A Liberal Arts Education - Part 1

March 19th, 2021


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In William Goldman’s fabulous work, *The Princess Bride*, Vizzini repeatedly expresses his disbelief by saying, “Inconceivable!”

To which Inigo Montoya, eventually replies, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

If I were to assert that a liberal arts education is where the path to a free and happy life begins, some may find themselves responding like Vizzini, thinking such a claim is inconceivable!

Or perhaps you would find yourself thinking similarly to one educator who upon first hearing the expression, liberal arts education, explained that his mind locked immediately on an unfortunate image: ‘liberal’ as opposed to conservative, ‘arts’ as a euphemism for joblessness, and ‘education’ as a hoop-jumping, time-passing exercise that consumes the first quarter of a person’s life.”

In this post, I want to explain the meaning of a classical liberal arts education and show its importance and benefits, namely that it has the potential to cultivate a wise and virtuous people whose resultant happiness produces a free and flourishing society.

In a follow up post, I’ll demonstrate how to obtain a liberal arts education.

Before I set out to persuade you of my thesis, I would like to start by debunking what is probably the most common objections to pursuing a liberal arts education.

The first reason many find the pursuit of a liberal arts education inconceivable is because the meaning is somewhat ambiguous and even sometimes negative. You know, “gen eds” (as they are often called), those bothersome, but necessary, preliminary classes a student has to take to get on with the “important” courses.

The second reason, and related to the first, is because attaining a liberal arts education is not utilitarian. In other words, a liberal arts education doesn’t train a person to get a job. That’s why they are considered bothersome but necessary.

And third objection is the natural end of the first two: if a liberal arts education is not directly going to help someone get a job, then the expense is not seen as a worthy investment.

But here's the rub: show me a culture where education is directed toward job training and I’ll show you a culture whose god is greed and its people slaves to corporations, government, and vice. Sound familiar?

Show me a culture where human flourishing is the chief end of education and I’ll show you people who found nations, write epic poetry, explore space, give their life to missionary work, and in large, improve human existence.

So let’s get started by defining a liberal arts education, first etymologically, then experientially.

The word art is derived from the Greek word, τέχνη (technē), meaning craft or trade. Art implies the possession of a certain skill set—either endowed by nature, attained by practice, and usually both. While “craft” and “trade” are accurate definitions of art in the classical sense, they are inadequate to qualify our meaning without employing the adjective liberal.

The word liberal, which is derived from the Latin root libere, means freely; and more specifically the Latin adjective līberālis means freedom, of free citizens, gentlemanly, honourable, generous, liberal, handsome. As can be seen from the etymology of the adjective, liberal refers to that which pertains to freedom, like a free person, or a free society.

In his book, The Life of the Mind, James Schall aptly points out that “Certain disciplines, particularly what is known from Aristotle as ‘metaphysics,’ are called freeing subjects. Such ‘liberal’ discipline is undertaken ‘for its own sake,’ that is, the purpose of the knowledge gained is not to ‘do’ anything with it. Just to ‘know’ something is itself a pleasure” To say it another way, liberal refers to the kind of knowledge that liberates the soul of those who find pleasure in knowing for its own sake.

The word education is nearly as misunderstood as the word liberal because it is too often associated with job training. The English word comes from the Latin, educere. Schall points out that, “The word educere means to bring forth, or to complete something already begun by the very fact that one is a human being.” In platonic terms, education is the experience of being led out of, or delivered from, the cave of images so one is able to see reality by the light of the sun and order his soul with virtue.

Moreover, education is not only being able to see and explain what is real, “but also [to be able to] explain the false views [and] to know “what it is to be unintelligent and vicious.” In other words, to know both what is and what is not is “a considerable part of being intelligent and virtuous.” Education, then, is not job training, but the knowing of truth to the end that it brings forth wisdom and cultivates virtue within the person being educated.

A general definition of a liberal arts education can be stated as the pursuit and acquisition of that knowledge which is pleasurable for its own sake, and which frees the mind and prepares the soul to be wise and virtuous.

Next, Let me now explain the importance and benefits of a liberal arts education, namely how it has historically and consistently demonstrated its potential to cultivate a wise and virtuous people whose resultant happiness produces a free and flourishing society.

In the fifth century B.C., Aristotle wrote, “It is evident, then, that there is a sort of education in which parents should train their sons, not as being useful or necessary, but because it is liberal or noble.”

Three hundred years later, in the second century B.C., Cicero affirms the same, saying, “Yet I do at the same time assert that when to a lofty and brilliant character is applied the moulding influence of abstract studies (liberal arts), the result is often inscrutably and unapproachably noble.”

Seneca, writing at the time of Christ, in the first century A.D., affirms: “Why then do we educate our children in the liberal studies? It is not because they can bestow virtue, but because they prepare the soul for the reception of virtue.”

Basil the Great, writing and teaching in the fourth century A.D., also puts his stamp of approval on such education, likening the Christian’s pursuit of it to that of bees taking pollen from flowers to make their honey. He writes,

“And since it is through virtue that we must enter upon this life of ours, and since much has been uttered in praise of virtue by poets, much by historians, and much more by philosophers, we ought especially to apply ourselves to such literature. For it is no small advantage that a certain intimacy and familiarity with virtue should be engendered in the souls of the young, seeing that the lessons learned by such are likely, in the nature of the case, to be indelible, having been deeply impressed in them by reason of the tenderness of their souls.

Hugh of St. Victor, writing in the twelfth century A.D., believed that a liberal arts education was the kind of education that freed men from even needing a teacher.

He wrote,

“The ancients, in their studies, especially selected seven [liberal arts] to be mastered by those who were to be educated. These seven they considered so to excel all the rest in usefulness that anyone who had been thoroughly schooled in them might afterward come to a knowledge of the others by his own inquiry and effort rather than by listening to a teacher.”

In the 17th century, Giambattista Vico lamented to his peers that “the greatest drawback of our educational methods is that we pay an excessive amount of attention to the natural sciences and not enough to ethics… as a consequence of this neglect, a noble and important branch of studies, i.e., the science of politics, lies almost abandoned and untended.”

He also stated, “Among the Ancients, the teaching of rational, physical, and ethical doctrines was entrusted to philosophers who took good care to adjust those doctrines to the practical common sense that should govern human behavior.”

Elsewhere, he writes about the true goals of education, asserting, “He who in these [liberal] studies is not seeking wisdom, that is, who does not cultivate these studies in order to improve his character and inform his mind with truth, his spirit with virtue, and his speech with eloquence so that he becomes constant with himself as a man and, as much as possible, able to help human society, is often other than what he professes to be.”

One way to summarize what all these quotations means is The liberal arts were never about job training; rather, they were about “the initiation of a pupil into the world of human achievement” to the end that the pupil might be wise.