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The History of Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts student in a workshop, looking across the room. Another student is in the foreground (not in focus), who appears to be looking down at their work.


The origins of liberal education

A common myth

‘Liberal Arts’ programmes only focus on the 'arts' (that is, a collection of subjects associated with the humanities).

This isn't the case! ‘Liberal Arts’ derives from the classical and medieval collection of subjects known as artes liberalis: "the knowledge worthy of a free person". The idea is that freedom only exists when you can recognise alternatives (and choose between them). This free society relies on the conscious choice of its people to take part in particular structures.

The heart of liberal education

What knowledge and skills do you need to be a critically-engaged citizen? The simple answer is critical thinking. Most liberal education programmes aim to develop critical thinking skills. Students will analyse and criticise a range of concepts and materials, developing the ability to approach new ideas with confidence. Graduates from these programmes often seek roles where they can make new interventions. They might be working in technology, politics, charity, academia, or a traditional profession.

Liberal education from past to present

Liberal education is not new

Liberal education is one of the oldest forms of education. It was the primary educational structure at the great medieval universities across Europe. Traditionally, there are seven subjects that made up the liberal arts:

  • The trivium of humanities (grammar, logic, and rhetoric); and
  • The ‘scientific’ quadrivium (astronomy/astrology, music, geometry, and arithmetic).

Together, these seven 'artes' contributed to the overarching art, philosophy.

In the 19th century, European universities shifted to a more focused approach. Degrees recognised achievement in specific subjects such as medicine and law. They became training grounds for limited numbers of professions.

A renewed interest in liberal education

Over recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the benefits of this educational philosophy. Employers recognise that graduates with broad skills and flexible approaches can be more valuable than specialists. Many institutions are responding to employability concerns. Programmes began to appear in the Netherlands, Germany, Lithuania, the UK, throughout Europe, and beyond. China and India have seen an increase in domestic liberal education programmes. More students have been going abroad to study liberal arts. Warwick is working with colleagues across the UK and Europe to define a new, ‘European’ approach to liberal education. Together with the diverse US offerings, liberal education programmes now offer opportunities to students with a range of goals, skills, and backgrounds.

A guide to studying Liberal Arts at university

Different types of Liberal Arts programmes

You might have come across programmes described as ‘Liberal Arts and Sciences’, ‘Liberal Studies’, or even ‘General Studies’. These all have similar aspirations but their structures or focus might be different. Often, a ‘Liberal Arts’ programme will involve some science and mathematics, as well as the humanities. Some of the general types include:

There are several reasons why the US has embraced liberal education. Many of these derive from some of the neoclassical ideals espoused by that nation’s founders. At heart, it’s about a citizenry that is educated enough to offer up capable candidates for public office and able to act as a check on government figures. It’s about educating citizens for a participatory civic system. This philosophy has driven the development of Liberal Arts at Warwick. Graduates from our programme are capable of moving beyond the expertise they’ve already developed. They can tackle new ideas and problems with confidence and capability.

Great books

Many American liberal arts programmes are described as ‘great books’ programmes. These are traditionally delivered at small residential colleges. Students focus on individual critical interpretations of major texts and on personal development. Most classes take place as small-group seminars, where a teacher leads a group of students in a discussion of a primary text. Emphasis is placed on individual students to interpret the source text, rather than on the assemblage or analysis of scholarly material of that text. These courses tend to have a philosophical core that is taught in required seminars in the first year. Students then declare a ‘major’ (and possibly a ‘minor’) interest and take more specialised classes in that area. These programmes attract students due to small class sizes, close contact with teaching staff, and a strong sense of community.

Different approaches

A selection of colleges with very different approaches include:

  • St. John’s College
  • Pomona College
  • Amherst College
  • Bard College

Other programmes have alternative structures that tend to focus on themes. Some, like the Global Liberal Studies programme at New York University, are characterised as ‘global’ (with a strong focus on cultural literacy and graduate movement). Some programmes may place social justice and engagement at the centre of their programmes. Some of these, like those found at Boston College, may have a philosophical or religious connection. These are often—but not exclusively—found within larger research-oriented universities. Students here benefit from the resources and reputations of a larger institution, while still enjoying small class sizes and flexible programmes.

As already mentioned, there has been a recent wave of new liberal education programmes appearing in Europe. This is in part due to social and economic factors arising from the ‘great recession’. Warwick is at the forefront of developing this new European sense of liberal education. This approach is typified by critical approaches to skills development, often featuring a more structured programme than those in the US. While students are usually able to focus on themes or subjects of interest to them (like the pathways at Warwick), there tends to be more focus on the conscious cultivation of critical thinking and leadership skills.

Many individual institutions have long incorporated aspects of the liberal education approach. However, recently several Russell Group (research-intensive) universities have set up liberal education programmes. They are united by a shared commitment to research-led teaching. Experts from a range of academic fields work with students in traditional departments and in programme-specific contexts. There is a lot of variation beyond this, however, and it’s essential that you understand these differences: they will have a big impact! Some programmes allow you to take classes from across the entire university right from the beginning. These programmes may reward students who are looking for opportunities to try many different things. Other programmes are more structured and will benefit students who want more guidance or are already drawn to a particular area of inquiry.

Find out more

There are a lot of academic studies about the pedagogy of liberal education, and there’s even more about the ways in which these educational methods intersect with various historical moments, figures, and ideas. Beyond that, you will find many articles in public-facing media that discuss the value of a liberal education.

Here are some good places to start:

For a well-voiced articulation of the values of a(n American-style) liberal education, see Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of a Liberal Education (Norton, 2015).

For a narrative about the history of liberal education and its cultural, religious, and political importance, see Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth and Sixteenth-Century Europe (Duckworth, 1986).

For a survey of the classical roots of liberal education, see Rachel Bruzzone and Claudia Michel, eds., The Roots of the Liberal Arts in Antiquity: A Handbook (University College Freiburg/Rombach, 2015).

An overview of the development of transdisciplinarity as a concept forms the basis of Jay Hillel Bernstein's "Transdisciplinarity: A Review of Its Origins, Development, and Current Issues", in Journal of Research Practice 11:1 (2015).