The liberal arts have been around for over 2,000 years, and they’re still in practice today—but the world has changed since they were created. We understand more about education, the sciences, technology, and psychology than the ancient world. Our educational models have adapted too, although mostly over the last two centuries. Did you know they started out simply as the 7 liberal arts?
Why just seven? What about all the others—and aren’t some disciplines part of the “humanities” now?
Yes, but it wasn’t always that way. This is how the liberal arts were taught for millennia before the introduction of standardized curricula or such a wide range of colleges and universities.
What are the 7 liberal arts in the classical sense?
The original seven liberal arts aren’t identical to the fields we now study at colleges and universities. It’s important to understand that the liberal arts originated in the ancient world, beginning in Greece, being adopted in Roman culture, maintaining prominence in the Middle Ages, and continuing to exist in schools to this very day.
That’s a track record of over 2,000 years—not bad, right?
The world has changed just a wee bit over those millennia, however, and so too have the liberal arts. Keep that in mind, as the 7 “original” arts won’t correlate strictly to what you’ve studied in school.
The trivium is a collection of the 3 fundamental liberal arts that pupils would study before moving on to the 4 more complicated arts, both of which made up the 7 liberal arts. They were:
These three arts generally aren’t studied as their own fields, but they do underpin everything we study in the liberal arts today. Some of them are immediately familiar, too.
- Everybody studies grammar in grade school.
- Logic underpins philosophy and mathematics.
- Rhetoric can still be found in university-level writing courses.
What we would have called “elementary schools” 500 years ago were most commonly called “grammar schools.” You can probably guess why: they focused on teaching language so that students could function better in society, engage in spiritual discourse, and—for the privileged—continue education in the liberal arts through reading and writing. Learning the basics of language was a necessary foundation for learning everything else in a reasonable amount of time, so grammar was the first art studied by anyone lucky enough to receive an education (or part of that lucky 10% who could read and write prior to the industrial revolution).
The quadrivium (the “four ways” or “four roads”) were the more complex and specialized of the 4 liberal arts. Learning these four arts required a command of the 3 fundamental liberal arts (the trivium) as a foundation. The four arts consisted of:
- Astronomy (not to be confused with “astrology”)
You may notice these are, for the most part, considered sciences today. Three of the four are still taught in public schools to this day, and two of them are core parts of the elementary school curriculum.
- Arithmetic is the basis of mathematical skills, including addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
- Geometry is the basis of architecture and engineering as we know it.
- Music is often an elective course by high school, but no less important to human society than mathematics or the written word.
- Astronomy, the charting of the stars, isn’t taught in schools today—but has been a key skill in navigation and exploration at many points in time across the world.
What is a classical liberal arts education?
A classical liberal arts education starts with students learning skills of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) in their early years. Before the classical model was phased out by the progressive model we have today, young students would spend their school time working through these three skills, which are all useful in their own right.
Once students mastered those three skills, they could begin to learn the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) at higher levels of education if they were lucky enough to continue. This differs from the progressive model that most schools use today, which incorporates languages, mathematics, music, and social sciences into the same curriculum at an early age.
Interestingly enough, some schools still favor the curriculum for a classical liberal arts education.
What were the 4 lenses of the liberal arts?
There are some different interpretations depending on who you ask, but the most common set of the 4 lenses of the liberal arts used to be:
- Social sciences
- Natural sciences
They don’t really seem to fit quite right together, do they? Natural sciences are a part of the STEM ecosystem (no pun intended), and history itself is considered one of several disciplines in the humanities rather than a comparable category.
In the 21st century you’ll find that the liberal arts covers three categories instead:
- Social sciences
- Performing and fine arts
Each category contains its own set of disciplines, looking something like this:
- History (sometimes included as a social science)
- Political science
- Social sciences
- Fine and performing arts
- Poetry (often rolled into literature studies)
- Art history
The importance of liberal arts education in the 21st century
It’s popular to tell every student “be a programmer or an engineer or else you’ll be flipping burgers for the rest of your life,” but that advice is uninformed.
Organizations need skills from liberal arts majors to succeed, including technology companies. The whole point of creating an organization is to achieve a complex goal beyond the ability of a single person by capitalizing on diversity of thought and skills. Skills and view points from studying the liberal arts are an important part of that diversity, even if they’ve changed throughout history.
P.S. New research says language skills help you learn programming faster than math skills, so it’s entirely possible that you can learn new technical skills throughout life.
12 benefits of a liberal arts education today
So what do you get by studying liberal arts? Great question. I’ve already covered how the liberal arts unlock important career paths, so let’s talk about the skills you get after spending four years learning in college:
- Writing skills
- Verbal communication and public speaking skills
- Research skills
- Critical thinking skills
- Information literacy skills
- Insights into human minds and behaviors
- Teamwork skills in diverse groups
- Complex problem-solving skills
- Logic and abstract thinking skills
- Argumentation and persuasion skills
- Foundation to learn new languages
- Adaptability to workplace automation
You also benefit from things like cross-cultural knowledge and being able to deal with ambiguity (very important skills in the service-based industries).
The 7 liberal arts have come a long way since they were first introduced to the world. They’re not exactly the same anymore, but the arts of millennia past still inform what and how we learn today. Everything must adapt to new circumstances and the liberal arts are no exception. It’s also worth remembering that the foundation of the liberal arts still exist after more than 2,000 years, and they might just hold more value than the rest of the world can see.