Often those of us who have benefited from a classical education bemoan the decline of the liberal arts in education, but fail to provide a clear rational for its value. Worse still, sometimes we seek to justify the liberal arts in pragmatic, capitalist, or utilitarian terms, which actually fosters an attitude that is inimical to the real value of the liberal arts. To be sure, the liberal arts are useful, but they are not merely useful for professional success and the accumulation of money — or at least that is as it should be. To be rightly appreciated, the liberal arts need to be seen against the backdrop of human nature and the arts in general.
Whereas modern approaches to education tend to be reductive, mechanistic, or excessively subjective, the classical approach combines a dedication to objective truth with an authentic vision of human nature. Real education is the cultivation of human nature and as such it grows organically from powers and capacities of the human person. The arts in make up much of the core of classical education because they are keyed to actualize and develop the internal powers of human nature.
In the classical perspective “the arts” are not reduced to the “fine arts” — the common modern assumption. Rather an art is a habit of applying practical skill that perfects a product. This is a very important definition.
An art is a habit. It involves consistent mastery — an acquired inclination to apply know-how and precise processes. This is a kind of excellence. It exhibits real mastery and achievement. In addition, it involves skill, that is, it involves acumen, precision, accuracy, and other like things. Finally, art completes, perfects a product. It produces a complete, fully-formed, and integral object. Art produces an almost infinite variety of excellent outcomes from a beautiful symphony to a well-running machine, from a persuasive speech to a perfectly welded seam. Examples could be enumerated without end, which speaks to the breadth, power, and importance of art.
However, from the perspective of education it is more important to recognize that the perfection of art goes over into the product; it does not perfect man as such. This qualification is not intended to demean the arts; far from it. In fact, education should be deeply devoted to the cultivation of art because man is a producer. Of course man is not defined as a producer — that would be a Marxist error. Nevertheless, man make things; he produces. Accordingly, education in the arts is a necessary part of the cultivation of man. Art — unlike virtue — does not make man good as such, but it does actualize human potential in a qualified. Art makes of man a good teacher, welder, writer, and mechanic. This is a real kind of goodness, although it is not the kind of goodness that makes us good men. It is desirable to be a good rather than poor plumber — obviously. Of course a good plumber may still be a bad man, but we must admit that even such a mixed character has a certain remote participation in the good — at least in the application of skill.
Within the classical perspective, the arts rightly form a major part of education. It follows that classical education emphasizes the development of productive skills — precise and sometimes complex processes that lead to complete, well-formed products. The classical path is not relativistic and it does not coddle mediocrity in the student. Above all it is not subjective because it remains focused on the well-formed object, not merely the process. Some products are desirable and others are not. Some products and well-formed and other are not. This is the hard, but valuable realism at the the heart of art. The young neophyte may be excited to begin carpentry, but he soon learns that hammer and wood do not easily bend to your will. Effort is important, but insufficient. The well-formed object is a standard that inspires growth and demands excellence.
Contrary to the magical, subjective dreams of modern educators, classical education does not espouse subjectivity or process for its own sake. Rather classical education draws the student to a standard outside of himself and introduces him to the demanding world of production, performance, and evaluation in the light of an objective standard. This is important for many reasons. It inculcates the reality of external, objective standards, it cultivates an appreciation for skill, and creates an opportunity in which habits of excellence may develop. Excellence, objectivity, and real mastery, these are the hallmarks of a classical education in the arts.