Wag the Dogma

by Steven H. Cullinane on April 6, 2001

The Roman Catholic Church and the Freemasons agree on few things; if they were to agree on nothing, all of western civilization might resemble (as at times it has) the sorry state of Northern Ireland. This note deals with one subject -- a very important subject -- on which they do agree: the great value of the seven traditional liberal arts.

Freemasons brag that they have no dogma (implying their superiority to the Catholic Church), but a quick survey shows that the importance of the seven liberal arts is in fact a central (and praiseworthy) Masonic dogma, as well as a tradition (if not formal dogma) of the Catholic Church. (To perform such a survey, enter the phrase "seven liberal arts" +dogma in the Google search engine.)

These curricular reflections were prompted by a page-one article in The New York Times of Wednesday, April 4, 2001, on the M.I.T. curriculum:

M.I.T. plans... to announce a 10-year initiative... that intends to create public web sites for almost all of its 2,000 courses and to post materials like lecture notes... at a cost of up to $100 million.

This commendable plan might be emulated, with a much smaller expense of time and money, by an enlightened liberal-arts college, if such a thing still exists. Recall, first of all, what the liberal arts are: the trivium of philology, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium of astronomy, music theory, geometry, and number theory.

To put such a curriculum on the web would require considerably less than 10 years and 100 million dollars.

One economy would be to teach the trivium using only one book --

Joyce and Aquinas, by William T. Noon (Yale, 1957),

which ties together philology, logic, and rhetoric in one trinitarian knot.

Another economy would be to do the same for the quadrivium, but it seems a bit much to require one book to cover astronomy and music theory as well as geometry and number theory. Instead, the former two subjects could be taught using

The Music of the Spheres, by Jamie James (Grove, 1993),

and the latter two by

Elliptic Curves, by McKean and Moll (Cambridge, 1997).

A thorough mastery of just these three volumes would ensure that the seven liberal arts had been adequately imparted to yet another generation.

Of course, considerable remedial instruction would be required for most students (and all professors) before they could even begin to discuss all three books with insight. The major works of Western literature, for instance, are logical prerequisites for reading Joyce -- himself a prerequisite for reading Noon. Study of astronomy, Plato, and the history of Western music should precede the reading of James. Several years of college mathematics courses should precede the reading of McKean and Moll. None the less, these three books, taken alone, if thoroughly understood, would constitute a liberal-arts education. It would take considerably less than ten years and 100 million dollars to make them available on the web, and less still to make them the core of an uncomputerized curriculum.

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