Introduction to the Liberal Arts

The Liberal Arts are the fountainhead of the development of university education. Often colleges, either as standalone institutions or within universities, offer some form of a “liberal arts” education. Even degrees can be earned in the liberal arts.

Section 1: Liberal Arts and Education

Education from the Latin “educere” means to “lead out of.” The purpose, then, of education is to lead the student or learner out of a state of ignorance into a one of knowledge. The liberal arts were designed (or discovered, depending on who is asking) to not just lead people from ignorance to knowledge about isolated facts or even individual disciplines. No, the liberal arts had a deeper purpose: to lead the person to know how the mind works and how the person relates to the rest of reality. Liberal arts were taught to liberate people to be able to learn any other science or discipline.

These seem to be very noble aspirations, but questions arise, especially, in modern education about the practicality of trying to communicate and foster the liberal arts, which have, seemingly, no direct impact on many educational and career paths. “How do the liberal arts relate to studies in the STEM fields or to studies in the humanities”? Or, “Why should I even care about the liberal arts”? Or, “My field doesn’t use the liberal arts. Why should I be forced to take classes in the liberal arts”? These are common questions and objections to the study of the liberal arts and /or getting an education at a liberal arts institution.

For some conversations about the relationship between STEM and Liberal Arts and humanities see here and here.

This Crash Course will provide some necessary information about the liberal arts and why post-secondary educators still believe in their importance in higher education. To understand why many again affirm the place of the liberal arts—in terms of their essential content and methodology—in college curricula today, we will need to learn a little bit about the origins and development of the liberal arts in education.

Section 2: What Does “Liberal Arts” Mean?

In any serious discussion or debate or inquiry, a first requirement for success it that crucial terms and ideas be defined. In terms of the liberal arts we’ve have stipulate the contextual meaning of “liberal” and “art.”

The English expression, liberal arts, is a translation from the Latin expression artes liberales. Both words, have only a distant relation to how they’re commonly used today. Liberal in modern contexts usually refers to a political or social outlook. And, art refers typically to something created by an artist to express a concept, feeling, or any number of possible motivations, through the medium of sound (music) or sight (dance, theater, sculptor, writing, or colors). While these uses of the liberal and art are undoubtedly correct, in the context of the historical development and organization of the liberal arts, they don’t quite hit the mark.

Let’s first look at the meaning of liberal. Liberal didn’t imply a political affiliation or outlook. However, it did have everything to do with social status, which is likely very much the same, in many important respects. Liberal in our English is a translation of the Latin word liber. This is where we get the word liberty or free

This conversation discusses the nature of intellectual freedom and its relation to learning. For a defense of the need to study the liberal arts in order to maintain freedom see this short lecture. Cornell West and Timothy George, two influential contemporary philosophers discuss the importance of a liberal education.

Historically, the expression “liberal arts,” carried a clever, but, in a critical way, unjust double meaning. In the first place, which, thankfully, societies, in general, and institutions of higher learning, have thoroughly rejected, the liberal arts were those areas of study that were limited to free men. This has at least two significant historical implications.

  • First, this meant that study of the liberal arts was an elitist undertaking. Only men (exclusive in the main of women) who were not in some form of servitude or slavery could formally take up such studies.

This, of course, is completely unacceptable in modern democratic societies that understand education as a fundamental right of all people, regardless of gender or social status.

  • Second, and this is where we discover the real importance and goals of a liberal arts education, liberal also referred to the process through education of “freeing” or “liberating” the person who studies the liberal arts.

This is the real heart of the liberal arts. The liberal arts were designed to liberate the person who mastered them from a permanent need for a teacher. Liberal arts were designed to allow for each person to make their own journey of discovery with the “skills” needed to gather, arranged, assess, and communicate their knowledge effectively. This kind of liberation was seen as an interior freeing of the mind.

The scholars who formulated the liberal arts believed that learning, knowledge, and the achievement of wisdom was the highest power and purpose of humankind. In the early days of the liberal arts, the different arts were seen as a unity that prepared students for later study of philosophy and theology.

