The Liberal Arts

Definition from Wikipedia:

The seven liberal arts - Picture from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad von Landsberg (12th century)


Liberal arts are the skills derived from the Classical education curriculum. The term liberal arts denotes a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities unlike the professional, vocational, technical curricula emphasizing specialization. The contemporary liberal arts comprise studying literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, and science.[1] In classical antiquity, the liberal arts denoted the education proper to a free man (Latin: liber, “free”), unlike the education proper to a slave. In the 5th Century AD, Martianus Capella academically defined the seven Liberal Arts as: grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. In the medieval Western university, the seven liberal arts were:


The Trivium

  1. grammar
  2. rhetoric
  3. logic


The Quadrivium

  1. geometry
  2. arithmetic
  3. music
  4. astronomy




What's a Liberal Arts Education Good For?

The Huffington Post

Michael Roth

President, Wesleyan University

December 1, 2008


Over the next few months, in homes across America, seventeen and eighteen-year-olds will be conferring with one another and with their parents about a life changing decision: What college to go to! After months of research, visits, and advice from "experts," these young men and women must now decide: Where will I be happy? Where will I make friends? Where will I get an education I can afford now, and an education that will remain valuable for years after graduation?

In this same time period, our government officials will be deciding where an investment in America's economic infrastructure will do the most good. Commentators from different political perspectives have often noted that one of the great advantages of America is its peerless higher education system. Although other sectors have diminished international roles, higher education in this country continues to inspire admiration around the globe. When politicians talk about this, they often emphasize the research output of large universities, but the focus should also be on American undergraduate liberal arts education. Liberal arts in the USA provide not only a pipeline of talented and prepared students to the great graduate schools, but also a model for life-long learning that other countries are beginning to emulate.

But in these challenging times, what's an education in the liberal arts good for?

Rather than pursuing business, technical or vocational training, some students (and their families) opt for a well-rounded learning experience. Liberal learning introduces them to books and the music, the science and the philosophy that form disciplined yet creative habits of mind that are not reducible to the material circumstances of one's life (though they may depend on those circumstances). There is a promise of freedom in the liberal arts education offered by America's most distinctive, selective, and demanding institutions; and it is no surprise that their graduates can be found disproportionately in leadership positions in politics, culture and the economy. A quick look at several members of President-elect Obama's leadership team can stand as an example of how those with a liberal arts education are shaping the future of our society.

What does liberal learning have to do with the harsh realities that our graduates are going to face after college? The development of the capacities for critical inquiry associated with liberal learning can be enormously practical because they become resources on which to draw for continual learning, for making decisions in one's life, and for making a difference in the world. Given the pace of technological and social change, it no longer makes sense to devote four years of higher education entirely to specific skills. Being ready on DAY ONE, may have sounded nice on the campaign trail, but being able to draw on one's education over a lifetime is much more practical (and precious). Post secondary education should help students to discover what they love to do, to get better at it, and to develop the ability to continue learning so that they become agents of change -- not victims of it.

A successful liberal arts education develops the capacity for innovation and for judgment. Those who can image how best to reconfigure existing resources and project future results will be the shapers of our economy and culture. We seldom get to have all the information we would like, but still we must act. The habits of mind developed in a liberal arts context often result in combinations of focus and flexibility that make for intelligent, and sometimes courageous risk taking for critical assessment of those risks.

The possibilities for free study, experimentation and risk taking need protection and cultivation. Looking around the world, we find no shortage of thugs who desecrate or murder those who seek to produce a more meaningful culture. And here at home we can easily see how mindless indifference to the contemporary arts and sciences facilitates the destruction of cultural memory and creative potential.

America's great universities and colleges must continue to offer a rigorous and innovative liberal arts education. A liberal education remains a resource years after graduation because it helps us to address problems and potential in our lives with passion, commitment and a sense of possibility. A liberal education teaches freedom by example, through the experience of free research, thinking and expression; and ideally, it inspires us to carry this example, this experience of meaningful freedom, from campus to community.

The American model of liberal arts education emphasizes freedom and experimentation as tools for students to develop meaningful ways of working after graduation. Many liberal arts students become innovators and productive risk takers, translating liberal arts ideals into effective, productive work in the world. That is what a liberal education is good for.

We were surprised last week to hear reports from several liberal arts colleges and universities that they had seen significant increases in 'early decision' applications. At Wesleyan, we were up almost 40%, an increase none of us on the staff would have predicted. Early decision applicants have already decided that if they are accepted at the one school to which they apply in the fall, they will attend that school the following year. Many of the highly selective schools like Wesleyan have robust financial aid programs, accepting students regardless of their ability to pay. In my next post, I'll write more about issues of affordability even with financial aid.

In these turbulent economic times, it appears that students want to know as quickly as possible if they are going to be able to attend their first choice school. Many of our talented high school seniors are doubtless deciding that the significant investment of time and money in a liberal arts education will give them the capacity for a sustainable and creative future. Perhaps they have something to teach us!

