Those of us who teach in liberal arts colleges are passionate about the value of a liberal arts education. But for those outside of academia – even for those who might have received a degree in UT’s College of Liberal Arts – the precise meaning of “liberal arts” can be murky. What, exactly, is meant by the “liberal arts”? What is the history of the idea, and how does it translate into the educational concept we know as a “liberal-arts curriculum,” or, more broadly, a “liberal education”? What is the value of a liberal arts education to both individual and collective life? This essay presents a brief overview of the idea, history, purposes, and values of liberal arts education, so that you, our readers, may understand the passion that inspires our faculty’s teaching and scholarship, and be similarly inspired.
What are the Liberal Arts?
The idea of the liberal arts originates in ancient Greece and was further developed in medieval Europe. Classically understood, it combined the four studies of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music – known as the quadrivium – with the three additional studies of grammar, rhetoric, and logic – known as the trivium. These artes liberales were meant to teach both general knowledge and intellectual skills, and thus train the mind. This training of the mind as well as this foundational body of content knowledge and intellectual skills was regarded by scholars and educators as necessary for all human beings – and especially a society’s leaders – in order to live well, both individually and collectively.
These liberal arts were distinguished from vocational or clinical arts, such as law, medicine, engineering, and business. These latter were conceived as servile arts – i.e. arts that served concrete production or construction. These productive/constructive arts were also known as artes mechanicae, “mechanical arts,” which included crafts such as weaving, agriculture, masonry, warfare, trade, cooking, and metallurgy. In contrast to the vocational or mechanical arts, the liberal arts put greater weight on intellectual skills – the ability to think and communicate clearly, and to analyze and solve problems. But more distinctively, the liberal arts emphasized learning and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, independent of immediate application. The liberal arts taught not only bodies of knowledge, but – more dynamically – how to go about finding and creating knowledge – that is, how to learn. Finally, the liberal arts taught not only how to think and do, but also how to be – with others and with oneself, in the natural world and the social world. They were thus centrally concerned with ethics.
Notably, the term “liberal arts” has nothing to do with liberalism in the contemporary political or partisan sense; the opposite of “liberal” here is not “conservative.” Rather, the term goes back to the Latin root signifying “freedom,” as opposed to imprisonment or subjugation. Think here of the English word “liberty.” The liberal arts were historically connected to freedom in that they encompassed the types of knowledge and skills appropriate to free people, living in a free society. The term “art” in this phrase also must be understood correctly, for it does not refer to “art” as we use it today in its creative sense, to denote the fine and performing arts. Rather, from the Latin root ars, “art” is here used to refer to skill or craft. The “liberal arts,” then, may be thought of as liberating knowledges, or alternatively, the skills of being free.
What is a Liberal Arts Education?
A liberal (arts) education is a curriculum designed around imparting core knowledge and skills through engagement with a wide range of subjects and disciplines. This core knowledge is taught through general education courses typically drawn from the humanities, (creative) arts, natural sciences, and social sciences. The humanities include disciplines such as language, literature, poetry, rhetoric, philosophy, religion, history, law, geography, archaeology, anthropology, politics, and classics. Natural sciences include subjects such as geology, chemistry, physics, and life sciences such as biology. Social sciences comprise disciplines such as sociology, economics, linguistics, psychology, and education. Through a core curriculum or general education courses, students gain a basic knowledge of the physical and natural world as well as of human ideas, histories, and practices.
A liberal arts education comprises more than learning only content, but also honing skills and cultivating values. Intellectual and practical skills at the heart of the liberal arts are reading comprehension, inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, information and quantitative literacy, teamwork and problem-solving. Values that are central to liberal education are personal and social responsibility, civic knowledge and engagement, intercultural knowledge and competence, ethical reasoning and action, and lifelong learning.
Why a Liberal Education? Purposes and Values
Four overarching purposes anchor the idea of an education in the liberal arts. One of those is liberty. As mentioned above, the traditional idea of the liberal arts was an education that befitted a free person, one who was fit to participate freely in the life of society. The modern casting of this idea is that a broad education does not limit one to a particular profession or occupation, but rather, is meant for any life path – it prepares the mind for a variety of possible futures and for constructive participation in a civil democratic society. The interconnection between liberal education and human freedom cannot be over-emphasized, and it was at the forefront of the minds of the great political theorists and educators of the western tradition. Those with insufficient knowledge and skills would easily fall prey to demagogues and agents of chaos, and pervasive ignorance and lack of intellectual skill would eat away at a polity’s foundations. Only an informed citizenry – who had familiarity with and foundational understanding in the major areas of knowledge, and who had the requisite skills to both process existing information and seek out reliable new information – would be able to uphold and maintain a democratic society and stave off a decline into tyranny and despotism. As Thomas Jefferson, a major architect of the American public university, held, “Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.”
