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On Education and Its Institutions

The contemporary controversy concerning education centers around the institutions tasked with providing it.  We ask ourselves what curricula should be implemented, what teaching methods are most effective, and how governmental agencies can assist in the growth of educational institutions—we debate the morality of teachers and their influence, the rights to speech and questioning, the difficulty of grading and assessment and so on and on.  All too rarely, especially as these disputes intensify, do we pause to question our presuppositions concerning the true nature and purpose of education itself.  Indeed: long is it overdue that we turn our gaze away from the institutional structure and instead towards the individual, the family, and especially the parents who themselves are not only the first teachers of their children, but who ought to teach them always—who ought to be models from which their children learn throughout life.

This is not to deny the necessity of educational institutions—not only as pragmatic necessities for parents who cannot afford to homeschool but also for higher learning of every kind.  Yet, though necessary, institutions will always be insufficient.  We cannot outsource or offload the responsibility for education to any institution or collection of institutions.  Institutions are lenses that help bring clarity and focus; but they are not the light.

Real Education

Education, as any experienced educator knows, consists in guiding rather than informing; in fostering the right questions rather than the correct answers.  Intellectual nourishment, however, requires a holistic approach.  Going to the gym five days a week will do relatively little for one’s health if all other hours of the day are marked by constant consumption of junk food and buttery baked goods.  So too, the best teaching in school cannot eradicate contrary examples given at home—nor, for that matter, should this be required.  For the student to see his parents’ leisure hours consumed whole by television or distractions encourages inheritance of the same infertile habit.  Every human being signifies to every other not only through words and actions, but by the virtues and vices cultivated in one’s person.  We not only think through signs; we are ourselves symbols, signifiers of the truths and goods in which we believe, shown through our actions.

Thus, we must reorient our perspective on education: the foundation—the first symbol by which its merit is conveyed to the child and spread throughout the culture—cannot be found in the institution but rather only within the household and particularly in parents aflame with their own love for wisdom and learning.  This love becomes a first spark in the lives of children—to be focused and brightened by the lenses of educational institutions.  But they can neither start nor maintain that fire.

Communal Lights

This love of learning and discovery passed from parent to child need not be of abstruse topics—neither metaphysics nor science, theological controversy nor philosophical dialectic—but can be rooted in the very life of the home: in the tradition of family, in the cultivation of land, in the play of language through story and invention.  Principally, this love must kindle the natural desire to know, that sits at the heart of every human being.  That parents may seek development of their own higher education, of course, serves all the better, for this demonstrates that learning not only satisfies curiosity or amusement, but that it requires discipline, and that this discipline earns the soul richer rewards. 

By showing this intellectual discipline to children—and, indeed, one’s whole community—the parent (or even the unmarried and childless adult) exposes the lie that education after childhood constitutes a mere hobby or pastime.  At the Lyceum Institute we aim to provide a digital community which supports this continued pursuit of learning—as, indeed, education always is enriched by being shared with others.  In fact, no education occurs alone; it is handed down by ourselves and by others and flourishes thereby, through books and records of findings and thought.  But a living engagement takes it further: brings it into the life possible only through conversation, through disputation, through real questioning. Community, structured by an institution, helps shape the lens through which the lights of learning shine brighter.

We would love for you to join us.

Podcast – How Does One Know?

I recently joined John Johnson and Larissa Bianco over at the Albertus Magnus Institute to talk about all things (or, at least, a lot of things) related to knowledge and the specifically human difference in how that knowledge unfolds in our experience. Be sure to check out the AMI website, especially the two summer courses starting in June: close read’s of Newman’s Idea of a University and Plato’s Republic!

But first, follow us into the weeds of knowing (and be sure to listen to the many other great podcast episodes available here). What is knowledge? How do animals know? How does human knowledge differ fundamentally from that of an animal? What roles are played by signs and relation in human knowledge? Why is knowledge a source of joy? What does it mean to say that “all men desire to know?” What is the object of that knowledge? The questions keep on coming!

Mentioned in the podcast: Education and Digital Life: Founding Declaration and Related Essays.

Catherine Project – Commonplace

Our friends at the Catherine Project have launched a new journal, Commonplace! As they describe it:

Commonplace is a journal maintained by volunteers from the Catherine Project’s community of learners under the supervision of the executive director. It’s purpose is twofold:

  1. To serve the Catherine Project community as an organ of communication and means of sharing writing informed or inspired by the Project’s core activity of reading and discussing great books.
  2. To serve as a means of advertising the existence and activities of the Catherine Project and inviting readers who are unfamiliar with the the Project to join our community of learning.

The journal is titled Commonplace because that’s what it is: a place or space we have in common. The word “commonplace” might also be used to describe the activity of our community: what we’re doing is rare these days, but it’s not original. Human beings throughout history have gathered informally to read, think, and learn together. We think learning for learning’s sake should be ordinary and shared among people of different ages, occupations, and educational backgrounds.