C. S. Lewis on Liberal Arts Education
Gregory Dunn

On Principle, v7n2
April 1999



When I received my Master of Arts degree, as a gift I was given a T-shirt that read, "Liberal Arts Major: Will Think for Food." The gift drew a smile then, and the phrase draws a smile now, for it is a common sentiment that those who pursue what is called a "liberal arts education" may have refined intellects but may also have difficulty paying the bills once out of school. In truth, it is a widely held perception that such an education is, at best, impractical and unnecessary and that it is preferable to obtain a more useful degree, such as accounting, nursing, or engineering. After all, with the time and expense of college education today, what use is it to leave school without developing any marketable skills? In short, what good are the liberal arts?

In answering this question, we will find it helpful to look to C. S. Lewis for insight. Although best known in his roles as imaginative writer, Christian apologist, and literary critic, we should not forget that his profession was first an Oxford tutor and later a Cambridge professor and that he spent the balance of his life--nearly forty years--in the academy teaching literature. As such, Lewis wrote many incisive essays offering a number of reasons why the pursuit of a liberal education is truly indispensable.

To Preserve Civilization

The first reason we study the liberal arts has to do with freedom. That freedom is an integral part of the liberal arts is borne out in Lewis’s observation that, "liberal comes of course from the Latin, liber, and means free." Such an education makes one free, according to Lewis, because it transforms the pupil from "an unregenerate little bundle of appetites" into "the good man and the good citizen." We act most human when we are reasonable, both in thought and deed. Animals, on the other hand, act wholly out of appetite. When hungry, they eat; when tired, they rest. Man is different. Rather than follow our appetites blindly we can be deliberate about what we do and when we do it. The ability to rule ourselves frees us from the tyranny of our appetites, and the liberal arts disciplines this self-rule. In other words, this sort of education teaches us to be most fully human and, thereby, to fulfill our human duties, both public and private.

Lewis contrasts liberal arts education with what he calls "vocational training," the sort that prepares one for employment. Such training, he writes, "aims at making not a good man but a good banker, a good electrician, . . . or a good surgeon." Lewis does admit the importance of such training--for we cannot do without bankers and electricians and surgeons--but the danger, as he sees it, is the pursuit of training at the expense of education. "If education is beaten by training, civilization dies," he writes, for "the lesson of history" is that "civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost." It is the liberal arts, not vocational training, that preserves civilization by producing reasonable men and responsible citizens.

To Avoid the Errors of Our Times

A second reason we study the liberal arts is to avoid the prejudices of our age. "Every age," Lewis writes, "has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes." The way to avoid being ensnared by the popular errors of our day, then, is to rub minds with the great men of the past, and the only way to do that is to read books.

But they must be the right sort of books. Lewis is adamant that a diet of contemporary books will not do the trick. "All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook," he writes, and this outlook brings with it a "great mass of common assumptions" that conceal a pervasive "characteristic blindness." Even those writers who seem most opposed to each other will share this intellectual blind spot and will thus make similar mistakes. "Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already," Lewis writes. "Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill."

The only remedy is to cultivate a discipline of carefully reading old books. His advice: "It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between." In this way, we are able to identify and correct those misperceptions that prevent our seeing the truth.

Lewis makes clear that the reason we consult the minds of the past is not because they were perfect; in truth, they were as subject to their own blind spots as we are to ours. The crucial difference is that they did not have the same blind spots. Such writers will not likely affirm the errors we now make. We will now not likely make the same errors they did. As Lewis writes, "two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction."

To Pursue Our Vocation

A third reason we study the liberal arts is because it is simply our nature and duty. Man has a natural thirst for knowledge of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and men and women of the past have made great sacrifices to pursue it in spite of the fact that, as Lewis puts it, "human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice." In his words, "they propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds." So, finding in the soul an appetite for such things, and knowing no appetite is made by God in vain, Lewis concludes that the pursuit of the liberal arts is pleasing to God and is possibly, for some, a God-given vocation.

Everyone is called by God to do some work, yet each calling is different for each person, and part of the art of Life consists in finding and fulfilling this calling. As Lewis writes, "a mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow." Further, those who pursue a life of learning perform a valuable service for those who do not. "Good philosophy must exist," Lewis writes, "if for no other reason, because bad philosophy must be answered." If those who possess the inclination and leisure for the life of the mind refuse to enter the arena of ideas--"not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground"--then they will place those who have no such inclination and leisure at the mercy of proponents of bad ideas. In Lewis’s words, "nonsense draws evil after it." As Lewis concludes, "we can therefore pursue knowledge as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so. . . . The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us."

Last year marked the centenary of C. S. Lewis’s birth. He was a good man and a rigorous thinker, and he has changed the lives of many through his insightful writings. We are fully justified in honoring his life. Further, we will honor his legacy by remembering the indispensable nature of a liberal arts education. Truly, we ignore the liberal arts only at our peril. Without them we will find ourselves increasingly unable to preserve a civilized society, to escape from the errors and prejudices of our day, and to struggle in the arena of ideas to the glory of God.