- The origins of liberal education
- Liberal education from past to present
- Different types of Liberal Arts programmes
- Find out more
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 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
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 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).