The liberal arts were also contrasted to the so-called “servile arts.” We shouldn’t understand servile here as negative term. Servile as opposed to liberal referred to those arts that had primarily practical or economic ends. These disciplines or arts, all the way up to the modern period, commonly included fabric-making, metalworking, architecture, commerce, and agriculture. This designation or rather distinction between liberal and servile art continued through the Middle Ages. In Ancient Greece and Rome the liberal arts were designed to prepare citizens of ancient Greece and Rome to participate in and contribute to civic and political life.

Section 3: What are the Liberal Arts?

Now time to turn to the makeup of the liberal arts. That is, what disciplines or objects are included in the liberal arts, and are there any major division within the liberal arts? We find that there are seven liberal arts, and the liberal arts themselves are divided into two major groups: the trivium and the quadrivium.

The trivium, or three ways, has to do with language studies. One might say that the trivium is about the verbal arts. It contains the art of speech, logic, and persuasion. Commonly it includes three disciplines or ways in which speech can be used. These three ways build upon one another and interrelate in their actual usage, depending upon the purposes of the speaker or writer. The historic titles are as follows:

  • Grammar which pertains to structure of language and its good use.
  • Logic or Dialectic was used to train people to reason in an ordered way and to discover further truths implied an already known truths.
  • Rhetoric was designed to train people how to use language in a beautiful manner so as to persuade listeners.

The Quadrivium, or four ways, have to do not so much with speech but with number, measure, and proportion. In the early history of education, especially Greek education, the quadrivium was believed more important and primary to the trivium. This is because for both the Pythagoreans and the Platonic schools of philosophy and education, number was the most revered in sacred of all subjects that the human mind could know. The quadrivium four ways were traditionally called:

  • Arithmetic deals with the basic notion of number.
  • Geometry deals with number and measure in terms of spatial order or relation.
  • Music in reality a consideration of number as it is used in manifest and through time.
  • Astronomy or Cosmology has to do with number in both space and time.

Section 4: A Brief Outline of the History of the Liberal Arts

The common understanding of the liberal arts as these came to be developed, organized, and applied in educational institutions in Europe, is inextricably bound up with the rise of educational institutions, especially the University system. The development of the liberal arts is a key aspect of the history of education. The classical traditions of Greek-speaking and Latin speaking scholars and educators played a vital role in the development of the liberal arts.

The Greeks

The approach to teaching the liberal arts as a mode of educating the soul and the freeing of the mind to understand and communicate upon subjects rooted in number, truth, and, and beauty, begins with small communities of learning. Elements of the liberal arts are already found in the schools Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE). It is likely Plato (428/7 – 348/7 BCE) and his Academy (founded 387 BCE) where the principles and methods that would later inform the liberal arts were first systematically transmitted and applied. The Greeks strongly emphasized the ethical and mathematical aspects of the liberal arts.

Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Plato’s student, would go on to found the Lyceum, which lasted from 335 BCE to the middle of the sixth century CE. The Lyceum also became a leading center of liberal learning and springboard for the development and dissemination of the liberal arts. The expression liberal arts, however, comes from the Latin encyclopedists of the fifth and sixth centuries CE.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were all convinced that the most profound truth about humankind, something that touches and characterizes human nature itself, is the capacity and drive to know. It is through knowledge, according to these famous Greek philosophers, that the becomes free to seek and contemplate higher things, e.g. truth goodness and beauty. Through the liberal arts the person is prepared, according to Plato and Aristotle contemplate the forms or highest causes and reasons for things. It was believed that perfecting the soul through knowledge would help the soul become ordered and the person virtuous.

Both Plato and Aristotle, as well as a great number of other ancient and medieval philosophers, thought that the liberal arts were closely related to questions of theology. In fact, for centuries the liberal arts were studied for decades before going on to study theology.

Transition to Rome

In the first century CE the liberal arts as we come to come to know them to take shape. Rome, as the recipient of Greek culture took on many aspects of the Greek intellectual heritage. With its ever-expanding frontiers and need for persuasive political officials, Rome emphasized the language arts of the trivium in contrast to Greece’s emphasis upon the mathematics. Rhetoric was especially important in Roman culture and education.