Another central purpose of a liberal arts education is the inculcation of the principle of human worth. This purpose is built on values collectively known as humanism: the idea that human life, individual and collective, has intrinsic value; the idea that human beings are endowed with rights to life, liberty, property, and a number of other rights that we know as “human rights”; that human beings are fundamentally equal, even if they are not the same, and that that equality should translate into both political and legal equality. This ideal of humanism is not in opposition to religious beliefs and practices; however, it regards the public sphere as one in which all should be able to participate regardless of religious beliefs and practices. Humanism mirrors the principle of a common or shared humanity, even while recognizing differences of experience, perspective, and resources. This vision is at the heart of that facet of liberal arts known as the humanities. Writes Robert Thornett, “Humanities is, in fact, education in how to be a human being.” A liberal arts education exposes learners to diverse types of knowledge – which allow for understanding and empathy with others – within a humanistic framework that aims for deeper unity and synthesis. This approach to knowledge serves as a bulwark against social, political and ideological forces that seek to drive wedges between human beings, and that all too often culminate in violence and oppression.
A third purpose of liberal education is to provide a space for contemplation of truth and virtue, based on the conviction that such contemplation is necessary for the free mind, and that informed explorations of these notions lead to the formation of better human beings. The liberal arts are where students have opportunity to consider the “big questions”: What is true? What is good? What is just? What is beautiful? This contemplation is what fires the imaginations of our students, and what makes the liberal arts curriculum unlike any other curriculum. Vartan Gregorian explains the unique character of liberal arts education, writing that “the deep-seated yearning for knowledge and understanding endemic to human beings is an ideal that a liberal arts education is singularly suited to fulfill.”
A fourth value of liberal arts education is its emphasis on the skills of learning, and of constructing knowledge out of information. We live in an increasingly complex information environment, where the sheer quantity of information – and its intentional manipulation into disinformation – overwhelms people’s abilities to make sense of it all. Without sufficient training, people are less equipped to find reliable information, to understand what they encounter, and to process that information, mentally and emotionally, into rational knowledge that can form the basis of ethical evaluation and action. This is a matter of grave importance for all human beings – in their capacity as students, citizens, consumers, workers, and people in relationships. Gregorian long ago identified the problem of information overload, and the function of education, in an interview with Bill Moyers: “Unfortunately, the information explosion … does not equal knowledge. … So, we’re facing a major problem: how to structure information into knowledge. Because … there are great possibilities of manipulating our society by inundating us with undigested information… paralyzing our choices by giving so much that we cannot possibly digest it.”
Given this paralyzing deluge of information, he continues, “The teaching profession, the universities, have to provide connections … connections between subjects, connections between disciplines … to provide some kind of intellectual coherence.” In the final analysis, suggests Gregorian, “Education’s sole function is now, possibly, [to] provide an introduction to learning.”
The purposes and values outlined above cannot easily be fulfilled outside of an intentional liberal arts curriculum. One does meet people who are driven to read widely and to pursue lifelong learning; to develop skills of information critique and lucid oral and written communication; to hold steadily to the vision of a shared humanity and humane ethical conduct; to undertake the ethical burden of preserving political liberties and civil rights; to engage in sustained contemplation of truth and practice of virtue; to perceive the interconnectedness of different spheres of knowledge and therefore of our world; and to develop the facility to synthesize chaotic data and irrational information into rational and cogent knowledge. But these goals are far more difficult to achieve outside of the structured, collective, and compulsory activities of the college classroom and away from teachers whose minds are perpetually set to these concerns. For too many, such integrated learning is out of reach or undervalued. Meanwhile, the insufficient attainment and integration of broad knowledge, intellectual skills, and ethical reflection is wreaking havoc on our society and national culture; on our quality of life morally, intellectually, psychologically, and physically; and finally, on our planet, which is increasingly unable to withstand humanity’s relentless onslaught and is fast losing the capacity to sustain its assailant.
Liberal-arts education is not found in any one course, classroom, or teacher. It is a composite formation, attained over time through series of courses and learning opportunities that together coalesce in the minds of students. Each instructor, and each course, contributes elements that are oriented toward the purposes identified above. It is through the process of seeing the interconnections between different areas of knowledge, using diverse intellectual skills, that the human mind gains the capacity for liberation.
 Robert Thornett, “What Are College Students Paying For?” at The Quillette, June 2, 2022 [ https://quillette.com/2022/06/02/what-are-college-students-paying-for-the-stephen-curry-effect-and-getting-back-to-basics/
 Historian and former Brown University President Vartan Gregorian, in his essay “American Higher Education: An Obligation to the Future” at https://higheredreporter.carnegie.org/introduction/.