This paper is a research into the History of Liberal Arts, in particular, what is identified as a liberal arts education, when was it first recognized, and how it evolved. My research will focus on the historical roots of a liberal arts program and the benefits it brought to those who pursued a liberal arts education. My research will conclude with the impact a liberal arts education continues to have in today’s world.
The worth of a liberal arts education can be hard to explain because it can’t be dissected down to a simple solution for all. The idea of a liberal arts education came into existence as a way to educate the whole person. By studying the liberal arts, a person would be developing themselves into a meaningful and contributing member of society. A liberal arts student would learn to reason, analyze, and express themselves creatively, allowing them to take intellectual risk and become lifelong learners. This research will reveal when and how this line of thinking about education came into play.
In researching the history of a liberal arts education, seven historical perspectives were identified. These seven perspectives started in the time period Before Christ with Socrates and into the1970’s and the twentieth century. These seven historical perspectives are recognized as idealism, realism, pragmatism, reconstruction, existentialism, behaviorism, and analytic philosophy.
Greek philosophers believed the Liberal Arts were the studies that would “develop both moral excellence and greater intellect for man” (Roen, 2018). Each of these components were important to identify the aims of education.
Specific topics were taught during this period as part of a liberal arts program by Greek philosophers, based on what they determined would be essential for the gentlemen of the time. These were known and referred to as the “Seven Liberal Arts” (Roen, 2018). Liberal arts originated during the time period of the Hellenic Age. This spanned the time period from the eight century B.C. to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. (Wagner 1983). The ideal education at this time would have focused on character (morals), physique (body), and the mind (reason), according to A Social History of Education by, Robert Holmes Beck.
According to Rodriquez, the term “Seven Liberal Arts” or artes liberales refers to the specific “branches of knowledge” that were taught in medieval schools. “These seven branches were divided into two categories: the Trivium and the Quadrivium. The Trivium referred to the branches of knowledge focused on language, specifically grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The second division, the Quadrivium, focused on mathematics and its application: arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music” (Roen, 2018).
At the end of the Persian wars, Athens became a powerful and rich city-state and the spread of democracy began. The Rhetorical Sophists took this opportunity to teach rhetoric and oratory to young men interested in becoming wealthy and influential. Men such as Plato, a conservative of the times, felt young men should be developing their mind, body, and character. While Plato views on education was somewhat different than that of the Sophists, it cannot be overlooked that the overall objective of the Sophists was to grow students into sophisticated and effective citizens working to improve life in general. The Sophists approach to education was based on two different curriculums. One was the natural sciences and the other was based on rhetoric and political science.
One of the well-known Sophists of the time was Socrates. Socrates is remembered not by any work written down that we can pinpoint, but by the teachings of his students who included Plato and Xenophon. Socrates wanted an ethical system that would be based on human reasoning rather that theological doctrine. He attempted to establish an ethical system based on human reason rather than theological doctrine. It was the belief of Socrates that human choice was motivated by a desire for happiness. Socrates is remembered as both the “Father of Ethics” and “The Father of Western Philosophy” who believed man should be educated and concerned with the well-being of society.
Plato cultivated the idea that men who learned a craft or technology were not worthy of being a gentleman and had no place in a liberal education. One of the beliefs held by Plato was that men were born to their station in life to hold either a high or low social position, in a role of subservience or leadership. One of the elements of Plato’s idealist philosophies still in practice today is the search for truth. “The search for wisdom is really a search for truth, an ongoing pursuit each new generation of students must do, although the final answers may always be the same” (Ozmon & Craver, 1976). One student of Plato’s, Aristotle, stated that “some men are born to be slaves, by nature are intended to be slaves” (Beck, 1965). Aristotle is best remembered as one of the greatest thinkers.
While the Sophists did not share this view, any influence over this belief was lost over the years and even today we see a separation in education from that of technology or skill based versus a college education. Sophists are primarily remembered for is the introduction and study of grammar and rhetoric, which has made it mark through modern times.
As years went by and change took place due to wars, a movement within the church to teach and educate took on a philosophical base, impacted by the ideas of Aristotle. There was a period of time from the sixth to the tenth century when only the Church conducted any type of education. It was the church that encouraged the extension of brotherhood to help the poor, week, and needy during the middle ages.
Pragmatic philosophy brought with it the proponent of human experiences. John Locke, maintained the idea that “man’s mind is blank at birth, a tabula rasa”. In other words, a man at birth has no rules for processing his thoughts, that these rules are determined though physical experiences. He likened this idea to a computer, saying until it is programmed, one cannot get anything from it.
The era of reconstruction brought with it two premises. One was that society is in constant need of change or reconstruction. The second was that social change involved both the reconstruction of education and using education to reconstruct society. During the period of the 1920’s and 1930’s, John Dewey felt education could be used as a tool to change man and society. This philosophy became known in the minds of people with radical social reform in which the norm was rejected and relativism was accepted.
The fifth perspective, Existentialism, is interpreted in a myriad of confusing ways, which makes it difficult to sort out a meaning. One of the main takeaways learned from the readings is the idea that “the individual does not discover ideas; rather, he creates them”. This research included the notion that “concepts like beauty, truth, and justice are all man-made” in addition is the thought that even God is a man-made idea.
Behaviorism, while not necessarily the same as the other perspectives, is rooted in several other philosophical theories. Behaviorism looks at the psychological theory that deals with the “nature of man and society, values, the good of life, and speculations or assumptions on the nature of reality”. For clarification, behaviorism is rooted in our responses to environmental stimuli which then shape our actions.
The next perspective of the seven identified is Analytic Philosophy. When looking at this phase, one of the main issues it brings attention to is the “meaning” given to specific language. It looks at the questions of “What is real?” and “What is meaning?” These perspectives have had an influence in how and what is being taught in our liberal arts programs today.
In some ways, we are still looking to provide students with a well-rounded education that will have an impact on their character (morals), physique (body), and mind (reason). Professor Greenberg from the History Department of Trinity College states that “The ability to think creatively, read critically, construct effective arguments using persuasive evidence, write clearly, remain flexible and look at issues with an open mind” can better equip students for “the ever-changing job market” (Smm, 2012). These ideals are similar to those of several of the philosophers we have discussed, such as……(add names)
Even in today’s world, a liberal arts degree is still a vital part of the education system and employers prefer hiring employees that have mastered critical skills lacking in other degree programs. “A liberal arts education teaches the learner to pursue economic growth based on humanitarian values. In addition, empathy and human values are not abstractions, but core qualities required for the survival and thriving of humanity” (Krishnaswamy, 2018) Students track of thinking becomes in line with that of life’s deeper needs.
Academic areas incorporated in a liberal arts education today include “arts (fine arts, music, performing arts, and literature), philosophy, religious studies, social science (anthropology, geography, history, jurisprudence, linguistics, political science, psychology, and sociology), mathematics, and natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and earth sciences)” (Krishnaswamy, 2018).