In an effort to unify the various studies that were taken up by the Pythagoreans, Plato, and Aristotle, Roman philosopher Marcus Varro (116 – 27 BCE) organized an encyclopedia or “circle of learning.” His vision contained nine field of study. Later in the fourth and fifth centuries Latin speaking scholars such as Augustine (354 – 430 CE), Boethius (475 – 526 CE), and Cassiodorus (485 – 585 CE), reduced Marcus Varro’s nine areas of study to seven fields. Note that seven also had important theological implications. Other notable figures for the development and application of the liberal arts were Quintilian (35 – 100 CE), Isidore of Seville (560 – 636 CE), and Alcuin of York (735 – 804 CE).

After the Fall of Rome

Once the list of seven arts became standard thereby creating a framework for education, what is now considered the classical educational model began to take shape. Through the liberal arts mathematical disciplines and literacy were preserved through the period of the so-called dark ages following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Learning was preserved in large part by Benedictine monasteries and other religious groups.

Charlemagne and His School

In the ninth century the Frankish king Charlemagne (748 – 814 CE)was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, as a kind of successor to the defunct Western Roman Empire, which had fallen in 476 CE. Charlemagne’s rule extended over much of what is present-day Western Europe. Although not formally educated himself and unable to write, Charlemagne was genuinely interested in the liberal arts and could speak and read in several languages. Even in the context warfare and conquest, Charlemagne was also a great patron of the liberal arts. He drew to the court some of the most famous educators and scholars of his day from all over Europe.

The Medieval Period and the Rise of the University

In the Middle Ages the traditional form and content of the liberal arts as an educational model was firmly established in the university system. The medieval vision of the liberal arts became dominant for several centuries, and continues to echo in modern conceptions of the liberal arts. Islam also had a critical role to play in the development, especially, in the Middle Ages, of the liberal arts. Islamic culture and its scholars were essential in preserving and cultivating the preservation and copying, as well as, the study and commenting upon the classical liberal arts.

An important figure in the history of the development and application of the liberal arts is the 12th-century author by the name of Hugh of St. Victor (1096 – 1141 CE). Hugh composed a very famous and influential work on the liberal arts, entitled Didascalicon. Hugh, in the early 1100s, gives an indication of the progress of the liberal in terms of their number and purpose, writes:

 “Out of all the sciences…the ancients, in their studies, especially selected seven to be mastered by those who were to be educated. These seven they considered so to excel all the rest in usefulness that anyone who had been thoroughly schooled in them might afterward come to a knowledge of the others by his own inquiry and effort rather than by listening to a teacher. For these, one might say, constitute the best instruments, the best rudiments, by which the way is prepared for the mind’s complete knowledge of philosophic truth. Therefore they are called by the name trivium and quadrivium, because by them, as by certain ways (viae), a quick mind enters into the secret places of wisdom.”


In this short passage, Hugh explains that the seven liberal arts are useful in freeing the mind to learn in other fields without being always dependent on a teacher. The seven liberal arts for Hugh of St. Victor understood to prepare the mind for study of higher discipline. This will become manifest in the 13th century with the rise of the medieval University system.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, another important event happened in the life of the educational institutions and the liberal arts. As a result of the Crusades, European scholars made contact with Islamic scholars and with the great treasures of ancient Greek learning that Islamic scholars had preserved. A significant portion of ancient philosophical texts from both Plato and Aristotle were preserved within Muslim domains that had been lost or never possessed in Europe. This had an enormous effect on the subject matter that was included within the liberal arts as the university developed. Salerno and Toledo were two important European centers of cross-cultural learning. Jewish scholars played a very important role in the development and application of the liberal arts during this period.

Whereas the Greeks focused more upon ethics and mathematics and the Romans upon grammar and rhetoric, the Christians, while maintaining the importance of morality, mathematics, and communication, thought that the seven liberal arts were designed ultimately for the purpose of studying and interpreting Scripture.

The medieval university system featured four basic faculties, wherein degrees were awarded.

  • Faculty of Arts (Philosophy)
  • Faculty of Medicine
  • Faculty of Law
  • Faculty of Theology

The liberal arts, taught in the arts faculty, served as the basis for study in the other faculties. In the faculty of arts, one first proceeded to the bachelor of arts wherein the trivium was studied. The trivium was followed by the quadrivium, and upon its mastery one became a Master of Arts.

In medieval universities earning a Masters degree was equivalent to earning what in our context would be a doctorate. After receiving a Masters degree in the arts one had the option of pursuing “higher” studies in law, medicine, or theology. The faculty of divinity or theology was considered to be the most important. In each of these higher faculties one could earn both bachelor’s and master’s degrees All told, one could spend up to 12 years studying the liberal arts.

