Liberal Art #6—Astronomy

In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain tell us that

The liberal art of astronomy has exerted a profound influence throughout the entire world.

I think we can all agree on that! I really like their historical perspective of this art:

Astronomy was the centerpiece of ancient science as one of the oldest studies, having Egyptian records dating from 3500 BC. It was used for timekeeping and navigation and thus helped ancient cultures establish a sense of history and place.

Much of the discussion in this part of book is about the historical practice of astronomy, and how it changed shape and focus over the centuries as astronomy became more of a science and less of an art. Clark and Jain suggest that a study of this historical shift in focus should be a  feature of the way it is taught now. I do think the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and other giants of science would help to create interest in students.

But even more so, I think the classical approach to astronomy—the art of observing the sun, the moon, and the stars, and using those observations for practical purposes in the same way you use grammar, rhetoric, and arithmetic—gives astronomy its proper place in the seven liberal arts. It’s an art. It’s something you do, not a body of information or a historical phenomenon.

In our AmblesideOnline curriculum, we use Signs and Seasons by Jay Ryan which is subtitled “Understanding the Elements of Classical Astronomy”—because that’s what it’s all about. The book leads you through first-hand observations of what you can see and measure without special equipment. This might be difficult for schools who are expected to hold all classes during daylight hours, but it’s perfect for homeschoolers. And some observations are made during the daytime, too. We can learn to tell time and and direction from the position of the sun. And there are those days when the moon is visible during daylight hours.

Jay Ryan writes:

Essentially, Classical Astronomy is the visual observation of the motions of the celestial bodies—the simple act of studying the cycles of the Sun, Moon, and stars with our unaided eyes. In contrast, Modern Astronomy is largely an activity of professional scientists and is based on measurements taken from telescopes and other artificial instruments. With Classical Astronomy, we can learn useful and practical skills, such as how to tell time and navigate by the sky.

Basically, if you want to introduce astronomy as one of the classical liberal arts, this is your book. I don’t have much more to say than that. We tend to think we know so much more today because of all our scientific apparatus, and in some ways, we do. But it’s all second-hand knowledge (unless you are Neil Armstrong or the equivalent).  I think all the historical arguments surrounding astronomy will be more meaningful to students who have gathered a little humility because they have had to make their own observations and puzzle over the celestial wonders.

Brandy at Afterthoughts had a lot of the same thoughts on this art that I do, and recommends the same book.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


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