philosophy of liberal arts

Philosophy of Liberal Arts Education

My ideas about the value of liberal arts have been formed over an entire lifetime. I chose to attend Oberlin College instead of Eastman or the University of Michigan because of the value of liberal learning which Oberlin espouses; both of the colleges where I have worked, Trinity College and Waldorf College, have laid claim to the title, “liberal arts college;” one of my own children benefited greatly from his four-year experience at a very small classical liberal arts college, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. Each step along the way has forced me to look again at what the idea of a liberal arts education entails, and what its value is.

It is not possible to discuss the value of the liberal arts without beginning at the beginning—with the very first use of the term amongst the ancient Greeks. As the various schools of philosophy developed in Athens, particularly around the Socratic Plato and his student Aristotle, the conviction emerged that, though a utilitarian kind of learning is required in order to work and to participate in civic and commercial life, another kind of learning exists which is of far greater value. Its nature is liberated from the requirement to serve other disciplines. Its value is inherent, residing within the discipline itself—in what it is, not what it does.

The Greeks divided the liberal arts into a group of three disciplines, the TriviumGrammar, Rhetoric and Logic—which laid the groundwork, and provided a framework for the study of four subjects, the Quadrivium—Arithmetic, Geometry, Music Theory and Astrology or Cosmology.

Throughout the medieval age, from Boethius in the 6th century through the founding of the first universities in Bologna, Padua, Prague, Oxford, Cologne, and especially in Paris, a reiteration of the ancient regard for artes liberales is found. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, describes this succinctly: “Every art is called liberal which is ordered to knowing; those which are ordered to some utility to be attained through action are called servile arts.[1]

The 20th-century German Thomist, Joseph Pieper, offers an apt description of how this view of the liberal arts is expressed today:

“Liberal arts,” therefore, are ways of human action, which have their justification in themselves; “servile arts” are ways of human action that have a purpose outside of themselves, a purpose, to be more exact, which consists in a useful effect that can be realized through praxis. The “liberality” or “freedom” of the liberal arts consists in their not being disposable for purposes, that they do not need to be legitimized by a social function, by being “work.” [2]

The one word around which the idea of the liberal arts can be gathered is value. Those studies which exist because of what they are as opposed to what they do are more valuable in the same way that the value and dignity of man[3] is found not in what he does, but in who he is.

Thus, the ideal undergraduate liberal arts curriculum, often called the liberal arts core or the general education core, would rely heavily on this understanding of the liberal arts. At the risk of sounding horribly un-PC, I would suggest that the liberal arts curriculum should begin, by necessity, with a good understanding of the issues involved in the Athenian dialogue and the disciplines identified to fully participate in that dialog—Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic. Its subject matter should be an in-depth exposure to what is often referred to as the Western canon, especially philosophy, literature and history, but also the fine arts, mathematics and the sciences. My conviction springs not from a “triumphalism” that takes a competitive stance vis-à-vis non-Western culture. Quite to the contrary, it seems to me a truism that the mysteries of other cultures cannot be pierced, nor the true value of the diversities found in the community of humankind embraced, if we have not been first thoroughly immersed in our own culture. Seeing is not possible if one has been given no vantage point from which to observe.

In order to be truly liberal in the sense of setting free, the ideal liberal arts college curriculum would go one step further, carrying with it the requirement of intense study of a foreign language, including at least a semester, if not a year, in a country where that language is spoken. Almost universally in my experience, students who have lived abroad—and wrestled with a foreign tongue while doing so—understand both themselves and others better; they almost automatically become better students, better equipped to separate the wheat from the chaff as to what is and what is not truly valuable. The grammar-rich approach to German to which I was exposed in my college years, coupled with the year I spent abroad, served many purposes, but one was not intended at the time—the trivium purpose, if you will. Mastering German provided me a much better understanding of my own language, English, especially regarding grammar.

Listening to the typical faculty lounge grumblings, one often hears that students ask only two questions: “Do I need to know this for a test?” and “Will this help me get a job?” The force of those questions is no trifling matter; it pushes directly in the opposite direction of a liberal arts education. Their bald utilitarianism will never elicit a response of true value. They are the questions posed by a world saturated with small questions eliciting small answers. The questions “If I go to your college, how much money can I make when I am done?” and “What kind of prestige can I accrue?” spring forth from a belief that man’s dignity and value reside in what he does. The power unleashed by the liberal arts is far greater and of infinitely more value—man’s dignity and value reside in who he is.

Too often the refrain of the post-modern world’s theme-song contains but one word, shouted over and over again—Diversity! A university cannot thoughtlessly sing that refrain and maintain its identity as a UNI-versity. Both diversity and unity must be expressed, the latter being in this day and age by far the more difficult of the two to sell. The liberal arts, understood in a classical sense, are one of the differences, perhaps the main one, between the teeming life of a true university and the monstrosity of the modern “Diversiversity.” Where the liberal arts are actively cultivated, a university has a center around which the various academic and pre-professional majors can safely orbit. Where the liberal arts are allowed to atrophy, all that remains is a chaotic collection of very intelligent and highly-trained professionals incapable of communicating with one another, each divided off into the isolated silo of an academic department.

Put in other words, the disciplines (particularly the pre-professional ones) find their proper order when they orbit a strong classical liberal arts core. The nature of such disciplines is to muster centrifugal force as they grow. To keep them in orbit, the magnetic pull of a classical approach to the liberal arts must be all the more intentional. Both meanings of the word gravity come into play.

Thus, the ideal liberal arts curriculum would provide every student at a particular institution with a common experience; it would be a well-shaped all-campus uniter of faculty and students into a firmly committed community of learners on a shared path.

In closing I offer a quote from Dorothy Sayers, a frequenter of the renowned Lewis-Tolkien get-togethers known as the Inklings:

Is not the great defect of our education today that, although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play “The Harmonious Blacksmith” upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized “The Harmonious Blacksmith,” he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle “The Last Rose of Summer.” Why do I say, “as though?” In certain of the arts and crafts, we sometimes do precisely this—requiring a child to “express himself” in paint before we teach him how to handle the colors and the brush. There is a school of thought which believes this to be the right way to set about the job. But observe: it is not the way in which a trained craftsman will go about to teach himself a new medium.[4]

If one thing united the minds of Lewis, Tolkien and Sayers it was their imperviousness to intellectual faddishness which a firm grounding in classical liberal learning provides. This imperviousness liberates and humanizes. As the Professor in the Chronicles of Narnia says, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach at these schools!”

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics I, 3

[2] Pieper, Joseph. Leisure, the Basis of Culture. (St. Augustine’s Press 1998, published in German in 1948), 22. This book is a succinct defense of liberal learning as the only antidote to the modern concept of “man as machine,” or “man as worker.”

[3] Throughout my essay I use the word “man” to describe all human beings, male and female. I have experimented with other words, humankind for example, but they simply do not have the same meaning. After all, humankind is not a “who,” but a “what.” This word usage is in no way meant to value male above female, and should not be understood to do so. It addresses a grammatical issue, not an ideological one.



[4] From a lecture: “The Lost Tools of Learning” first presented by Sayers at Oxford in 1947. I found it at





11 Responses to “philosophy of liberal arts”

  1. Leticia Says:

    I love your approach to classical education! Please contact me to discuss some important work I have undertaken along these lines.

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