Critical Thinking Liberal Education Renaissance

"Liberal arts" redirects here. For the corporation, see Liberal Arts, Inc. For the 2012 film, see Liberal Arts (film).

Liberal arts education (Latin: liberalis, free and ars, art or principled practice) can claim to be the oldest programme of higher education in Western history. It has its origin in the attempt to discover first principles - 'those universal principles which are the condition of the possibility of the existence of anything and everything'.[1] The liberal arts are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (Latin: liberalis, "worthy of a free person")[2] to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that (for Ancient Greece) included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were the core liberal arts (the Trivium), while arithmetic, geometry, the theory of music, and astronomy also played a (somewhat lesser) part in education (as the Quadrivium).[3]

Liberal arts education can refer to academic subjects such as literature, philosophy, mathematics, and social and physical sciences,[4] or it can also refer to overall studies in a liberal arts degree program. For example, Yale University offers a Bachelor of Arts degree, which covers the social and natural sciences as well as the humanities. For both interpretations, the term generally refers to matters not relating to the professional, vocational, or technical curriculum.


Rooted in the basic curriculum – the enkuklios paideia or "education in a circle" – of late Classical and Hellenistic Greece, the "liberal arts" or "liberal pursuits" (Latin liberalia studia) were already so called in formal education during the Roman Empire; Seneca the Younger discusses liberal arts in education from a critical Stoic point of view in Moral Epistle 88.[5] The exact classification of the liberal arts varied however in Roman times,[6] and it was only after Martianus Capella in the 5th century AD influentially brought the seven liberal arts as bridesmaids to the Marriage of Mercury and Philology,[7] that they took on canonical form.

The four 'scientific' artes – music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy (or astrology) – were known from the time of Boethius onwards as the Quadrivium. After the 9th century, the remaining three arts of the 'humanities' – grammar, logic, and rhetoric – were classed as well, as the Trivium.[6] It was in that two-fold form that the seven liberal arts were studied in the medieval Western university.[8][9] During the Middle Ages, logic gradually came to take predominance over the other parts of the Trivium.[10]

In the Renaissance, the Italian humanists and their Northern counterparts, despite in many respects continuing the traditions of the Middle Ages, reversed that process.[11] Re-christening the old Trivium with a new and more ambitious name: Studia humanitatis, and also increasing its scope, they downplayed logic as opposed to the traditional Latin grammar and rhetoric, and added to them history, Greek, and moral philosophy (ethics), with a new emphasis on poetry as well.[12] The educational curriculum of humanism spread throughout Europe during the sixteenth century and became the educational foundation for the schooling of European elites, the functionaries of political administration, the clergy of the various legally recognized churches, and the learned professions of law and medicine.[13] The ideal of a liberal arts, or humanistic education grounded in classical languages and literature, persisted until the middle of the twentieth century.[14]

Modern usage[edit]

Some subsections of the liberal arts are in the trivium—the verbal arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric; and in the quadrivium—the numerical arts: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Analyzing and interpreting information is also included.

Academic areas that are associated with the term liberal arts include:

  • Arts (fine arts, music, performing arts, literature)
  • Mathematics
  • Natural science (biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, earth science)
  • Philosophy
  • Religious studies
  • Social science (anthropology, economics, geography, history, jurisprudence, linguistics, political science, psychology, sociology)

For example, the core courses for Georgetown University's Doctor of Liberal Studies program[15] cover philosophy, theology, history, art, literature, and the social sciences. Wesleyan University's Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program includes courses in visual arts, art history, creative and professional writing, literature, history, mathematics, film, government, education, biology, psychology, and astronomy.[16]

Secondary school[edit]

The liberal arts education at the secondary school level prepares the student for higher education at a university. They are thus meant for the more academically minded students. In addition to the usual curriculum, students of a liberal arts education often study Latin and Ancient Greek.

Some liberal arts education provide general education, others have a specific focus. (This also differs from country to country.) The four traditional branches are:

Curricula differ from school to school, but generally include language, mathematics, informatics, physics, chemistry, biology, geography, art (as well as crafts and design), music, history, philosophy, civics / citizenship,[17]social sciences, and several foreign languages.

Schools concentrate not only on academic subjects, but on producing well-rounded individuals, so physical education and religion or ethics are compulsory, even in non-denominational schools which are prevalent. For example, the German constitution guarantees the separation of church and state, so although religion or ethics classes are compulsory, students may choose to study a specific religion or none at all.

