The Liberal Arts

Today, many minds have been shaped by educational philosophies of base pragmatism that treat the individual as a worker to be shaped for social goals, rather than a person to flourish within society.  This is not to disparage the professions of STEM, of doctors and lawyers, or to discourage learning the ins-and-outs of computer technologies.  But these endeavors aim primarily at the perfection of productivity, in making good things other than oneself, rather than in making better one’s own being, one’s own mind.

It is in contrast to these modern pursuits that we find the traditional curriculum of any schools with a classical inclination, known as the liberal arts.  These seven courses—grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy—are called liberal because they free the mind and are called arts because they are tools for the mind’s interaction with the world.  Through extension, in the modern world, “liberal arts” has also come to comprise university education that includes instruction in philosophy, history, literature, classical languages, and theology, for these studies, too, liberate the mind (and build upon the liberation gained in the traditional seven).  This freedom consists not merely in the lack of restraint, but rather in an empowering: an uneducated person may lack any physical, moral, or civil restraints on his or her behavior, and yet nevertheless is not truly free to do many things, because he or she lacks the knowledge of how and especially why he ought to do them.  Conversely, with the absence of restraint, someone may do many things which result in a consequent lack of freedom: thus someone becomes a slave to the passions, to addictions, to thought-atrophying forms of entertainment, and to any object which may receive a disproportionate estimation of its worth. 

Distinctively human action—that is, the kind of action which belongs to human beings and no other animals—receives its specifically-human character from the use of reason; and reason is developed through learning.  Learning therefore needs also to be sufficiently broad in its scope: if someone studies one and only one subject for the whole of life, he or she will never develop a well-proportioned perspective on the fullness of human experience.  It is to this purpose that the liberal arts are applied: to provide a broad basis of education with which one can more easily grasp any subject, investigate any question, and seek every answer.  Consider the praise given its study by John Henry Newman:

Surely it is very intelligible to say, and that is what I say here, that Liberal Education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.  Everything has its own perfection, be it higher or lower in the scale of things; and the perfection of one is not the perfection of another.  Things animate, inanimate, visible, invisible, all are good in their kind, and have a best of themselves, with is an object of pursuit… The artist puts before him beauty of feature and form; the poet, beauty of mind; the preacher, the beauty of grace: then intellect too, I repeat, has its beauty, and it has those who aim at it.  To open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, eloquent expression, is an object as intelligible (for here we are inquiring, not what the object of a Liberal Education is worth, nor what use the Church makes of it, but what it is in itself), I say, an object as intelligible as the cultivation of virtue, while, at the same time, it is absolutely distinct from it.

1852: The Idea of a University, 90-91.

There is a fruitful distinction suggested by the phrase “Liberal Education”, as comprising those subjects not in themselves arts—as philosophy or literature, for instance—but which nevertheless contribute to the freedom of the mind.  That is, though we are here enveloped in a study of the liberal arts, our ultimate goal is for a liberal education—towards which the arts are innately ordered.  We ought to keep this ordination in mind, to avoid lapsing into sophistical pretensions resulting in a misuse of these arts.

The liberal arts attain this not through each becoming a monolithic subject studied unto itself, but as each is interwoven through the others; each must be understood as part of a greater whole to which it ultimately belongs and within which it attains its ultimate fructification.  To study the liberal arts, therefore, requires rejecting the myopic specialization characteristic of modern university study.  Conversely, it thereby allows us to be doctors, but not just doctors; lawyers, but persons, too; engineers, but also poets; scientists, but also men and women of faith and human sensitivities. 

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