We aim to publish Commonplace twice a year, depending on volunteer availability. If you would like to join the editorial team that maintains the journal, write to volunteer@catherineproject.org.

We look forward to reading the first issue, already published!

Trivium: The Art of Logic 2023

On 1 May 2023, we will begin our second Trivium course of the year: The Art of Logic. Our first discussion session will take place on 8 May 2023 at 6:00pm ET. This course is open to all enrolled Lyceum Institute members; having taken Grammar is not a prerequisite. If you would like to sign-up and take this course, enroll here. You can find out more about our approach to studying logic here.

In brief, however: is there right reasoning concerning reasoning itself? Can we reason rightly about other things if we are misled as to the nature of reasoning itself? Of course we can; but incidentally, rather than properly, and in a manner not precisely under our own control. Without having successfully undergone training in logic, we are much more likely to go awry in the formation of our beliefs—holding things untrue or unfitting to reason, that is—than otherwise. Thus, even though it is quite difficult, Thomas Aquinas rightly says that we ought to begin our learning from logic:

And for this reason it is necessary in learning to begin from logic, not because it is easier than the other sciences—indeed, it has the greatest difficulty, since it concerns second intentions—but because the other sciences depend upon it, insofar as it teaches the mode of proceeding in all the other sciences.

c.1257-59: In de trin., q.6, a.1, p.2, ad.3: “Et hac ratione oportet in addiscendo a logica incipere, non quia ipsa sit facilior ceteris scientiis, habet enim maximam difficultatem, cum sit de secundo intellectis, sed quia alia scientiae ab ipsa dependent, in quantum ipsa docet modum procedendi in omnibus scientiis.”

In our course, we will concern ourselves not only with learning to analyze propositions and syllogisms of both categorical and hypothetical structure, to parse prose writing for its logical structure (and errors therein), and to illuminate the illative relation which ties together all our reasoning, but also situate logic both historically and as it fits within the broader tradition of the Trivium.

Again, this seminar is open to all Lyceum Institute members, at every level of enrollment. Our primary (required) textbook is R.E. Houser’s Logic as a Liberal Art.

Marshall McLuhan on the History of the Trivium

…the history of the trivium is largely a history of the rivalry among them for ascendancy.  Ancient grammar was at odds with the dialectics of Plato and, especially, of Aristotle, as the art of interpreting phenomena.  As the method of patristic theology, grammar enjoyed uninterrupted ascendancy until the revival of dialectics by Gerbert, Roscellinus, and Abelard in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  With the decadence of dialectical or scholastic theology in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries both grammarians and rhetoricians surge forward again, finally triumphing in the work and influence of Erasmus, the restorer of patristic theology and of the grammatical humanistic discipline on which it rests.  On the other hand, the war between the dialecticians and rhetoricians began as soon as the Sophists attempted to make dialectics subordinate to the art of persuasion.  Plato and Aristotle were the greatest enemies of the rhetoricians, not so much in rejecting rhetoric, as in asserting that as an art it had no power to control dialectics.  The Stoics, however, are the main defenders of dialectics against rhetoric after Aristotle.

Marshall McLuhan, 1943: The Classical Trivium, 42.

A point which will be focused on in the present unnamed Lyceum trivium project (being constituted by a series of lectures and discussion sessions which will result either in a video, text, or other public-facing production: see more on our approach to the Trivium here), the conflict of “ascendancy” among the arts of the trivium is a subtle point to which few have drawn attention as well as McLuhan. One difficulty I see emergent from the history of their rivalry is a certain blindness to their unity. What makes something one? An indication hinted at here—whether intentionally or not—is the point of “decadence” in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries among the scholastics. This decadence itself is a point in need of exploration and exposition, for, certainly, while those under the influence of Ockham and other nominalistic theories were undoubtedly decadent in their dialectical practice, given that they had abandoned the essential principle of unity between thought and things, it is also true that other scholastics were not so decadent, though they may have been quite elaborate in their use of dialectic nonetheless. (See, for instance, the great work being done on the thought of the Conimbricenses.)

The opposition of grammar, dialectics, and rhetoric, that is, has never rendered robust intellectual fruit when one attempts entirely the suppression of the others. Each must be understood as an integral part of a whole. What remains a question—which we will explore explicitly in the second of our lectures and discussions—is how these parts are united and oriented as a whole. This question requires also, antecedently, a consideration of what the trivium aims at; for every unity is governed, in some way or another, by the end for the sake of which it exists. This question was the focus of our first session, wherein it was discussed that the arts of the trivium, as tools of reflection upon thought, are tools whereby we manifest in language what is true. This truth is not merely factual (i.e., of the literal and measurable), but revelatory of being.

And so the question becomes: through which of the arts do we best orient ourselves towards what is true, without leaving behind the others?

Trivium: Rhetoric

Beginning the week of June 6, all Lyceum Institute members will have access to a 10-week course in the Art of Rhetoric. Discussion sessions will be held twice per week: Mondays at 6:00–6:45pm and Thursdays at 12:00–12:45pm (subject to change). Each week there will be an assigned reading, relevant practice, and brief lecture. Discussion sessions will cover both the reading and selected issues raised in the lecture.

