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Why are the Liberal Arts Important?

November 18, 2007

[Alessandro Botticelli -- A Young Man being introduced to the Liberal Arts]

I was getting my hot water tank replaced a few days ago and the plumbers asked me what I thought about UNBSJ and Shawn Graham’s plans for a polytechnic. Conversation moved around to “why teach the liberal arts at all?” and I had to provide them a satisfactory answer, so I gave it the old university try. What follows is the substance of that answer and, by the end of our discussion, they readily agreed that the liberal arts were pretty important after all, despite what the PSE report suggested.

Faculty members need not read this; you know it already.

The liberal arts are important because their aim is to impart knowledge and to develop the intellect and the habits of reasoning rather than just training a person to perform tasks of a technical or vocational nature. The liberal arts help to teach you to think about the meaning of your actions rather than blundering blindly through life, relying on others to think for you, or just tell you what to do.

The idea of the liberal arts comes from antiquity when a particular group of subjects, the artes liberales, were considered essential elements for the proper education of a free person. These subjects were separate and distinct from the artes illiberales, or vocational apprenticeships which were the lot of the bondsman or slave. The notion of free participation within ancient Greek democracy is inextricably linked to the idea of the liberal arts.

With the arrival of the idea of the university in medieval Western Europe came the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. In this environment the concept of the liberal arts was still strongly associated with the idea of free participation in society. Grammar, logic and rhetoric were indispensable instruments of freedom of expression and for advancement within society, then associated with a career in the church. With the growth of parliaments they became equally indispensable for a political career, and for community leadership either in or out of politics. Men’s words and the way they were delivered meant much more, for men were expected to speak for themselves, often in long extemporaneous orations rather than in pale sound bites on the six o’clock news. Logic, geometry, arithmetic and astronomy advanced society’s understanding of the natural world. From their practical application have arisen chemistry, physics, biology, botany, geology and other physical and life sciences, thus expanding the scope of the liberal arts. All of this was brought about because inquiring minds, trained in the liberal arts, dared to advance the frontiers of human knowledge.

In the modern era, the curricula of colleges and universities include, among other things, the study of literature, languages, philosophy, mathematics, the physical sciences and the social sciences. Sometimes, to make things more clear to the observer, these subjects are referred to as the “Liberal Arts and Sciences.” This is a collective term which is intended to be understood as the “Liberal Arts and Liberal Sciences,” not misunderstood as the “Liberal Arts” and “the Sciences.” Offerings such as philosophy, ethics, history, political science, psychology and sociology are not a “load of rubbish” as portrayed by some who may have had neither experience with them nor understanding of them. These are the disciplines which teach the essentials by which we define our civil society. Habits of logical and critical thinking, and clear communication instilled by a liberal arts education, have made Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science the degrees preferred by major Canadian and US corporations seeking new hirings.

The liberal arts are properly situated within a university. A university was “universitas magistrorum et scholarium” — a “community of teachers and scholars”. Many of the universities within medieval Western Europe were formed under the auspices and protection of papal charters. In the Americas early English-language universities came into being by means of royal charters. In either circumstance the university was usually granted, and ensured, a degree of freedom from the civil authorities surrounding them. Universities were places of learning and places of refuge from the political interference of those who did not understand such institutions and might seek to seize their assets for pecuniary advantage. Our own university exists as a community of professors and students, past and present. Many of the original protections intended for our university have been eroded by the passage of time and have been left vulnerable to the depredations of those whose intellectual horizons are foreshortened. We have fought similar battles before, and we have won. Now is not the time to fold in the face of a new assault.

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2 Comments
  1. November 20, 2007 6:42 pm

    This is an excellent short answer; and it’s
    a fine call to rally to the defense of all a
    university is meant to be. Thanks. Greg

  2. Matt Nathan permalink
    December 14, 2008 10:58 pm

    Agreed…

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