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What Are the Liberal Arts and How do we Teach Them? (1)

What is a “Liberal” education? What did an education in the “Liberal Arts” traditionally look like? What does it look like now? Because the Liberal Arts are at the core of classical education I thought I would take some time over the next few weeks to discuss them.

Let’s start with some background. When we hear liberal the first thing that comes to mind for most of us is politics—we think of Senator Warren or Senator Sanders or the Democratic Party. While that is one way of using the word liberal, when we talk about providing a Liberal education that is not at all what we have in mind.

The English word liberal is a derivative of the Latin word liber; the word liberty is also derived from this word. Liber means freedom—from that it follows that in its original sense liberal had something to do with freedom.

Politically speaking, classical liberals held positions that are, confusingly enough, often held by political conservatives today. For example, classical liberals wanted to be liberated from feudal customs and have instead a free market and free trade. Classical liberals also wanted to be liberated from censorship and old hereditary hierarchies—they thought ideas should be freely shared and talent should be free to rise to the top.

That may be interesting, but what does this have to do with the Liberal Arts? Composed of grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music a Liberal Arts education traditionally was thought to be the type of education that would free a man. A Liberal education may not destroy feudalism or censorship, but it could, it was thought, free people from ignorance, superstition, prejudice, etc., which would in turn free people to live as better Christians or citizens. Different eras and authors emphasized different goals of the Liberal Arts, but all agreed that education was fundamentally transformative and that a Liberal Arts education was essential to the formation of a mature and complete person.

Contrast this with the view of education advanced by most modern Americans. Democrats and Republicans alike see education primarily in terms of employment—better education will collectively keep our jobs from going overseas and individually education helps us to obtain better, higher-paying jobs.

Aristotle, Erasmus, and Thomas Jefferson, all proponents of a Liberal Arts education, would find this a very odd rationale for education. All would agree that yes, a man must work, but man was made for so much more than to work, make money, and buy things—an education that doesn’t take that into account is not a full, and therefore not a real, education. A Liberal Arts education understands that a man is not only a worker, but also a moral and spiritual being, a rational being, a being capable of recognizing truth and enjoying beauty. A Liberal education therefore seeks to train every faucet of man.

As a Liberal Arts school, our goal is to partner with you as parents to do just that—to help your children become fully formed, well-trained, “mature and complete, not lacking anything.”