a better replacement for “Theology” than as an additional subordinate banner. However, the word “Theology,” properly understood, makes sense as the light of the sun on the tree of knowledge. Theology, “the logos concerning the theos,” is simultaneously illuminating (kataphatic) and blinding (apophatic). God is wise, and yet his wisdom surpasses any conception of wisdom we might have, and so we must humbly unsay even that which we venture to proclaim.
“Piety” is distinct from virtue in that it is pre-cognitive, which means that it is cultivated and transmitted through ritual, tradition, and sensory experience. To be sure, it requires humility and obedience to pastors, parents, elders and teachers; but training in piety, a duty based in love, necessarily includes tactile sacramental experiences such as smelling incense, making the sign of the cross, feeling the warmth of the candles, delighting at the sprinkling of water, submitting with a kneel or the bow of the head, praying with the sounds of human voices crying out in harmony to God, listening to the reading of Scripture, fasting and feasting according to the Church holy days, and receiving the gifts of the bread and the wine. Piety first springs from the hidden interior of these mysteries warmed indirectly by theology, not from the reflections of philosophy or through the conscience habits formed by the arts.
The original diagram differed from the final version in that, instead of the intertwining parts of the trunk, there was a wedge cut out of the tree revealing its interior. Music, Gymnastic, the Liberal Arts, and Philosophy, were portrayed as concentric circles proceeding from the heart of the tree outward to the bark. To me this better represented the natural growth of the curriculum, the “interior to exterior” growth, but that was hard to capture in a little diagram.
Ravi and Kevin have done a great service to the CCE movement in laying out a larger framework for education, but I think it will be a long time before Classical Christian college prep schools are able to fully explore what PGMAPT might look like as a pedagogical model, and I am not sure that certain social pressures will ever allow that to happen. Right now home schooling families and small co-ops seem to be in the best position to experiment and imagine how these ideas might be most faithfully practiced.
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