The study of rhetoric is a study not only of defending ourselves against false accusations, slander, calumny, and other verbal assaults upon our character, but is further a study of making known the truth, so that it may speak for itself. If logic, which cannot be justly divorced from rhetoric, consists in learning the valid structures whereby one discovers truth for himself (by understanding the nature and action of thought), then rhetoric consists in the discovery of righteous means to persuade others to grasp those same truths—and, moreover, the ability to defend ourselves against the manipulative persuasions of others.

This talent resides not principally in the manipulative arrangement of language, but rather the effusion of virtue in that most-human of capacities, the linguistic. In the words of Quintilian:

The orator then, whom I am concerned to form, shall be the orator as defined by Marcus Cato, “a good man, skilled in speaking.” But above all he must possess the quality which Cato places first and which is in the very nature of things the greatest and most important, that is, he must be a good man. This is essential not merely on account of the fact that, if the powers of eloquence serve only to lend arms to crime, there can be nothing more pernicious than eloquence to public and private welfare alike, while I myself, who have laboured to the best of my ability to contribute something of value to oratory, shall have rendered the worst of services to mankind, if I forge these weapons not for a solider, but for a robber… To this must be added the fact that the mind will not find leisure even for the study of the noblest tasks, unless it first be free from vice… vileness and virtue cannot jointly inhabit in the selfsame heart, and… it is as impossible for one and the same mind to harbour good and evil thoughts as it is for one man to be at once both good and evil… Consequently, the bad man and the perfect orator can never be identical.

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, lib.12, c.1

This course is open to all Lyceum Institute members. Download the syllabus or find out more in the links below.

Learn more about Rhetoric at the Lyceum

The Lyceum Institute offers courses in all three arts of the Trivium: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Together, they form a core of knowledge necessary to every educated human being.

Learn more about our approach at the links below.


Trivium courses are included in every level of membership for the Lyceum Institute. See enrollment options here.

IO2S Deely – Augustine: Instituting the Given Sign

The Latin Age of philosophy was one of the most productive, systematic, and insightful times of intellectual inquiry in human history—despite the oft-given reductive and willfully-ignorant treatment that labels all between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Renaissance as the “Dark Ages”—for which the first major figure was Augustine of Hippo. Most well-known for his Confessions and City of God, works both of a deeply spiritual yet profoundly philosophical nature, Augustine was a contributor the tradition in many other ways, including but not limited to his definition of the sign and distinction of signs into natural and given.

On 15 January 2022 at 11am ET (4pm UTC – check times around the world here), Dr. Brian Kemple (Lyceum Institute) will give a lecture on Augustine’s contribution as well as his errors, and discuss what Augustine’s work provides us both in its historical significance and its overall importance for an understanding of semiotics. Dr. Remo Gramigna will provide commentary. This presentation is open to the public and can be watched below (live as well as recorded).

2022 International Open Seminar on Semiotics (IO2S) | Website

This collaborative international open scientific initiative and celebration is jointly organized by the Institute for Philosophical Studies of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Coimbra, the Lyceum Institute, the Deely Project, Saint Vincent College, the Iranian Society for Phenomenology at the Iranian Political Science Association, the International Association for Semiotics of Space and Time, the Institute for Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Semiotic Society of America, the American Maritain Association, the International Association for Semiotic Studies, the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies and the Mansarda Acesa with the support of the FCT – Foundation for Science and Technology, I.P., of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education of the Government of Portugal under the UID/FIL/00010/2020 project.

Winter Seminars – Reminder

Our Winter Seminars start tomorrow (first discussion sessions 1/15)! There’s still plenty of time to sign up, but readings are already available and discussion threads will begin on 1/8.


As you might surmise, this is a course for those who have had no (or have not had in a long time) formal philosophical education. It is a bit different than the typical introductory course. Here, you will find no histories or surveys, no trite clichés about questioning authority, no attempts at “dumbing down” a complex topic to make it “accessible”. Rather, you will find the essential challenge of philosophy itself: learning the habit of conscious reflection on our own conceptions. We will do this through a series of lectures, curated readings, and discussion sessions—with part of the seminar focused on Plato, as a master of the means to philosophical reflection—and a community of like-minded inquirers.


This is a much more advanced seminar, presuming the participant already has some familiarity with semiotics and possibly with scholastic realism as well. Here, we are asking the question of culture explicitly from the perspective of semiotics: how is culture constituted, mediated, diminished, and otherwise altered by the action of signs? How does culture, conversely, shape the “grammar” of signs by which we ourselves think? These questions are, I think, important especially today, in which we are experiencing a dramatic shift in the constitution of culture as affected by the digital paradigm of daily experience. If we are to change culture for the better, we must understand how we participate in it—and thus we must understand the signs through which culture affects human life, and, conversely, how human beings may affect culture through the use of signs.