What is a Liberal Education?

What is a Liberal Education?

Charlotte Mason’s final book, first published in 1925, is entitled An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education: A Liberal Education For All. By choosing this title, Mason indicates that her philosophy of education is not just any kind of education; it is a liberal education. But what is a liberal education? A leading Christian Classical Education theorist recently wrote:

“Liberal education” is a common phrase for indicating the education entailed in the classical tradition of education. (Perrin, 2016)

If this assertion is correct, then it would seem to leave little doubt as to the relationship between Mason’s theory of education and the classical tradition. But is the assertion correct? It is a question of no little import. To answer it, we must take a fascinating tour through the history of education in the Western world. Our tour begins with that bastion of classical philosophy, the brilliant man known as Plato.

Plato & Aristotle

Plato’s writings contain what may be the first enumeration of the subjects that would later comprise the quadrivium. Of course, quadrivium (“the four ways”) is a Latin word, so it would not have been used by Plato. But in Book VII of The Republic, he describes an approach to education involving music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Near the conclusion of his book, after the discussion of the first three subjects, we read:

… let us go on to astronomy, which will be fourth. (Jowett, 1991, p. 274)

This embryonic tradition was further developed by Aristotle. Gerald Gutek (1995) explains:

During the period from fifteen to twenty-one, or adolescence and youth, Aristotle’s proposed curriculum emphasized intellectual pursuits. Mathematics — encompassing arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy — was to be studied for its practical and theoretical consequences. To enlarge their view of the world, students were to study such humanistic subjects as grammar, literature, poetry, rhetoric, ethics, and politics. Upon reaching twenty-one, students were to pursue the more theoretical and speculative studies such as physics, cosmology, biology, and psychology. They would also engage in further philosophical pursuits such as logic and metaphysics. (p. 51)

Aristotle’s proposed curriculum, however, was only intended for free people:

Following the conventional Greek distinction between “free people” and “servile people,” Aristotle designated the liberal arts as those studies that liberate people by enlarging and expanding their choices. Other occupational and vocational pursuits, such as trade, commerce, and farming, he claimed, distort the body and reduce the time available for leisurely cultivating intellectual excellence. (Gutek, 1995, p. 51)

So the liberal arts were so-named because they comprised a program of study intended for the privileged children of society who could enjoy leisure. Our word liberal is derived from the Latin word liberalis, which means “suitable for a freeman” (Merriam-Webster, 2003).

This liberal arts tradition was received by the classical Romans, who followed the pattern established by Plato and Aristotle:

The Greek and Latin grammar schools were parallel rather than rival institutions, and the educated Roman boy of the late republic and the empire was expected to have attended both institutions. As the school of the grammaticus became more formal, its curriculum came to embrace all of the liberal arts and included elements of grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. (Gutek, 1995, p. 64)


With the advent of Christianity, a new light dawned upon the world. The early Church Fathers faced the enormous task of exploring a new faith and determining how to apply the Lordship of Christ to all dimensions of life. One question they asked was whether classical Greek thought could be reconciled with Christian revelation. One Father answered in the negative:

The parent of heresies is pagan philosophy — the Valentinian doctrines, for example, coming from Plato, and Marcion drawing from the Stoics. Against such philosophy Paul would put us on our guard. “What, indeed, has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the academy and the church? what between heretics and Christians?” As to the Lord’s words, “Seek and ye shall find,” they were spoken primarily to Jews and to the apostles before they received the Holy Ghost. (Jackson, 1882, pp. 179-180)


But in spite of this bold warning by Tertullian (155-240), some Fathers decided to search the storehouses of classical philosophy for ideas they believed could be synthesized with Christian theology. One such father was Boethius (480-524). Carl Trueman describes his approach and impact:

Boethius’ contributions to Western civilization in general and theology in particular are wide-ranging and significant. Indeed, he adapted a number of Greek works into Latin, probably including Euclid’s Geometry; these works laid the ground work for the so-called quadrivium, or group of four academic disciplines (music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy). The quadrivium combined with the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic), to form the seven liberal arts (though we should remember that each of the subjects then covered much more ground than that with which we would typically associate them today). Thanks to the influence of Alcuin (ca. 740–804) and the intellectual circle surrounding Charlemagne, the seven liberal arts became the foundation of Western higher education; thus, the work of Boethius was, in the long run, instrumental in profoundly shaping the whole concept of university education. (Trueman, 2006, pp. 16-17)

