Liberal arts

Liberal arts


(1) In medieval education, the liberal arts were the standard way of depicting the realms of higher learning. The liberal arts were divided into the trivium (the "three roads" of grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy).

(2) More broadly, the liberal arts are academic studies intended to develop general intellectual abilities as opposed to occupational skills.

"In times past," said Dr. Alan Simpson, "the liberal education set off a free man from a slave, or a gentleman from laborers or artisans. It now distinguishes whatever nourishes the mind and spirit from the training which is merely practical or professional or from the trivialities which are no training at all" ("The Marks of an Educated Man," May 31, 1964).

See the observations below. Also see:

  • "The Art of Persuasion," by John Quincy Adams
  • Belles-Lettres
  • "A Definition of a Gentleman," by John Henry Newman
  • Humanities
  • Lady Rhetoric
  • Medieval Rhetoric
  • Sister Miriam Joseph's Brief Guide to Composition
  • "A Successful Failure," by Glenn Frank

From the Latin (artes liberales) for the education proper to a free man


  • The Liberal Arts Today
    "Surprisingly, it is the trivium that is the core curriculum managers must learn to do their jobs. What management programs teach, without realizing it and with no sense of their historical mission as moral tools, is the old liberal arts practice of rhetoric, grammar, and logic that along with the quadrivium made up liberal arts and sciences education."
    (James Maroosis, "The Practice of the Liberal Arts." Leadership and the Liberal Arts: Achieving the Promise of a Liberal Education, ed. by J. Thomas Wren et al. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
  • "In its most recent employer surveys (2007, 2008, and 2010), the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) found that the vast majority of employers say they are less interested in specialized job proficiencies. Instead, they favor analytical thinking, teamwork, and communication skills--the broad intellectual and social competencies available through a liberal arts education…
    "It is time to 'liberate' the liberal arts from being portrayed as disconnected from the real world. This historical perception is largely inaccurate today, as more and more institutions of higher learning are seeking ways to bring relevance and application to the liberal arts."
    (Elsa Núñez, "Liberate Liberal Arts From the Myth of Irrelevance." The Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 2011)
  • Cardinal Newman on the Purpose of a Liberal Arts Education
    "The purpose of a liberal arts education is to open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, and eloquent expression."
    (John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, 1854)
  • Qualities of an Educated Person
    "More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways. Every one of the qualities I have described here--listening, reading, talking, writing, puzzle solving, truth seeking, seeing through other people's eyes, leading, working in a community--is finally about connecting. A liberal education is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect."
    (William Cronon, "Only Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education." The American Scholar, Autumn 1998)
  • An Endangered Species
    "Liberal education at the undergraduate level is an endangered species and likely to face extinction in another generation or so, at all but the wealthiest and most protective institutions. If recent trends continue, the liberal arts will be replaced by some form of vocationalism, in disguise perhaps, or migrate into other environments."
    (W. R. Connor, "Liberal Arts Education in the 21st Century," meeting of the American Academy for Liberal Education, May 1998)
  • The Classical Tradition of the Liberal Arts
    "The medieval program of seven liberal arts can be traced back to the enkyklios paideia, or comprehensive education of classical Greece, that was included in the broad cultural studies of some Romans like Cicero. In antiquity, however, the seven arts were an ideal in the minds of philosophers or a program of reading and study for leisured (liberi) adults, not a series of graded levels of study in school, as they became in the later Middle Ages. Grammar and rhetoric were the two stages of an ancient education, both supported during the Roman Empire from public funds in towns of any size; but dialectic, the third art of the trivium (as the verbal studies came to be called), was an introduction to philosophy, which was undertaken by only a few. To learn the quantitative arts that became the medieval quadrivium--arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music theory--would have required independent study."
    (George Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition From Ancient to Modern Times, 2nd ed. Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1999)