The Liberal Arts: Imitation AND Reason

One of the ancient maxims in education was “imitation precedes art.” An art could only be attained from an extensive foundation in action and imitation forming cultivated habits. Thus to learn the art of the blacksmith, one would have to imitate a blacksmith for a time. To learn the art of the lyre one had to practice it imitatively as a precursor. But an art required more than simply imitation. An art arose only when imitation was joined with reason.

The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education, by Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain

This idea that imitation precedes art underlies many of our methods of teaching at Paideia.

In math, students imitate by memorizing math facts, singing skip counting songs, and factoring numbers. But it is only when imitation is joined to reason–when students have achieved “number sense” about how the tens system works, when they can enjoy and predict the patterns in the multiplication table, when they can cancel factors out of fractions as second nature–that the art of arithmetic is achieved.

In the fine arts, students imitate by learning shading, and foreshortening, and grid drawing on the picture set out by the art teacher, with the goal that they will eventually join these imitative skills with reason and have the ability to replicate what they see in God’s world and in their mind’s eye. In composition, students copy out sentences, retell fables, and paraphrase quotations–they imitate until they have the skills of writing which will allow them to reason out their own thoughts with fluency and grace.

The student who attempts to learn the “reason” of a liberal art while bypassing the “imitation” will ultimately be frustrated in his endeavors. We can see this in the algebra student who “gets” the concept of algebra but perpetually multiplies his numbers wrong. We can see this in the writer who has a vision to express but has no cultivated habits of writing to bring forth her reasoned thoughts on paper.

There is of course a danger on the other side–the danger of assuming that imitation is enough, the danger of never leading students down the path from imitation to reason. Some students will gladly take to imitation but never strive for more. Other students will bridle against imitation, preferring the realm of reason without the cultivated habits that imitation brings. And that is something we, as parents and teachers, must continually guard against, seeking instead to lead our students from knowledge to understanding, and understanding to wisdom.

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