Today, a number of other areas of specialization exist, such as gymnasiums specializing in economics, technology or domestic sciences. In some countries, there is a notion of progymnasium, which is equivalent to beginning classes of the full gymnasium, with the rights to continue education in a gymnasium. Here, the prefix "pro" is equivalent to "pre".

In the United States[edit]

Main article: Liberal arts college

Further information: Liberal arts colleges in the United States and Great books

In the United States, liberal arts colleges are schools emphasizing undergraduate study in the liberal arts.[18] The teaching at liberal arts colleges is often Socratic, typically with small classes, and often has a lower student-to-teacher ratio than at large universities; professors teaching classes are often allowed to concentrate more on their teaching responsibilities than primary research professors or graduate student teaching assistants in universities.[citation needed]

In addition, most four-year colleges that are not devoted exclusively or primarily to liberal arts degrees also offer those degrees, and students not majoring in liberal arts take courses to satisfy distribution requirements in liberal arts.

Traditionally, a bachelor's degree either in liberal arts in general or in one particular area within liberal arts, with substantial study outside that main area, is earned over four years of full-time study. However, some universities such as Saint Leo University,[19]Pennsylvania State University,[20]Florida Institute of Technology[21] and New England College[22] have begun to offer an associate degree in liberal arts. Colleges like New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, offer a unique program with only one degree offering, a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies, and colleges like the University of Oklahoma College of Liberal Studies offers an online, part-time option for adult and nontraditional students.

Most students earn either a Bachelor of Arts degree or a Bachelor of Science[23] degree; on completing undergraduate study, students might progress to either a liberal arts graduate school or a professional school (public administration, engineering, business, law, medicine, theology).

In Europe[edit]

In most parts of Europe, liberal arts education is deeply rooted. In Germany, Austria and countries influenced by their education system, e.g. it is called "humanistische Bildung" (humanistic education). The term is not to be mixed up with some modern educational concepts that use a similar wording. Educational institutions that see themselves in that tradition are often a "Gymnasium" (high school, grammar school). They aim at providing their pupils with comprehensive education (Bildung) in order to form personality with regard to a pupil's own humanity as well as his/her innate intellectual skills.[citation needed] Going back to the long tradition of the liberal arts in Europe, education in the above sense was freed from scholastic thinking and re-shaped by the theorists of enlightenment. In particular, Wilhelm von Humboldt played a key role in that regard. Since students are considered to have received a comprehensive liberal arts education at grammar schools, very often, the role of liberal arts education in undergraduate education at universities is reduced compared to the US educational system.[citation needed] Students are expected to use their skills received at the grammar school in order to further develop their personality in their own responsibility, e.g. in universities' music clubs, theatre groups, language clubs etc. Universities encourage students to do so and offer respective opportunities but do not make such activities part of the university's curriculum.[citation needed]

Thus, on the level of higher education, despite the European origin of the liberal arts college,[24] the term liberal arts college usually denotes liberal arts colleges in the United States.[citation needed] With the exception of pioneering institutions such as Franklin University Switzerland (formerly known as Franklin College), established as a Europe-based, US-style liberal arts college in 1969,[25] only recently some efforts have been undertaken to systematically "re-import" liberal arts education to continental Europe, as with Leiden University College The Hague, University College Utrecht, University College Maastricht, Amsterdam University College, Roosevelt Academy (now University College Roosevelt), ATLAS University College, Erasmus University College, University College Groningen, Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts, and Bard College Berlin, formerly known as the European College of Liberal Arts. As well as the colleges listed above, some universities in the Netherlands offer bachelors programs in Liberal Arts and Sciences (Tilburg University). Liberal arts (as a degree program) is just beginning to establish itself in Europe. For example, University College Dublin offers the degree, as does St. Marys University College Belfast, both institutions coincidentally on the island of Ireland. In the Netherlands, universities have opened constituent liberal arts colleges under the terminology university college since the late 1990s. The four-year bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences at University College Freiburg is the first of its kind in Germany. It started in October 2012 with 78 students.[26] The first Liberal Arts degree program in Sweden was established at Gothenburg University in 2011,[27] followed by a Liberal Arts Bachelor Programme at Uppsala University's Campus Gotland in the autumn of 2013.[28] The first Liberal Arts program in Georgia was introduced in 2005 by American-Georgian Initiative for Liberal Education (AGILE),[29] an NGO. In collaboration with AGILE, Ilia State University[30] became the first higher education institution in Georgia to establish a liberal arts program.[31]

In France, Chavagnes Studium, a Liberal Arts Study Centre in partnership with the Institut Catholique d'études supérieures, and based in a former Catholic seminary, is launching a two-year intensive BA in the Liberal Arts, with a distinctively Catholic outlook.[32] It has been suggested that the liberal arts degree may become part of mainstream education provision in the United Kingdom, Ireland and other European countries. In 1999, the European College of Liberal Arts (now Bard College Berlin) was founded in Berlin[33] and in 2009 it introduced a four-year Bachelor of Arts program in Value Studies taught in English,[34] leading to an interdisciplinary degree in the humanities.

