How I teach and Why - by Leon Conrad

In 1947, Dorothy Sayers described the liberal arts as ‘lost tools of learning’. She was talking about a 2-part curriculum that was the foundation of learning from classical times to the late 19th Century. The first part was called the Trivium. Its three subjects were Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric. The second part was called the Quadrivium. Its four subjects were Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music.

Sister Miriam Joseph, in her book, The Trivium, refers to Logic as being the study of the thing-as-it-is-known; Grammar, the study of the thing-as-it-is-symbolised; Rhetoric, the study of the thing-as-it-is-communicated. She also describes the liberal arts as education that develops the learner from within, acting upon him like an intransitive verb (eg ‘A rose blooms’).

It is the integration of the subjects that is so vital in bringing the liberal arts to life within a person, helping them bloom. It is this integrated approach that enables a person to develop as a free-thinker, and grow in wisdom and intelligence, developing their natural abilities and talents in a holistic way.

 

It is not a conventional approach. Far from it.

 

But this is how I teach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What's different? It’s the integrated approach - an approach that helps students make connections for themselves.

It is how I believe the best teachers taught – people like Parmenides (a pre-Socratic philosopher, who is credited as being the ‘father of logic’), Plato (who presents rhetoric in a vibrant and exciting light in Phaedras) or Zeno (who loved to create paradoxes that surpass those of Zen masters).

These are people whose thoughts have lasted for millennia. Their thoughts still intrigue us and engage us today. How come? How come people like Aristotle were able to write books on Physics, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Logic, Geology, Biology, Ethics, Politics, Botany, Stories, Economics and Poetry. And he wasn’t the only one.

I’m convinced that an integrated approach to learning was the key. For the ancient Greeks, everything connected together, and everything pointed to mystery. And this is the difference between the integratedapproach to teaching the liberal arts and the modern approach to teaching subjects in a non-connected, disparate way.

Not only that, what people do today is apply modern mind-sets to teaching the subjects, separate them using cold, scientific reasoning, teaching facts in isolation. It’s not doing anyone any good. But what should we do instead? Well, a bit of unlearning needs to happen to uncover the real genius behind the classical model. For me, once this happens, things point clearly in one direction – in grammar, in logic, in rhetoric, as in the subjects of the quadrivium, the direction in which classical teachers concentrated on led to a mysterious ‘space between’.

Let me give you some examples, drawn from the classical world. Aristotle and Plato mention three important terms in the context of grammar and logic – onoma, rhema and logos. In grammar, they used the terms to refer to noun, verb and sentence; in logic, they used the terms to refer to subject, predicate, premise. Any sentence needs at least a noun and a verb – ‘Fish swim’, for instance, or  ‘Humans reason’. Both together form a unity. Think about it. The unity of the sentence doesn’t come into being until both terms have been put together. It can’t be understood until you’ve gone from beginning to end, and it’s only at the end that you ‘get’ the meaning. You need to go beyond the two terms to understand what they mean together. The meaning lies, if you will, in the space between. Is this space the space between the two words? The space between the sentence and what is around it? The space between the writer and the reader? Think about it. Where and when does meaning materialise?

Have I intrigued you? I hope so.

Let’s not stop here, though. Let’s take mathematics – we assume that the concept of zero existed in classical times. It didn’t, or at least, not in any sense apart from it being a placeholder. It wasn’t accepted as a symbol of ‘nothingness’, for ‘nothingness’, if it existed had to be ‘something’ and how could ‘nothing’ be ‘something’? When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. What was at the centre of their number line? One – the monad, an indescribable unity. Pythagoras identified this with Divinity – a mysterious, indivisible unity – the mysterious source of all creation. On the other side of their number line were fractions – the infinite division of matter into which the indivisible unity was divided. A paradox, yes. Didn’t I mention that Zeno loved them? Don’t paradoxes all point to ‘the space between’?

You can see how from here, you can proceed to a discussion–and study–of theology, perception and thinking, which leads to the study of physics and the natural sciences, philosophy. But to go on that voyage, you need an understanding of how we perceive the world, of how we make sense of what we perceive through language, and how we can communicate our thoughts effectively in order to explore the limits of our knowledge, and seek to expand them.

And in expanding them, what are we expanding if not ourselves, along with our horizons?

And I’ve just demonstrated why Sister Miriam Joseph was absolutely correct in claiming that the liberal arts developed a person from within like an intransitive verb (a rose blooms).

Along with Dorothy Sayers and Mortimer Adler, her teacher, she is one of the few 20th century writers who appreciated the power of the integrated approach to teaching the classic liberal arts subjects of the trivium.

This is how I believe the best teachers taught.

This is how I teach – and why.

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