Letters to an 8th Grader: The Modes of Knowledge


The Triumph of St. Thomas by Andrea di Bonaiuto

Dear ___________,

I know that it has been awhile since I have written. I have gotten carried away by teaching this semester and have only recently found the time to return to these letters.

Last time we discussed the importance of, like Socrates, knowing that you don’t know anything. That is, of coming to the works of others in order to learn rather than to critique. But in order to do that effectively, it is pretty important that you have some sense of the different “subjects” within the typical curriculum. You probably noticed that I put the word subjects in scare quotes. I did that because I am not at all certain that we should thinks about Literature and History and Science and Math and all the rest as things at all.

The word subject comes to us out of the Latin subjectum (meaning something like to “throw beneath,”, which is a translation of the Greek word hypokeimenon which is best translated as “underlying thing.” That is, that which is below the surface of direct perception and yet gives shape and form to what can be seen. The term subject in English is a shortened form of the phrase subject matter, indicating the material beneath the surface of a topic or area of study which gave definition to that area of study. The assumption here is that the areas of study are things. 

Another common synonym for subject when discussing academic areas of study is field of study. The implicit metaphor is one of a farmer with multiple fields who grows different things in each field. So, one field of barley, one field of potatoes, one field of tomatoes, etc. Again, the assumption here is that different areas of study are different things altogether. And like a well organized pantry with the cans on one shelf, the spices on another, and the baking implements on a third, the different fields of study in the same general area (the school), but are totally separate things.

However, the implication of believing that the different areas of study are each their own thing is that each area of study becomes hardened in its own assumptions, over-committed to its own foundations, and competitive with the other areas for students. A subject model of education is a model that leads to isolation of knowledge, division of the curriculum, and people who have no real way to synthesize what they are learning.

In contrast to this very common view, I would like to propose that the different areas of study are rather modes of knowledge. They are different ways in which we can know the only subject: TRUTH. That is, they are engaged in the same essential task of seeking for, finding, and knowing truth. And just as there is more than one way to skin a cat (to borrow the vulgar idiom), there are multiple ways to know.

The medievals who constructed the first universities understood this fact, which is why they named their institutions uni (one) — versus (turned), “all turned in to one.” They posited that there were the preparatory modes, or ways, called the trivium (or three ways) and the advanced modes called the quadrivium (or four ways). The trivium consisted of Grammar (language and Literature), Logic (the construction and evaluation of arguments), and Rhetoric (the persuasion of others). These three, sometimes called the language arts, were preparatory to the quadrivium because they gave a foundation in how to think before a student could rightly proceed to higher things. The quadrivium consisted of Arithmetic (numbers), Geometry (numbers in space), Music (numbers in time), and Astronomy (numbers in space and time). These four have sometimes been called the mathematical arts and were viewed as essential for the student to truly understand the unity of Truth.

So, all of that to say, the one who truly loves English should also love Math and Science, and vice versa. Some academic modes in education include the following:

Theology is the study of God’s revelation.
Literature is the study of story making (Grk. poesis)
Grammar is the study of language.
History is the study of the written records of the past.
Science (in all of its varied forms) is the study of that which is observable and repeatable.
Math is the study numbers.
Logic is the study of valid arguments.

The things is, each of these modes talks about truth. Truth is expressed in revelation, story, language, old records, observable nature, numbers, and arguments. Most of education consists of when and how to apply these modes of knowledge. It would never do to make a scientific claim about a poem, for example. Nor to apply literary analysis to the human genome. Etc.

Anyhow, I hope this proves helpful to you! I will be in touch soon with more thoughts about education.

Faithfully yours,

Mr. Jeffers