In England, the first institution[35] to retrieve and update a liberal arts education at undergraduate level was The University of Winchester with their BA (Hons) Modern Liberal Arts programme which launched in 2010.[35] In 2012, University College London began its interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences BASc degree (which has kinship with the liberal arts model) with 80 students.[36]King's College London launched the BA Liberal Arts, which has a slant towards arts, humanities and social sciences subjects.[37] The New College of the Humanities also launched a new liberal education programme. In 2016, the University of Warwick launched a three/four-year liberal arts BA degree, which focuses on transdisciplinary approaches and Problem-based learning techniques in addition to providing structured disciplinary pathways.[38] And for 2017 entry UCAS lists 20 providers of liberal arts programmes.[39]

In Scotland, the four-year undergraduateHonours degree, specifically the Master of Arts, has historically demonstrated considerable breadth in focus. In the first two years of Scottish MA and BA degrees students typically study a number of different subjects before specialising in their Honours years (third and fourth year). The University of Dundee and the University of Glasgow (at its Crichton Campus) are the only Scottish universities that currently offer a specifically named 'Liberal Arts' degree.

In Asia[edit]

The Commission on Higher Education of the Philippines mandates a General Education curriculum required of all higher education institutions; it includes a number of liberal arts subjects, including history, art appreciation, and ethics, plus interdisciplinary electives. Many universities have much more robust liberal arts core curricula; most notably, the Jesuit universities such as Ateneo de Manila University have a strong liberal arts core curriculum that includes philosophy, theology, literature, history, and the social sciences. Forman Christian College (A Chartered University) is a liberal arts education institution in Lahore, Pakistan. It is one of the oldest institutions in Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. It is a chartered university recognized by Higher Education Commission Pakistan. Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan offers a holistic liberal arts and sciences experience to its students through its uniquely tailored liberal core program which is compulsory for all undergraduate degree students.[40][41] The Underwood International College of Yonsei University, Korea, has compulsory liberal arts course for all the student body. Symbiosis & FLAME University in Pune, Ahmedabad University, Ashoka University, Lingnan University and University of Liberal Arts- Bangladesh (ULAB) are also a few such liberal arts colleges in Asia. International Christian University in Tokyo is the first and one of the very few liberal arts universities in Japan.

In Australia[edit]

Main article: Campion College

Campion College is a Roman Catholic dedicated liberal arts college, located in the western suburbs of Sydney. Founded in 2006, it is the first tertiary educational liberal arts college of its type in Australia. Campion offers a Bachelor of Arts in the Liberal Arts as its sole undergraduate degree. The key disciplines studied are history, literature, philosophy, and theology.

See also[edit]


