What are the Liberal Arts? (Part One)

Liberal Arts

No matter what degree program you choose, you will probably be required to take several courses in the liberal arts. You may even decide that a liberal arts program matches best with your professional goals, personal passions, and quest for knowledge. But what are the liberal arts? What relevance do courses in subjects such as English literature, linguistics, history, philosophy, or sociology have for students majoring in management or health care? What real-world skills do they give graduates, especially as more employers want specific vocational training and employees who can hit the ground running?

History of Liberal Arts

The term “liberal arts” comes from the Latin liberalia studia; “liberalia” translates as “worthy of a free person.” The idea of the liberal arts goes back to the ancient Greeks, who considered certain knowledge and skills essential for a person wanting to participate in civic life. Education focused on grammar, logic, and rhetoric (or persuasion), as well as music and astronomy. These areas of study enabled a free man to participate in public debates, defend himself in court, serve on a jury, and pursue military service.

By the 5th century A.D., the “liberal arts” had come to define the formal education system of the Roman Empire. The Romans categorized knowledge into seven subjects, and by the Middle Ages (12th century), these seven subjects, studied in a two-part format, formed the core of a university education in western Europe. The trivium (or three lower-division subjects) included grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The quadrivium (or four “scientific” arts) included music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.

In the Renaissance, scholars renamed the trivium, calling it “studia humanitatis” (or the “study of humanities”), and added new subjects such as history, philosophy, and poetry. This curriculum became the standard for education in Europe, and eventually the Americas, especially for anyone who wanted to pursue a vocation in politics or public administration, ministry, law, or medicine. A liberal arts education remained the ideal until the middle of the twentieth century.

In Part Two, we’ll take a closer look at how today’s employers view liberal arts graduates.

Written by Adrianne Hanson, Ph.D.
Adrianne is an Assistant Professor in the College of Liberal Arts at Ashford University.

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