As with contemporary classical education theorists, Boethius consciously reached back to the classical past, received ideas about education, and applied them to his contemporary situation. With the widespread use of Latin, the terms trivium (“the three ways”) and quadrivium came into common use, and they together comprised the seven liberal arts. Boethius’ accomplishments in bringing the trivium and the quadrivium to the Christian era has not always earned him accolades:

Boethius, who has been called the last of the ancient philosophers, and the connecting link between the classical and the mediæval age, made a translation of Aristotle’s categories into Latin. His contemporaries of the 6th century, Cassiodorus, Capella, and Isidore of Seville, together with several Byzantine writers, e. g. George Pachymera, Theodorus Metachita, and Michael Psellus, formed meagre compendiums of logic and rhetoric, without any clear distinction between the two. These manuals superseded or rather substituted the use of the ancient authors on both these subjects, and, imperfect as they were, became the oracles of that long and dismal period in which the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy) were the chief topics of study and instruction. The ignorance consequent upon such a condition of things continued for the long period of five centuries without material variation. (Kidder, 1882).

Thomas Aquinas

After that “long and dismal period,” a theologian of unprecedented skill and capacity appeared in the Christian world: St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Considered by many to be the greatest Christian theologian, Aquinas carefully studied the writings of the classical Greek philosopher Aristotle. Interestingly, Aquinas also carefully studied the writings of Boethius. In a commentary on one of Boethius’ works, he affirmed the program of liberal education known as the trivium and quadrivium:

The seven liberal arts do not adequately divide theoretical philosophy; but, as Hugh of St. Victor says, seven arts are grouped together (leaving out certain other ones), because those who wanted to learn philosophy were first instructed in them. And the reason why they are divided into the trivium and quadrivium is that “they are as it were paths (viae) introducing the quick mind to the secrets of philosophy.” This is also in harmony with the Philosopher’s [Aristotle] statement in the Metaphysics, that we must investigate the method of scientific thinking before the sciences themselves. And the Commentator [Averroes] says in the same place that before all the other sciences a person should learn logic, which teaches the method of all the sciences; and the trivium concerns logic. The Philosopher also says in the Ethics that the young can know mathematics but not physics, because it requires experience. So we are given to understand that after logic we should learn mathematics, which the quadrivium concerns. These, then, are like paths leading the mind to the other philosophical disciplines. (Maurer, 1953/1986, pp. 17-18)

From this we observe several affirmations by Aquinas:

  • The seven liberal arts were a course of instruction that preceded instruction in higher subjects such as philosophy and physics.
  • The liberal arts teach the student how to learn and think: one must learn “scientific thinking” before one can learn “the sciences themselves.”
  • The respective liberal arts are distinguishable subjects of instruction that are covered in a chronological sequence: “after logic we should learn mathematics.”

Aquinas expands on these points, and even gives an example of the students’ work product for each of the seven liberal arts:

We may add that among the other sciences these are called arts because they involve not only knowledge but also a work that is directly a product of reason itself; for example, producing a composition [grammar], syllogism [logic] or discourse [rhetoric], numbering [arithmetic], measuring [geometry], composing melodies [music], and reckoning the course of the stars [astronomy]. (Maurer, 1953/1986, p. 18)

Interestingly, Aquinas goes on to maintain the original dualism of Aristotle, noted earlier:

Other sciences (such as divine and natural science) either do not involve a work produced but only knowledge, and so we cannot call them arts, because, as the Metaphysics says, art is “productive reason”; or they involve some bodily activity, as in the case of medicine, alchemy, and other sciences of this kind. These latter, then, cannot be called liberal arts because such activity belongs to man on the side of his nature in which he is not free, namely, on the side of his body.

The clear message from Aquinas is that the trivium and quadrivium are a well-defined program of instruction to prepare the mind for the higher disciplines of divine and natural science, medicine, and so on. According to Aquinas, one must master the fundamental “arts” that form the foundation for philosophical and scientific study. In this sense, he loosely anticipates classical education theorist Dorothy Sayers, who writes:

For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain. (Sayers, 1947)

Thomas Huxley

Aquinas did not, however, anticipate Thomas Huxley (1825-1895). As with Sayers, Huxley delivered a groundbreaking address calling for the reform of education. But Huxley and Sayers looked to different sources to find the answers to the problems of education. Sayers looked to the classical past, hoping to find a better way to educate children. By contrast, Huxley looked to the present. He reasoned as to what skills all people need to function effectively in society. He likened it to a game of which the stakes are extremely high:

Suppose it were perfectly certain that the life and fortune of every one of us would, one day or other, depend upon his winning or losing a game of chess. Don’t you think that we should all consider it to be a primary duty to learn at least the names and the moves of the pieces; to have a notion of a gambit, and a keen eye for all the means of giving and getting out of check? Do you not think that we should look with a disapprobation amounting to scorn, upon the father who allowed his son, or the state which allowed its members, to grow up without knowing a pawn from a knight?