  1. ^Nigel., Tubbs,. Philosophy and modern liberal arts education : freedom is to learn. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire. ISBN 9781137358912. OCLC 882530818. 
  2. ^Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages [1948], trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 37. The classical sources include Cicero, De Oratore, I.72–73, III.127, and De re publica, I.30.
  3. ^E. B. Castle, Ancient Education and Today (1969) p. 59
  4. ^"Oxford Dictionary". The Oxford Dictionary. 
  5. ^Ben Schneider. "Seneca Epistle 88". Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  6. ^ abH. Lausberg, Handbook of Literary Rhetoric (1998) p. 10
  7. ^Helen Waddell, The Wandering Scholars (1968) p. 25
  8. ^"James Burke: The Day the Universe Changed In the Light Of the Above". 
  9. ^Wagner, David Leslie (1983). The Seven liberal arts in the Middle Ages. Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253351852. Retrieved 5 January 2013.  at Questia [1]
  10. ^Helen Waddell, The Wandering Scholars (1968) pp. 141–3
  11. ^G. Norton ed., The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism Vol 3 (1999)p. 46 and pp. 601–4
  12. ^Paul Oskar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought II: Papers on Humanism and the Arts (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965), p. 178.
  13. ^Charles G. Nauert, Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (New Approaches to European History) (Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 172–173.
  14. ^Bod, Rens; A New History of the Humanities, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014.
  15. ^Georgetown University Doctor of Liberal Studies curriculum
  16. ^
  17. ^this subject has different names in the different states of Germany. See de:Gemeinschaftskunde
  18. ^"Defining Liberal Arts Education"(PDF). Wabash College. Retrieved 9 December 2012. 
  19. ^"Online Liberal Arts Associate Degree". Saint Leo University. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  20. ^"Online Associate in Arts in Letters, Arts, and Sciences | Overview". Penn State University. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  21. ^"Associate's Degree in Liberal Arts – Liberal Arts Degree Online". Florida Institute of Technology. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  22. ^"Associates in Liberal Studies". New England College. 
  23. ^For example, Georgia Institute of Technology's bachelor of science degree in Applied Languages and Intercultural Studies
  24. ^Harriman, Philip L. (1935). "Antecedents of the Liberal-Arts College". The Journal of Higher Education. Ohio State University Press. 6 (2): 63–71. doi:10.2307/1975506. ISSN 1538-4640. JSTOR 1975506 – via JSTOR. (Registration required (help)). 
  25. ^"About Franklin". Franklin University Switzerland Official Web Site. Franklin University Switzerland. Archived from the original on 8 April 2014. Retrieved 2014-07-03. 
  26. ^"Liberal Arts and Sciences Program (LAS)". University College Freiburg. Archived from the original on 20 August 2013. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  27. ^"Liberal Arts, Gothenburg University". 22 May 2013. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  28. ^"Liberal Arts Programme at Uppsala University"
  29. ^"Agile". Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  30. ^"ილიაუნი -მთავარი". Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  31. ^"Bachelor Degree". Iliauni. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  32. ^
  33. ^"Berlin's sturdiest ivory tower". Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  34. ^"GERMANY: New approach to liberal studies". 15 March 2009. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  35. ^ ab"It's the breadth that matters". 2010-12-23. Retrieved 2016-09-13. 
  36. ^"Arts and Sciences (BASc) programmes". University College London. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  37. ^"KCL – About Liberal Arts". Retrieved 15 January 2014. 
  38. ^
  39. ^"UCAS Search tool - Venue Results". Retrieved 2016-09-13. 
  40. ^
  41. ^"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 2015-03-24. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Barzun, Jacques. The House of Intellect, Reprint Harper Perennial, 2002.
  • Blaich, Charles, Anne Bost, Ed Chan, and Richard Lynch. "Defining Liberal Arts Education." Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, 2004.
  • Blanshard, Brand. The Uses of a Liberal Education: And Other Talks to Students. (Open Court, 1973. ISBN 0-8126-9429-5)
  • Friedlander, Jack. Measuring the Benefits of Liberal Arts Education in Washington's Community Colleges. Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Community Colleges, 1982a. (ED 217 918)
  • Grafton Anthony and Lisa Jardine. From Humanism to the Humanities: The Institutionalizing of the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-century Europe, Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Guitton, Jean. A Student's Guide to Intellectual Work, The University of Notre Dame Press, 1964.
  • Highet, Gilbert. The Art of Teaching, Vintage Books, 1950.
  • Joseph, Sister Miriam. The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. Paul Dry Books Inc, 2002.
  • Kimball, Bruce A. The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History. University Press Of America, 2010.
  • Kimball, Bruce A. Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education. College Board, 1995.
  • T. Kaori Kitao; William R. Kenan, Jr. (27 March 1999). The Usefulness Of Uselessness(PDF). Keynote Address, The 1999 Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth's Odyssey at Swarthmore College. Archived from the original(PDF) on 2 October 2008. 
  • McGrath, Charles. "What Every Student Should Know", New York Times, 8 January 2006.
  • Parker, H. "The Seven Liberal Arts," The English Historical Review, Vol. V, 1890.
  • Pfnister, Allan O. (1984). "The Role of the Liberal Arts College: A Historical Overview of the Debates". The Journal of Higher Education. Ohio State University Press. 55 (2): 145–70. doi:10.2307/1981183. ISSN 1538-4640. JSTOR 1981183 – via JSTOR. (Registration required (help)). 
  • Reeves, Floyd W. (1930). "The Liberal-Arts College". The Journal of Higher Education. Ohio State University Press. 1 (7): 373–80. doi:10.2307/1974170. ISSN 1538-4640. JSTOR 1974170 – via JSTOR. (Registration required (help)). 
  • Saint-Victor, Hugh of. The Didascalicon, Columbia University Press, 1961.
  • Schall, James V.Another Sort of Learning, Ignatius Press, 1988.
  • Seidel, George J. (1968). "Saving the Small College". The Journal of Higher Education. Ohio State University Press. 39 (6): 339–42. doi:10.2307/1979916. ISSN 1538-4640. JSTOR 1979916 – via JSTOR. (Registration required (help)). 
  • Sertillanges, A. G.The Intellectual Life, The Catholic University of America Press, 1998.
  • Tubbs, N. (2011) "Know Thyself: Macrocosm and Microcosm" in Studies in Philosophy and Education Volume 30 no.1
  • David L. Wagner, The Seven Liberal Arts in Middle Ages, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
  • Winterer, Caroline. The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780–1910. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
  • Wriston, Henry M.The Nature of a Liberal College. Lawrence University Press, 1937.
  • Zakaria, Fareed. In Defense of a Liberal Education. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

