What is Liberal Arts?
For the past twenty years or so, I’ve been trying to understand this concept of “Liberal Arts.” I don’t think I fully understand it yet. And I don’t think you do, either.
One would hope that any college-educated person steeped in liberal arts institutions would have a clear idea just what those things are. But we don’t.
For example, I went to a liberal arts university: Biola University. There, I majored in Humanities and studied the “Great Books” of western civilization at the Torrey Honors Institute.
My first teaching job was to equip young minds to join the Great Conversation by reading and discussing Great Books.
Since that time, I’ve been involved in multiple schools and nonprofits aimed at rebuilding Western Civilization through modern education – schools that cultivate the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, restoring a love of transcendent goodness, truth, beauty, harmony, justice, and fidelity.
For the past seven years, I’ve been studying theology and philosophy at the graduate level – two subjects that are presumably liberal arts or closely related.
And yet despite this exposure and reflection on the topic of liberal arts, I’m still not certain that I (or anyone else) really knows what these things are.
Sure, people use the term. But do they have more than a vague idea of its reference?
When a college labels itself as a “Liberal Arts” institution (as opposed to a “research” institution), they might mean no more by that than that they value a smattering of different subjects.
Liberal arts often stands for “general” knowledge as opposed to specialized knowledge; or humanities as opposed to STEM; or abstract, genteel, white-collar subjects as opposed to concrete, blue-collar subjects.
But these vagueries are insufficient in the minds of an educator. One would expect clear answers to fundamental questions such as: how many liberal arts are there? What distinguishes them from other arts? Where did they begin and how did they evolve, if they evolved at all? Is mathematics a liberal art? How about physics? If “grammar” is a traditional liberal art, then why don’t liberal arts schools teach grammar?
It’s All About the Fundamentals
My football coach used to say, It’s all about fundamentals.” Today, sport commentators in the National Football League say the same thing just about every week.
In education, it’s all about the fundamentals: What is education? What is its true nature and purpose? What methods or strategies are universal and what methods are particular to the group of students toward which they are aimed?
Our Goal is to Restore
My goal in this first part of the series is to suggest that we don’t very well know the fundamentals.
In later parts, I want to offer a brief answer to the question of what liberal arts are and why they matter.
At the Chesterton School of Liberal Arts, we don’t just aim to provide a rigorous education; we aim to bring inspiring faculty into contact with young minds. We strive to restore education to its classical roots.
Did you go to a “liberal arts” school? Did they teach you what liberal arts are? Or did they just offer a smattering of knowledge from the humanities and sciences?
Keith Buhler (PhD, University of Kentucky) is Chief Academic Advisor for the Chesterton School of Liberal Arts. He also teaches philosophy at another Southern California classical school and has authored two books on philosophy and theology.