The liberal arts allow us the freedom to become more fully human by sharing as fully as possible in that which makes us distinct, and the freedom to flourish through the reality of our nature, our humanity, and, yes, perhaps even our divinity…

Why My Favorite Nun Was Right: The Recovery and Renewal of the Liberal Arts of Language for a Liberal Education

Dedicated to my Students in The Trivium

I. Introduction

Liberal ArtsI should say up front that I don’t have the right to have a favorite nun: I am not Catholic (or even Christian). But I studied under a teacher who, one year short of ordination as a Jesuit priest, decided to leave the Church and teach instead (because he wasn’t sure he believed in God, but was quite sure he was gay); eventually, he ended up a professor of English at a state university, where he labored to enlighten young, slacker barbarians (that’s where I came in), and he gave a number of us, who could not get enough of his classes, an education informed by the Catholic intellectual tradition. I ended up becoming a professor myself and by chance (or providence, my students would say) took a post at a Catholic university, where I have loved my teaching life, including the students and colleagues whose faith I do not completely share, and where I have been teaching so long that I have become a kind of cultural Catholic.

So I came to have a favorite nun, Sister Miriam Joseph: Her Shakespeare and the Arts of Languageinspired me to become a Shakespearean; then, when I decided to teach a course in the liberal arts of language, I discovered her book, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric; Understanding the Nature and Function of Language (only an early twentieth-century nun could get away with a sub-sub-title).[1] She was a teacher at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana, who, inspired by Mortimer Adler, inaugurated a year-long course in the trivium, the book arising out of the course. The students of my course in the trivium love the fact that their pagan teacher loves a nun. Sometimes, after a student has challenged one of my articulations of a point, I turn the class to the photograph of her in the back of the edition: There she is (lovely in her regal headdress), exuding angelic severity. “I must be right,” I tease them, “Sister says so.” Her Trivium informs my argument throughout.

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