This post is based on Christopher Hall’s Common Arts Education: Renewing the Classical Tradition of Training the Hands, Head, and Heart. I highly recommend this excellent guide to the implementation of the common arts – consider this a brief introduction. You can purchase the book here in softcover and here in kindle format.
What are the “common arts”?
” The common arts are the skills that provide for basic, embodied human needs through the creation of artifacts or the provision of services”.Christopher Hall, Common Arts Education
There are three branches of the arts which complement each other:
- Liberal Arts – includes the four “scientific” arts of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy as well as the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric). In modern terms the liberal arts are the natural sciences, the social sciences, arts, and humanities. The liberal arts train a student how to think, not what to think.
- Fine Arts
- Common Arts – provide practical, artisanal elements for a holistic education and generally include: agriculture, architecture, tailoring and weaving, metalworking, woodworking, leatherworking, stonemasonry, navigation, medicine, cooking, hunting, and animal husbandry
The common arts have formed the rhythm of home and hearth around he world for millenia. They include skills which were the first things a child would be taught at home and remained the last that an elderly family member could contribute. Our grandparents would likely still have been very familiar and versed in many common arts, but this familiarity has waned with each generation and the gap between what we are able to do and what we outsource others to do for us is widening by the year.
The pandemic over the last two years has served as a catalyst for people to seek out common arts skills again in earnest.
How did the common arts get lost in our educational system?
Until the the end of the 1800’s, so toward the end of the industrial revolution and the start of the electrical age, common arts were still part of our yearly rhythm. During this time public education was implemented for all, and with it came a division of white collar and blue collar tracks. The blue collar tracks became known as trades because you traded your skill for an income. This started the outsourcing of skills and tasks which used to be part of everyone’s basic education.
In the late 50’s the space race introduced an emphasis on math and the sciences in order to bring up lagging academic skills in these areas. Over the last decade, curriculum has been absorbed with STEM, coding, and computer skills. More recently, political ideologies along with individualized, prescriptive learning plans has turned education into a type of therapeutic intervention.
Naturally, common arts skills were a victim because they take time to develop, are not easily squeezed into the school day, do not advance your chances of getting into university, and do not provide the types of measurable results that school boards can parade.
The rise of classical education is in part a response to these trends. Classical education does not follow trends; its curriculum is not blown about by the current psychological fads or political ideologies. It has grown into a movement of restoration and reclamation of education.
Why do you think the common arts are necessary for students?
In the Common Arts Education, Christopher Hall relates his experience with third grade students who were puzzled about how tomatoes can grow under the plastic of styrofoam trays, who did not know that chickens were birds, or that wood came from trees. More than a decade later, he taught a 7th grade class at an IVY league school with students who did not lack goods or opportunities. These students could swiftly use tablets and apps to develop plans for musical instruments, flow charts of energy transformation etc., yet they could not, or were afraid, to cut with scissors. They could not tie knots.
Both of these student groups were impoverished of experience of basic living in the world. How are students to reason when they lack interaction with reality around them? How are students to be free, when they lack skills necessary for survival and must rely on businesses for their basic needs?
Hall notes, “when the skills of the hand are made scarce – the whole education suffers”