External links[edit]

  •  "Arts, Liberal". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.  Definition and short history of the Seven Liberal Arts from 1905.
  • Fr. Herve de la Tour, "The Seven Liberal Arts", Edocere, a Resource for Catholic Education, February 2002. Thomas Aquinas's definition of and justification for a liberal arts education.
  • Otto Willmann. "The Seven Liberal Arts". In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Retrieved 13 August 2012. "[Renaissance] Humanists, over-fond of change, unjustly condemned the system of the seven liberal arts as barbarous. It is no more barbarous than the Gothic style, a name intended to be a reproach. The Gothic, built up on the conception of the old basilica, ancient in origin, yet Christian in character, was misjudged by the Renaissance on account of some excrescences, and obscured by the additions engrafted upon it by modern lack of taste . . . . That the achievements of our forefathers should be understood, recognized, and adapted to our own needs, is surely to be desired."
  • "The Aim of Liberal Education", Andrew Chrucky, 1 September 2003. "The content of a liberal education should be moral problems as provided by history, anthropology, sociology, economics, and politics. And these should be discussed along with a reflection on the nature of morality and the nature of discussions, i.e., through a study of rhetoric and logic. Since discussion takes place in language, an effort should be made to develop a facility with language."
  • Philosophy of Liberal Education A bibliography, compiled by Andrew Chrucky, with links to essays offering different points of view on the meaning of a liberal education.
  • Mark Peltz, "The Liberal Arts and Leadership", College News (The Annapolis Group), 14 May 2012. A defense of liberal education by the Associate Dean of Grinnell College (first appeared in Inside Higher Ed).
  • "Liberal Arts at the Community College", an ERIC Fact Sheet. ERIC Clearinghouse for Junior Colleges Los Angeles CA.
  • "A Descriptive Analysis of the Community College Liberal Arts Curriculum". ERIC Clearinghouse for Junior Colleges Los Angeles CA
  • The Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts. Website about The Wabash Study (for improving liberal education). Sponsored by the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College (Indiana), the Wabash Study began in the fall of 2010 – scheduled to end in 2013. Participants include 29 prominent colleges and universities.
  • Academic Commons. An online platform in support of the liberal education community. It is a forum for sharing practices, outcomes, and lessons learned of online learning. Formerly sponsored by the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, The Academic Commons is hosted by the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education ("NITLE".).
  • The Liberal Arts Advantage – for Business. Website dedicated to "Bridging the gap between business and the liberal arts". "A liberal arts education is aimed at developing the ability to think, reason, analyze, decide, discern, and evaluate. That's in contrast to a professional or technical education (business, engineering, computer science, etc.) which develops specific abilities aimed at preparing students for vocations."
  • Video explanation by Professor Nigel Tubbs of liberal arts curriculum and degree requirements of Winchester University, UK.. "Liberal arts education (Latin: liberalis, free, and ars, art or principled practice) involves us in thinking philosophically across many subject boundaries in the humanities, the social and natural sciences, and fine arts. The degree combines compulsory modules covering art, religion, literature, science and the history of ideas with a wide range of optional modules. This enables students to have flexibility and control over their programme of study and the content of their assessments."

Warnings about the decline of the liberal arts are ubiquitous these days, but they are hardly new. Jacques Barzun, the renowned scholar and dean at Columbia University, pronounced the liberal arts tradition “dead or dying” in 1963. Barzun may have spoken too soon, but by various measures, liberal learning is worse off today than it was then. Liberal arts colleges seem an endangered species as curricula shift toward science, technology, engineering, and math—the STEM disciplines. Students want jobs, not debt, and who can blame them?

The conversation around the liberal arts hasn’t changed much. It often sounds like this: “Many students and their parents now seek a clear and early connection between the undergraduate experience and employment. Vocationalism exerts pressure for substantive changes in the curriculum and substitutes a preoccupation with readily marketable skills.” But those words were written by Donald L. Berry in 1977.