Yet it is a very plain and elementary truth, that the life, the fortune, and the happiness of every one of us, and, more or less, of those who are connected with us, do depend upon our knowing something of the rules of a game infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess. It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chess-board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well, the highest stakes are paid, with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated–without haste, but without remorse.

Well, what I mean by Education is learning the rules of this mighty game. In other words, education is the instruction of the intellect in the laws of Nature, under which name I include not merely things and their forces, but men and their ways; and the fashioning of the affections and of the will into an earnest and loving desire to move in harmony with those laws. For me, education means neither more nor less than this. Anything which professes to call itself education must be tried by this standard, and if it fails to stand the test, I will not call it education, whatever may be the force of authority, or of numbers, upon the other side. (Huxley, 1971, pp. 77-78)

According to Huxley, then, how does one learn the rules to this “game”? Through the classical program of the seven liberal arts? No:

Huxley asserted that the role of science in education was to demonstrate that nature was a place of order and hierarchy, and to provide reasons for the great laws of conduct in the world. The curriculum that he outlined, and that was eventually accepted, consisted of the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic; social economy, drawing, domestic economy for girls, and an elementary course in physical science. (White, 2005, p. 129)

Huxley saw immense value in dramatically increasing the depth and breadth of science instruction in schools of all levels:

Throughout his career, [Huxley] led a broad campaign for the introduction of the sciences into English schools and universities… He repeatedly lectured schoolmasters, Royal Institution audiences, and government officials on the value of science in forming the intellect and character: science conferred a respect for observation and experiment rather than authority; it taught the value of evidence, and instilled a firm belief in immutable moral and physical laws. Science was a “moral discipline”, its success depending on the “courage, patience, and self-denial” of the practitioner. (White, 2005, p. 118)

In contrast to the enormous potential of broad science instruction, Huxley sought to deprecate classical education:

He depicted the classical tradition as a “thrawldom of words”, thereby facilitating the portrayal of science as the embodiment of true liberal principles — freedom of thought, anchored in disciplined observation. (White, 2005, p. 130)

What did Huxley call this program of instruction that teaches one how to win the “game” of life? This science-oriented program of instruction which supplants the classical tradition? Did he call it “progressive education” or “utilitarian education”? Did he call it “scientific education”? No. He called it a liberal education. In fact, his groundbreaking 1868 address was entitled “A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It”:

And a liberal education is an artificial [i.e., mediated] education which has not only prepared a man to escape the great evils of disobedience to natural laws, but has trained him to appreciate and to seize upon the rewards, which Nature scatters with as free a hand as her penalties. (Huxley, 1971, p. 81)

Huxley’s address shows the weakness of Perrin’s claim that “’Liberal education’ is a common phrase for indicating the education entailed in the classical tradition of education.” In Huxley’s address, a contemporary of Mason, known and respected by Mason, refers to a “liberal education” as a program that depicts the classical tradition as a “thrawldom of words.”

With Perrin’s question answered, we must turn to one lingering question: did Mason use the phrase “liberal education” in a way similar to Huxley? Or did she use it as a “code” to evoke the liberal arts tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas?

At the outset, it is important to note that Mason’s writings show high regard for Huxley. Her six volumes on education reference his name fourteen times. In one reference, she appears to directly quote from his “A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It”:

We see at once the importance of every attempt to solve scientific and social problems, or problems of faith as helping us to understand those ‘laws of nature’ and ‘ways of men,’ the love and dutiful attitude or the will towards which, Mr. Huxley considers to be the sole practical outcome of education. (Mason, 1896/1989a, p. 101)

Furthermore, Mason appeals to Huxley while explaining some of her guidelines for nature study:

The teachers are careful not to make these nature walks an opportunity for scientific instruction, as we wish the children’s attention to be given to observation with very little direction. In this way they lay up that store of ‘common information’ which Huxley considered should precede science teaching; and, what is much more important, they learn to know and delight in natural objects as in the familiar faces of friends. (Mason, 1905, p. 237)

Secondly, it is interesting to note how some of Huxley’s ideas appear quite similar to Mason’s. For example, Huxley joins Mason in asserting that a liberal education should be available for all due to the extraordinary potential possessed by every human being:

And a few voices are lifted up in favour of the doctrine that the masses should be educated because they are men and women with unlimited capacities of being, doing, and suffering, and that it is as true now, as it ever was, that the people perish for lack of knowledge. (Huxley, 1971, p. 75)

Huxley goes on to insist that children need knowledge, not just the skills of learning:

At any rate “make people learn to read, write, and cipher,” say a great many; and the advice is undoubtedly sensible as far as it goes. But, as has happened to me in former days, those who, in despair of getting anything better, advocate this measure, are met with the objection that it is very like making a child practise the use of a knife, fork, and spoon, without giving it a particle of meat. I really don’t know what reply is to be made to such an objection. (Huxley, 1971, p. 77)

It is hard not to be struck by how similar this is to Mason’s (1906/1989b) use of the same metaphor:

Let us who teach spend time in the endeavour to lay proper and abundant nutriment before the young, rather than in leading them to criticise and examine every morsel of knowledge that comes their way. Who could live if every mouthful of bodily food were held up on a fork for critical examination before it be eaten? (pp. 294-295)

Thirdly, Mason shared Huxley’s agenda to increase the quantity of science instruction in schools. Mason (1896/1989a) wrote of children that “The heroes of science should be their heroes; the great names, especially of those who are amongst us, should be household words” (p. 44). Far from being a utilitarian subject, Mason (1896/1989a) considered science to be a sacred study:

…. science also is ‘revelation,’ though we are not yet able fully to interpret what we know; and that ‘science’ herself contains the promise of great impetus to the spiritual life – to perceive these things is to be able to rejoice in all truth and to wait for final certainty. (p. 45)

Modern commentators have noted Mason’s high regard for scientific truth. For example, Stephen Kaufmann (2005) writes:

All truth, contended Mason, comes ultimately from God, and therefore there is a unity to it. There is no antagonism between science and religion rightly understood, because all knowledge – the knowledge of God, of humanity, and of the universe – has one source. (p. 111)

Given Mason’s evident familiarity with Huxley’s “A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It,” her high regard for his views on science, and her sympathy with his agenda to promote science instruction, one would assume that Mason’s phrase “a liberal education” is not meant to evoke the classical tradition. Rather, it is meant to refer to a program of education based on the needs of the person. This conclusion would seem unassailable if not for one fact of Mason’s life: her visit to the Spanish Chapel of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

For a detailed investigation of the significance of that momentous 1894 visit, please see my article entitled “Thomas Aquinas and the Great Recognition.” For now, suffice it to note that the Chapel contains a fresco that depicts Thomas Aquinas and the seven liberal arts, the exact trivium and quadrivium spoken of earlier. Now this gets interesting. Mason apparently shows affinity with two different Thomas’s – Huxley and Aquinas. Which man’s “liberal education” is hers?

To answer this question, we must consider four very important clues.

1. Mason’s use of the phrases “liberal arts” and “liberal education.”

In Mason’s six volumes, she uses the phrase “liberal arts” seven times. She never uses the phrase in connection with the word “education” – she never speaks of a “liberal arts education.” More importantly, all seven references occur when Mason is describing the fresco. In other words, the only time Mason ever uses the phrase “liberal arts” is when she is given a verbal description of the work of a Florentine artist.

By contrast, the phrase “liberal education” occurs twenty-seven times in her six volumes. And most importantly, when Mason describes her own method of education (not that of the Florentines) she uses the phrase “liberal education.” It is also important to note that Mason never speaks of the trivium or the quadrivium – we find no passage in her writings similar to that of Aquinas cited above.

2. Mason’s paucity of references to Thomas Aquinas.

As noted earlier, Mason favorably references Thomas Huxley many times in her writings. But as I have noted elsewhere, she never states the name Thomas Aquinas in her extant writings. And this despite the fact that repeatedly across many of her works she describes a fresco named after him. It is true that she does refer to him one time by the sobriquet “the Angelica Doctor,” in her An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education (1925/1954) on p. 284. (This was pointed out to me recently.) In that reference, however, she does not quote him. But she does state that the Allegoria filosofica della Religione Cattolica was “conceived” by him. In any event, it seems that if she was drawn to Aquinas by the fresco, that she would speak more frequently about his specific ideas, including those related to the seven liberal arts.

