A Liberal Arts Education? Inconceivable!
In William Goldman’s, The Princess Bride, Vizzini gets into the habit of saying, “Inconceivable!”
To which Inigo Montoya eventually objects and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Such is often the case when folks in modernity use the expression, “liberal arts education.”
The frequency and nature of the conversations that ensue when it inevitably comes to light that I teach humanities in classical Christian schools, or that I am working on a Ph.D. in the humanities, is reminiscent of the time I broke my hand and had to wear a cast when I was in grade school.
There is no end to the explanations and the quelling of rumors, i.e. “How are you going to get a job with a liberal arts degree?”
Even among self-professed conservatives, the idea of a liberal arts education is often inconceivable because it does not mean what they think it means.
In a recent article in The Classical Difference, David Goodwin illustrates this very point when he likened his first encounter with the confusing expression unto finding a treasure in the mud that needed cleaning off. He writes, “My mind locked immediately on an unfortunate image: ‘liberal’ as opposed to conservative, ‘arts’ as a euphemism for joblessness, and ‘education’—a hoop-jumping, time-passing exercise that consumes the first quarter of your life”
So, what exactly is a liberal arts education?
In the first place, and most specifically, the liberal arts refer to the medieval educational model comprised of seven liberal arts bifurcated into the trivium (Latin: three paths) and the quadrivium (Latin: four paths). The Trivium consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and was considered the lower or foundational division of a liberal arts education, while the Quadrivium consisted of arithmetic (pure numbers), geometry (numbers in space), music (numbers in time), and astronomy (numbers in space and time) and was considered the upper division of learning.
But as many, including James Schall in his book, The Life of the Mind, have both argued and demonstrated, a liberal arts education is much more than an educational structure—although it is not less than one.
One way to define a liberal arts education is to analyze the nomenclature itself. The word liberal is derived from the Latin root libere, meaning freely; and more specifically the Latin adjective līberālis meaning freedom, of free citizens, gentlemanly, honorable, generous, liberal, handsome.
As one can see from the etymology of the adjective, a liberal education is the education of free people, the education of a free society.
James Schall aptly points out, “Certain disciplines, particularly what is known from Aristotle as ‘metaphysics,’ are called freeing subjects. Such ‘liberal’ discipline is undertaken ‘for its own sake,’ that is, the purpose of the knowledge gained is not to ‘do’ anything with it. Just to ‘know’ something is itself a pleasure…”
In other words, liberal refers to the fact that there is such a kind of knowledge in which humanity, if such humanity is to govern themselves as freemen as opposed to slaves, ought to know for sheer pleasure of knowing it. Elsewhere, Schall explains what, in essence, this knowledge consists of: “The liberal arts are not one person’s invention, but rather represent the collected wisdom of many generation and nations. We should recognize, from the beginning, that these ‘freeing’ or ‘liberal’ arts are not simply a body of books to read, but a way of life enabling us to be free enough to know the truth of things.”
The word art is derived from the Greek word, τέχνη (technē), meaning craft or trade. The idea of an art in this sense might best be described as the tools and skills free people need to create meaningful and purposeful lives. As David Goodwin notes, “Two hundred years ago, art was simply anything created by a human for a purpose—very useful and beautiful stuff…But the specific category of ‘liberal arts,’ then and now, speaks of the set of tools used by free men to lead and live wisely.”
Finally, the word education might just be the most misunderstood of all words, because the word is often associated with job training. But as Schall notes, “Education, moreover, was not a ‘thing.’ The word educere means to bring forth, or to complete something already begun by the very fact that one is a human being.”
It could be said that education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue within a person, the enlarging of one’s soul and intellect; but one thing an education is not, is job training.
In platonic terms, an education is to be delivered from the cave of images where the true light of the sun illuminates what is real.
Additionally, to be educated, is to know and to be able to articulate truth; but it is not only to know what the truth is, and not only to be able to articulate what the truth is, “but also [to be able to] explain the false views […and] to know “what it is to be unintelligent and vicious.” This is, Schall explains, “a considerable part of being intelligent and virtuous.”
In closing, the expression, “liberal arts education,” isn’t inconceivable, neither in concept, nor in possibility. But as Plato and Aristotle have explained, it can be painful, and not everyone will be inclined to pursue one, especially those who think it means something that it doesn’t mean…
A Summary Manifesto
We study the liberal arts to sharpen our intellect and enlarge our imagination, so that we might cultivate the peace and prosperity of the city of man, and eat and drink and find enjoyment in all our toil.
To enrich our human experience we seek an education that enlarges our souls by submitting ourselves to the “moulding influence of abstract studies” (Cicero, 69), and wrestling with the perennial questions that elude facile arguments.
Understanding that real education is not simply an accumulation of disconnected categories of knowledge, but that the development of a truly humane person can only be accomplished through the liberal approach of exploring the inter-connectedness of ideas and categories of human thought, a liberal arts education engages the classic texts of the poets and philosophers whose conversation on a vast number of humanity’s perennial ideas has shaped western civilization.
Ultimately, in an “effort to experience the proper pleasure due to knowing…[we that study the liberal arts desire that] “order of the soul and mind that would enable us to [be] free and judicious in [our ] relation to the highest things” (Schall, 33).
Collins Latin Dictionary Plus Grammar. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1997.
Goodwin, David. “The Unfortunate ‘Liberal Arts Education’: What’s in a Word?” The Classical Difference. Fall, 2016.
Schall, James V. The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008.
Thomas, Robert L. New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries : Updated Edition. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998.
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He helps people cultivate their capacity to perceive and appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful by sharing rich insights into the arts and humanities, meaningful perspective on faith and culture, and valuable tips on writing and teaching. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.