The liberal arts ideal still has its eloquent defenders, and there is evidence that good jobs go to liberal arts graduates—eventually. Despite the popularity of business and technology courses, students are not abandoning the liberal arts in droves. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, degrees in the humanities, in proportion to all bachelor’s degrees, declined just 0.1 percent from 1980 to 2010, from 17.1 percent to 17.0 percent.

While defending liberal learning, however, educators might also ask some more basic questions: What do we mean by the “liberal arts,” and why should one study them at all? Why do we rely on two standard answers—critical thinking and citizenship? What exactly do those terms mean (if they mean anything “exactly”) and how are they related?

What Are the Liberal Arts?

The idea of the liberal arts has a nearly two-thousand-year history, dating to Latin writers of late antiquity, but the underlying questions about mankind, nature, and knowledge go back to the Greeks. Over the past century and a half, America has emerged as a superpower while adhering to a predominantly liberal arts model of higher education. But liberal arts is also a complicated and antiquated term, yoking together two words that don’t obviously belong in harness and may not be ideally suited for hauling their intellectual load into the twenty-first century.

Liberal comes from the notion of freeing the mind; there’s nothing wrong with that. As classics scholar Katie Billotte writes on Salon, “The Latin ars liberalis refers to the skills required of a free man—that is the skills of a citizen.” But arts, in the Greek and Roman world, had a different connotation: the Greek term techne meant skill or applied knowledge and had nothing to do with aesthetics as we know it.

Originally there were seven liberal arts: the trivium of classical antiquity, consisting of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, combined with the medieval quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. As early as the twelfth-century renaissance, when universities emerged from the monastic and cathedral schools of Italy and France, those “arts” were supplemented in the curriculum by philosophy, jurisprudence, theology, and medicine.

Clearly, the model has evolved since then. Neither liberal nor arts is an essential or complete descriptor of what we consider a liberal education. Linguistic conventions have limited malleability, and avoiding the term liberal arts may not be feasible. Questioning such terms, however—and paying careful attention to language in general—are quintessential liberal arts practices.

There are at least three nested, and largely tacit, conceptions of the liberal arts in common usage. One, typified by America’s liberal arts colleges, embraces the ideal of the integrated curriculum, encompassing virtually all nonprofessional higher learning, from the natural and social sciences to the humanities and the performing arts. At its best, this comprehensive vision recognizes both the value and the limitations of such categories, along with the consequent need for interdisciplinary learning. In fact, some of the most exciting scholarship is now happening between disciplines, not within them.

Free minds are flexible minds, trained to recognize that many areas of inquiry are interconnected and many disciplinary boundaries are porous. Categories are instrumental and practical: our tools, not our masters. Using them without obscuring the underlying connections is another hallmark of higher-level thinking. Climate change and biodiversity, for example, cannot be fully understood unless seen as both distinct and related phenomena.

In fact, two intertwining assumptions, among others, underlie the modern liberal arts tradition. One is that every academic discipline has unique questions to ask, and thus its own techniques and epistemology. The other is that each discipline is also linked to others through common questions, techniques, and ways of knowing. Critical thinking is a key part of that shared epistemology, a set of skills that apply across the liberal arts curriculum.

A second frequent usage of the term liberal arts implicitly excludes (but doesn’t denigrate) the sciences; and a third, still narrower, sense of the term focuses mainly on the humanities. Each of these implied definitions may be valid in particular contexts, as long as we’re clear about what we mean, but the comprehensive one would seem the most useful overall. “Whatever else a liberal education is,” the philosopher of education Paul H. Hirst writes, “it is not a vocational education, not an exclusively scientific education [and] not a specialist education in any sense.” It is rather “an education based fairly and squarely on the nature of knowledge itself.”

This idea of “the nature of knowledge” right away implicates philosophy, which is largely concerned with knowledge and thinking. However unloved or misunderstood by many Americans, philosophy is the mother of liberal learning. Economics, psychology, sociology, political science, and linguistics are just some of its younger offspring. The various disciplines contain it in their DNA—partly in the form of critical thinking. Those disciplines constitute the system for organizing and understanding the known world— human beings, societies, nature—that we refer to archaically as “the liberal arts.” We isolate the rubrics of natural science, social science, and humanities, and their various subdisciplines, to the extent useful or necessary.

Indeed, a defining feature of any system is the concomitant stability and plasticity of its parts. The liberal arts form such an evolving system, consisting of stable but impermanent fields of inquiry that fuse at some points and fissure at others, adapting to cultural shifts while sharing a common language and assumptions, overlapping knowledge bases, and the core of critical thinking. Thus, we distinguish between psychology and philosophy, or between the scientist’s view of nature and the poet’s, but we also acknowledge the connections. In art, we look for the differences between impressionism and postimpressionism but also for the commonalities and historical continuities.