3. Mason’s theological tradition.

Francis Schaeffer

It is a remarkable irony of history that a great Christian thinker in 1976 also wrote of the very same fresco in the Spanish Chapel. The famous evangelical theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer writes in How Should We Then Live? (1976/2005):

This is well illustrated by a fresco painted in 1365 by Andrea da Firenze (?-1377) in the Spanish Chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Thomas Aquinas sits on a throne in the center of the fresco, and on the lower level of the picture are Aristotle, Cicero (106-43 B.C.), Ptolemy (active A.D. 121-151), Euclid (active around 300 B.C.) and Pythagoras (580?-? B.C.), all placed in the same category as Augustine. As a result of this emphasis, philosophy was gradually separated from revelation – from the Bible – and philosophers began to act in an increasingly independent, autonomous manner.

Among the Greek philosophers, Thomas Aquinas relied especially on one of the greatest, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). In 1263 Pope Urban IV had forbidden the study of Aristotle in the universities. Aquinas managed to have Aristotle accepted, so the ancient non-Christian philosophy was reenthroned. (pp. 52-53)

Schaeffer’s daughter Susan was surely aware of her father’s worldview. She would grow up and take the name Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, and in 1984 she would publish For the Children’s Sake. This book would ignite a revival of interest in Charlotte Mason, and paradoxically, an intense interest in the very fresco that Schaeffer laments.

How do we explain this? Did Susan Schaeffer Macaulay unwittingly launch into motion a homeschool movement dedicated to the “reenthronement” of the “non-Christian” philosophy that her father opposed? Did she accidentally inspire thousands of homeschool educators to embrace “philosophy [that is] gradually separated from revelation”?

Perhaps. Or perhaps Macaulay realized that Mason saw in the fresco an illustration of a concept, not a foundation for a philosophy. Presumably Macaulay understood that Mason was not a classical educator and was not reviving Aristotle’s system. Presumably Macaulay read Mason’s original writings with an intuitive (or explicit) understanding that Mason’s view of revelation and philosophy was substantially in agreement with that of her father.

4. The purpose of liberal arts training

Perhaps the most decisive evidence that Mason did not mean “liberal arts” by her phrase “liberal education” can be seen in the purpose of liberal arts instruction as explained by Aquinas. As noted earlier, Aquinas viewed the liberal arts as a form of preparation for higher studies such as philosophy and science. It could be said that Aquinas, who embraced faculty psychology, saw in the liberal arts a way to train the faculties – a way to learn how to learn.

In response to this, Mason returns to the metaphor she shares with the other Thomas – Mr. Huxley. At the close of her final published work, she writes (1925/1954):

We must give up the farce of teaching young people how to learn, which is just as felicitous a labour and just as necessary as to teach a child the motions of eating without offering him food; and studies which are pursued with a view to improve the mind must in future take a back seat. (p. 348)

It is as if this final paragraph of her final book is the final word on the subject of Mason and classical education. In the years that followed, Sayers’ “lost tools of learning” were met with a cool reception by the P.N.E.U. And contemporary attempts to reconcile Mason with classical education should be similarly met with a cool reception by those devoted to preserving Mason’s thought.


But my final question was actually a trick question. I asked which Thomas had the answer for Mason. The answer is neither. Ever the revolutionary, Mason charted her own course. She found the content of a liberal education not in an elaborate game of chess or in the detailed writings of Aristotle. Rather, she found the content by looking into the eyes of those she loved the most: the children.

If we succeed in establishing a similar standard which every boy and girl of a given age should reach in a liberal range of subjects, a fair chance will be afforded to the average boy and girl while brilliant or especially industrious young people will go ahead. We labour under the mistake of supposing that there is no natural law or inherent principle according to which a child’s course of studies should be regulated; … But what if in the very nature of things we find a complete curriculum suggested? … We must give consideration to this question because the answer depends on a survey of the composite whole we sum up as ‘human nature,’ a whole whose possibilities are infinite and various, not only in a budding genius, the child of a distinguished family, but in every child of the streets… It is a wide programme founded on the educational rights of man; … We may not even make choice between science and the ‘humanities.’ Our part it seems to me is to give a child a vital hold upon as many as possible of those wide relationships proper to him. (Mason, 1925/1954, pp. 155-157)

Mason’s answer reminds me of St. Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans:

Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart… (Romans 10:6-8, RSV2CE, 2006)

These words provide a helpful metaphor for the Charlotte Mason educator who is searching for the key to the curriculum for his or her child. You don’t need to ascend into heaven or descend into the abyss to find the ancient “forms” of Plato to be your guide. The answer is near you. It is right before your eyes. The answer is in your child, who was created in the image of God. She “has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts” (Mason, 1925/1954, p. xxx). These are his “first-born affinities that fit [his] new existence to existing things.’” Make them “valid” – as many as you possibly can.


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