This theological purpose that became dominant in the Middle Ages is best expressed in the short treatise of the 13th-century philosopher and theologian Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1217/21 – 1274 CE) in his On the Reduction of the Art Theology. In this short work of only about 20 pages, Bonaventure discusses the entire scope of learning and the arts and sciences as they were understood during the Middle Ages.

As a theologian Bonaventure like to employ biblical metaphors. A favorite of Bonaventure was that of “light.” According to this metaphor he described all the areas of learning as life and divided these lights, stemming from the one light that is God, and therefore raise, which represented the four basic fields of human learning:

  • Exterior Light: mechanical arts
  • Inferior Light: knowledge that is the sensible object
  • Interior Light: philosophical knowledge
  • Superior Light: knowledge of Scripture

The liberal arts were included within the category of the interior light and were a part of philosophy. The liberal arts or philosophy were necessary preparation for the higher studies of either law or medicine or theology.

For medieval thinkers, the liberal arts were not so much about the imparting of knowledge but rather the training of the mind to gain knowledge, to reason clearly and logically, and to argue persuasively on any topic. The disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, and logic were understood as essential preparation for the study of the arts contained in the quadrivium. This basic understanding of the content and purpose of the liberal arts held sway in university system up until the beginning of the modern age.

Renaissance and the Liberal Arts

Development and change did occur between the era of medieval universities and the Renaissance. In the Renaissance eloquence of speech and command of style and communication became the dominant focus. Thus, rhetoric became emphasized.

Section 5: Liberal Arts Education in a Modern University

In modern times because of the diversity of the various subjects of study as well as the need for greater specialization, the classical and medieval liberal arts model is no longer followed. However, in today’s understanding of the liberal arts, there are several key points of overlap between the premodern understandings of the liberal arts and the nature of the liberal arts in the modern university setting. As with ancient and medieval conceptions of the liberal arts, so also in contemporary liberal arts, we discover the desire to instill foundational principles of learning that will assist students in their major areas of study.

Instead of seven liberal arts, divided into two categories, the modern version of the liberal arts is divided into four basic categories. A liberal arts education in a modern college or university will include at least introductory courses in each of the four main branches of the liberal arts. A key element in the liberal arts is its interdisciplinary methodology. The four main branches commonly found today are:

  • The Humanities: the arts (as we think of them today), language studies, literature, philosophy, ethics, religion, theater, music, speech;
  • The Social Sciences: history, psychology, sociology, politics, gender studies, anthropology, economics, geography, etc;
  • The Natural Sciences: astronomy, physics, chemistry, botany, archaeology, geology, zoology, biology;
  • The Formal Sciences: mathematics, logic, statistics, and other related areas.

We still find a great deal of similarity between classical and medieval understanding of the liberal arts and the modern understanding. Although the times have changed, and the sciences and the arts have developed, the same core values and principles underlie modern liberal arts and are carried forward from ancient and medieval times.

Now, as in former times, the purpose of a liberal arts education is not just to learn a technical skill, or trade, or even a profession. Instead, education is to form the whole person in terms of values that will enable not only the securing of a good career and a high paying position, but more importantly the development of a good character with a clear ethical consciousness and a desire to improve society wherever that person has influence. Thus, the liberal arts today as in previous eras, seek first to produce good human being.

The interdisciplinary character of a liberal arts education is designed to provide a sound and broad-based education in a variety of sectors. This will open up choices about various career paths. A liberal arts education gives students a broad exposure to many fields. Not only do the liberal arts help prepare students for more focused studies in their major, a liberal arts degree also prepares students for graduate studies in a great number of fields.

We’ll end this crash course in the Liberal with another discussion from Cornell West and Timothy George and the point of a liberal arts education in modern society.

Final Thought: Should I consider earning a Liberal Arts degree?

Yes, earning a Liberal Arts degree can be a great way to gain a broad understanding of different topics and skills. A Liberal Arts degree can open up career opportunities in a variety of fields and provide you with the knowledge and skills to pursue a variety of career paths.

In addition, a Liberal Arts degree can help you develop transferable skills such as communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking, which can be beneficial in any field.