But however we define the liberal arts, no unique approach and no single method, text, or institution perfectly exemplifies the idea. In fact, it isn’t one value or idea so much as a group of ideas that share what Ludwig Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance.” At its best, a liberal education isn’t intended to inculcate practical skills or to dump data into students’ brains, though it may teach a fact or two. Instead, it’s a wellspring of ideas and questions, and a way of promoting flexibility and openness to diverse perspectives.

Why Do We Need the Liberal Arts?

The liberal arts have traditionally been defended as instrumental to two key elements of democracy: critical thinking and citizenship. Such arguments are indeed compelling, once it is clear what we mean by those complex notions. (Another feature of the liberal mind is that it doesn’t shrink from complexity.) Citizenship, first of all, isn’t just a political notion in the ordinary sense. Like the term liberal arts, it’s more comprehensive and systemic: a social ecology involving a range of activities symbiotic with democratic communities. Three dimensions of that ecology are easy to identify.

One is the traditional civic dimension, which embraces a range of activities such as voting and jury service, advocacy, volunteering, dialogue and information sharing, and other forms of participation in the public sphere.

A second dimension is economic citizenship, which means being a productive member of a community: doing something useful for oneself and for others, whether in a factory, farm, home, office, garage, or boardroom. It’s also about being a critical consumer and seeing the connections between the political and economic spheres.

A third kind of citizenship (and the particular focus of the humanities) is cultural citizenship, through participation in the various conversations that constitute a culture. This is arguably the most family-friendly of the three. Take your kids to see The Nutcracker, or for that matter to a circus, a house of worship, or a ballgame. The arts, religion, and sports are all potential venues for cultural conversations. It’s no accident that many of our liberal arts colleges were founded by religious sects and host cultural events, sponsor campus organizations, and field sports teams. All are important forms of community.

These three forms of citizenship interrelate in subtle as well as obvious ways, and they are only the most visible bands on a spectrum of possible communal engagement. One could argue for other forms alongside or within them: environmental, informational, moral, or global citizenship, or civic engagement through leadership, mentoring, teaching, or military or other public service. But ultimately, it isn’t about parsing the idea of citizenship. The overall goal is to foster vibrant and prosperous communities with broad and deep participation, in public conversations marked by fairness, inclusion, and (where critical thinking comes in) intellectual rigor.

A liberal education is not about developing professional or entrepreneurial skills, although it may well promote them. Nor is it for everyone; we need pilots, farmers, and hairdressers as well as managers, artists, doctors, and engineers. But we all need to be well-informed, critical citizens. And the liberal arts prepare students for citizenship in all three senses—civic, economic, and cultural.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is the intellectual engine of a functional democracy: the set of mental practices that lends breadth, depth, clarity, and consistency to public discourse. It’s what makes thinking in public truly public and sharable. And yet, like the liberal arts and citizenship, critical thinking isn’t monolithic or easy to describe. An initial definition might begin like this: whereas philosophy is about thought in general, critical thinking is about my thinking or yours or someone else’s in the here and now.

Digging deeper, however, we find in critical thinking another web of ideas with a family resemblance rather than a fixed set of shared properties. In fact, there is little agreement in the considerable literature on critical thinking about precisely what critical thinking is or how it is propagated. As education researcher Lisa Tsui notes, “Because critical thinking is a complex skill, any attempt to offer a full and definitive definition of it would be futile.”

Moreover, there tends to be some clumping within the bundle of ideas associated with critical thinking. For example, educators often cite the ability to identify assumptions, draw inferences, distinguish facts from opinions, draw conclusions from data, and judge the authority of arguments and sources. But that’s just one important clump in the bundle. And these are not simply discrete intellectual skills; they are general and overlapping, and they admit of degrees. Assimilating them isn’t like learning the multiplication table.

The rules and guideposts of informal logic help us to make sound arguments, avoid fallacies, and recognize our systemic human propensity for biases and misperceptions. (An excellent catalog of such pitfalls is Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly.) Students who are college-ready have already absorbed at least the rudiments of this kind of critical thinking, even without formal training, much as we absorb elementary grammar by reading, listening, and writing.

Critical inquiry within the liberal arts curriculum goes well beyond that. Under the same broad rubric of critical thinking, it involves a suite of more advanced intellectual competencies, which bear the mark of the mother discipline we inherited from the Greeks. In fact, critical inquiry is the bridge between basic critical thinking and philosophy, and it’s where most higher learning takes place.

