Literature Review – Abelson – ‘The Seven Liberal Arts’

Continuing my review of literature about assessment, liberal arts, and university history I found a work called ‘The Seven Liberal Arts’ by Paul Abelson from 1965. The book is largely a study of the curriculum through historical evidence and records. In that way this book features the historical and educational program side of the university that Haskins’ study of college life did not capture.Philo_mediev

The book begins with the assertion that the Medieval university grew out of the Roman, which grew out of the Greek (1). From there he builds upon this idea by giving the history and practices of the Greek school of thought. The main subjects for early schools were music and gymnastics. Later, Plato added the definition of what we consider higher education today (2).

Plato breaks down the three periods of a student’s career in education into elementary, secondary, and higher learning (2). Each focused on a specific set of disciplines that were structured to create a ‘guardian class’ or perfect citizen. This break down was: Elementary with gymnastics, music, and grammar till the 12th year, Secondary with arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and musical harmony till the 30th year, and Higher education with philosophy till the 35th year of study.

Aristotle had a different curriculum of just reading/writing, gymnastics, music, and sometime drawing (2). This is fragmentary however because records are unclear.


This went through several revisions (3) until the first Punic War when Rome introduced the Greek education center (from some accounts quite literally philosopher and all) to their institutions where they began using it to make their citizens better (4). This helped to make Latin the international language. It also helped standardize the years of study from 35 years to 12 stopping at the age of 16 or 21 for students (6).

Rome also took to cutting out impractical courses that wouldn’t serve the population at large, like math (6). Later when Christians began attending courses, they were hesitant at first in joining classes because of the pagan slant (go figure) that the Rome schools had (8). Because the Greek method was largely rhetorically based they used mythological stories and religion as the topic to learn grammar and logic to.

Christians slowly gave in however as they needed to study theology (8). This lead to them needing two things; the ability to read and the ability to discern when Easter was using math. Also, early church leaders decided that because Rome had 7 liberal arts and 7 was the holy number of the Bible then the pagans must have divine guidance even if they were pagan (9). This lead to more and more overlap between the two in general education.

From there, the book begins to discuss each of the seven liberal arts individually. It becomes fairly dry as the author lists out each book that the universities used, who wrote them, and when they used them. If you want a very specific subject to study or need a primary document for further research then this book is perfect. As is, it really doesn’t give too much high level information about classes or universities as a whole–just the curriculum (which is what the book is named so it makes sense). Lastly, the author seems to mix opinions in with his facts. Every now and then he will make a mention of something (usually specifically religious) that doesn’t seem to mesh with what other authors have said. My advice is to use this book just for the curriculum material and use something else for religious or cultural studies.

That said there were some very interesting observations. For example, the author says that since teaching or discussing metaphysics was not allowed by the church for non-clergy, then metaphysics were not in the curriculum (73). However this meant that the focus was on logic instead (72). This allowed subjects of the quadrivium (math based) were given more room in the Middle Ages (91). Slowly this changed the focus of scholars from religion to science–visa via the church shot itself in the foot by being more critical of philosophy.

Most universities were required to teach mathematics and all students had to learn all the subjects of such to calculate the date of Easter (91-92). Even though the instruction was fairly simple, it was difficult class until the introduction of Arabic numerals and rediscovered teachings of the Greeks (94). In addition, because philosophy of religion was often under heavy scrutiny from the church, the laymen going to school would nearly always take astronomy because they felt like it was looking literally into heaven (119). It also helped that astrology was so popular in that time (120).

Other interesting portions of the book; music was considered a math subject and wasn’t practiced in universities till the Renaissance (130), the curriculum went mostly unchanged for the entire Dark Age (135), Epistola is the art of letter writing (65), and one of the only connections between Eastern and Western worlds was the shared Latin language from the Roman conquests (12).


All in all not a bad research book at all. It is a little opinionated but if you can over look that it gives a great basis of research for liberal arts studies. I would recommend it to anyone looking for the history of their discipline or looking for some Latin textbooks (Grammaticus).

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