Quintilian and the Liberal Arts

Dorothy Sayers essay "The Lost Tools of Learning" (see the link under "Liberal Arts Resources" on the right), gives a thoughtful critique of the academic learning of her day. She echoes some thoughts found in Quintilian's preface to his Institutio Oratoria. In explaining why he is finally writing his view of oratory, Quintilian (b. c. 35 CE; d. before 100) says that he had declined his friends' requests to write because he "was well aware that some of the most distinguished Greek and Roman writers had bequeathed to posterity a number of works dealing with the subject" (1.1). However, Quintilian says that he came to the conclusion that these other authors expected their readers to know all other branches of learning before reading their work.

Quintilian disagrees with this approach and claims that the early stages of education, while not being as flashy, are invaluable. He states: 

"For almost all others who have written on the art of oratory have started with the assumption that their readers were perfect in all other branches of education and that their own task was merely to put the finishing touches to their rhetorical training; this is due to the fact that they either despised the preliminary stages of education or thought that they were not their concern, since the duties of the different branches of education are distinct from another, or else, and this is nearer the truth, because they had no hope of making a remunerative display of their talent in dealing with subjects, which, although necessary, are far from being showy: just as in architecture it is the superstructure and not the foundations which attracts the eye.  I on the other hand hold that the art of oratory includes all that is essential for the training of an orator, and that it is impossible to reach the summit in any subject unless we have first passed through all the elementary stages. I shall not therefore refuse to stoop to the consideration of those minor details, neglect of which may result in there being no opportunity for more important things, and propose to mould the studies of my orator from infancy, on the assumption that his whole education has been entrusted to my charge." (1.4-5)


"The elementary stages" of education must be passed through, and their importance for further learning cannot be underestimated. Unless one can read, write, think critically, debate, and argue, there is not much that can be done with other subjects. This view of Quintilian's is what the liberal arts is all about. A strong foundation in various disciplines, although often not exciting to learn or "attracting the eye", is necessary for solid future learning. 

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