What Makes These Arts Liberal Anyway?

Few universities carry more stigma in their description as the ‘liberal’ arts institution. The term is misleading at best and polarizing at worst. Made worse by the fact that even many students enrolled in colleges with a liberal arts program may not fully know what it really means.


This issue is more than a just marketing however, American culture has warped the idea of what being liberal is to the point that just the sound of the word regardless of context can ignite powerful emotions. Clouding the issue further is the changing nature of the arts in general.


The Seven Liberal Arts and their Corresponding Planets

The Seven Liberal Arts and their Corresponding Planets

This is a topic that Victor E. Ferrall, Jr. writes about in his work ‘Liberal Arts at the Brink’ extensively. Many consider liberal to constitute only a political ideology while others see it as a merely unstructured course selection. Recently Eric Cantor actually used this thinking as a mud-slinging talking point against liberal arts professor David Brat (who is actually just about anything but politically liberal). In reality, the ‘liberal’ of liberal arts simply refers to the core Greek curriculum that most modern colleges are based on.


Choosing a broad (or liberal) base for one’s education has many pro’s and con’s. It can be the path for the Jack of all trades but master of none. It can give a student the tools to take on any academic pursuit they want. Most universities only train their students to perform the tasks they need for their career whereas a liberal arts college trains the student for anything they may encounter in their career. A good defense rather than just a good offense.


In my personal career I have been a janitor, a pizza chef, a telecom construction worker, a writer, a software project manager, a game developer, a blogger, and now an assessment coordinator. Each job alone brought its own set of problems and challenges, but because of my wide array of skills I could always manage to work through them. This comes at a cost of course–I had a steep learning curve to each field but advanced quicker than others around me.


The best example was my time as a software project manager. When I started I was far behind those with programming or business degrees. My background in liberal arts and psychology did not transfer to computers or personnel management immediately. However within a few months of completing my training I was already becoming a leader in my area. Soon after I took over some of the biggest accounts my team had and was the liaison for several major national corporations. All this because I could build on a wide range of skills to fulfil any task I was given.


In today’s fast changing economy and business environment that adaptability is more important than ever. Employees who can mutate to the needs of their employer will have greater staying power than those who cannot.


So, what items make an art liberal?


Plato was one of the first people to lay out what he called a curriculum for the ‘guardian’ or perfect citizen class. The idea was to create a group of leaders from within a society that could help guide policy and make decisions around the community. This created a long list of subjects that was later revised after the First Punic War between Rome and Greece. At this point the Romans tailored the class load to what they valued in a good citizen which included the seven arts.


Broken into two groups between scientific studies of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy/astrology and the humanities of grammar, rhetoric and logic. These groups were known as Quadrivium and Trivium. Throughout the dark ages they were preserved by the church who needed skilled laborers to read and write the scriptures. Much later a growing middle class carried the torch and those outside the church and combined with growing knowledge coming into Europe from the Middle East and Asia.


Today it has come to denote students that study mathematics, science, fine arts, and language arts. This can also include social sciences, history, and philosophy in an attempt to create a broad base of learning. It has primarily been a United States institution that came to popularity in the 20th century. In recent years it has spread to Europe as it is reintroduced.


In North America it became an important cornerstone of education as it reflected the philosophy that a well educated voter was a necessity for a working democratic society. The major goal of most programs is not to make a perfect worker but a perfect citizen who can understand local and world events. In addition it helps the student be better equipped to work in changing times.


It is always a surprise then working at a liberal arts college that I hear students students ask why they need interdisciplinary classes. My hope is that they will, over time, connect the dots between a problem in a math course and solving an issue in a business course or an art theory that explains the cultural ideology of a historical time period. In general this seems to be the natural progression of the alumni I know and meet. They question the “IDS” courses they feel like they don’t need until they use those skills and ideas to solve an issue in their field.


This is why it is more important than ever to defend the liberal arts curriculum. Even President Obama, who has otherwise upheld the educational torch, even made an aside about art history being useless. He acted quickly to lessen the comment’s bite but it still shows how misunderstood the ideology of a broad learning base is.


To put it in a simple definition, liberal arts education is a varied education. Liberal arts studies are much like the curriculum of a high school where you are asked to study many different fields that you may or may not be interested in. The desired outcome is the same for both, a well rounded individual. The only difference is the intensity and freedom in what pursuits you acquire. In high school you are being asked to meet certain criteria to appease the state. In college you are told to take at least a certain number of credit hours in any topic you like.


My hope is that in the future students, employers, politicians, astrophysics, firefighters, chemists, elementary teachers, secretaries, and the rest of the world will come to appreciate the liberal arts education. My dream, however, is that I will some day hear the end of those awful “Do you want fries with that liberal arts degree?” overused ‘jokes’ some day because a broad education is no laughing matter.


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