The advanced skills that form that bridge include thinking independently, an almost self-evident intellectual virtue but a vague one (and no mind is an island); thinking outside the box (likewise crucial but unspecific); grasping the different forms and divisions of knowledge and how they are acquired (but the forms of knowledge and ways of acquiring them evolve); seeing distinctions and connections beyond the obvious; distinguishing reality from appearance; and engaging with complexity, but not for its own sake. We venerate truth, for example, while recognizing that there are different types and degrees of truth, some more elusive or impermanent than others. All of these perspectives have value, but they aren’t reducible to neat formulas. In the end, critical inquiry is not a map or a list of firm rules but a set of navigational skills.

The assimilation of facts, ideas, and conceptual frameworks, and the development of critical minds, are equal parts of a liberal education. Or almost equal: at least outside the hard sciences, the intellectual tools and standards of rigor may have more lasting value than accrued factual knowledge. Precisely because they transcend the knowledge bases of the various disciplines, critical-thinking skills enable students to become lifelong learners and engaged citizens—in all three senses of citizenship—and to adapt to change and to multiple career paths. Thus, as William Deresiewicz observes, “The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think.”

Developing a facility with abstractions is part of the progression toward more sophisticated thinking that a liberal education affords. But that intellectual ascent doesn’t require a leap into the maelstrom of philosophy. This is partly because philosophers deal with a number of issues that are of no particular concern to other students and scholars, and it’s partly because philosophy isn’t a substitute for other forms of knowledge. We still have to conjugate verbs, understand economic cycles, and listen to stories. But there’s another reason we can acknowledge philosophy’s role in the liberal arts without having to study philosophy itself: we are already philosophers in spite of ourselves, simply because we use language.

In our ordinary thought and speech we use abstractions all the time. We form (and qualify) generalizations, commute between the general and the particular, make distinctions and connections, draw analogies, compare classes and categories, employ various types of reasoning, hone definitions and meanings, and analyze words, ideas, and things to resolve or mitigate their ambiguity. These are precisely the skills that a liberal education cultivates. It heightens our abilities to speak, listen, write, and think, making us better learners, communicators, team members, and citizens.

The Importance of Critical Inquiry

The college-level progression toward more sophisticated reasoning isn’t just a matter of analytic thinking as a formal process. It is also reflected in certain organizing concepts that (like critical inquiry itself) transcend the various disciplines and unify the liberal arts curriculum. These concepts include truth, nature, value, causality, complexity, morality, freedom, excellence, and—as Wittgenstein understood—language itself, as the principal medium of thought. Critical inquiry, like philosophy, begins but doesn’t end with careful attention to language.

This is something Wittgenstein failed to recognize. In seeking to bring philosophy to a close, by revealing its problems to be essentially linguistic ones, he paradoxically gave the field an enormous boost of fresh intellectual energy. “Mere” linguistic problems, it turns out, are philosophical problems—they are problems about meaning, knowledge, reality, and our minds, not just about words—and we all have to deal with them, whether as art historians, economists, or biologists. Wittgenstein isn’t considered the twentieth century’s greatest philosopher for having been the last to turn out the lights.

The aforementioned concepts (and arguably some others) pervade virtually all branches of knowledge and reflect their common ancestry in classical Western thought. A slew of other important ideas, such as scientific method, transference, foreshadowing, three-point perspective, opportunity cost, immanent critique, double-blind study, hubris, kinship, or means testing, do not.

Clearly there are no fixed rules governing this conversation; its signature is its openness. The roster of organizing concepts I’ve suggested is partial and contestable; in the end, they may simply be convenient ways of carving reality “at the joints,” as Plato suggests. They are not substitutes for, or shortcuts to, knowledge or understanding. But they form a general roadmap indicating what students can expect to find, and the useful navigational skills they may acquire, if they venture onto the rich intellectual terrain of the liberal arts.

The STEM disciplines are obviously important to economic productivity, but so is the entire rainbow of human knowledge and the ability to think critically. That’s why nations around the world are beginning to embrace the liberal arts idea that American education has done so much to promote, even as we question it. We need skilled thinkers, problem solvers, team workers, and communicators, and not just in the business, scientific, and technology sectors. The liberal arts embody precisely the skills a democracy must cultivate to maintain its vital reservoir of active, thoughtful, humane, and productive citizens.   

Jeffrey Scheuer is the author of two books on media and politics and a work in progress about critical thinking and liberal education. His website is at, and his e-mail address is

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