Liberal Arts (latin liberalis, free, and ars, art or principled practice) is not an ordinary university subject. It can make the claim to be the oldest curriculum of higher education in Western history. It goes back 2,500 years to Ancient Greece and at the time was the mark of an educated person.
By late Antiquity it was divided into two parts: the trivium " grammar, rhetoric and dialectic " which carried the pursuit of virtue in the microcosm of personal and political life, and the quadrivium " astronomy, music, mathematics and geometry " which expressed the natural laws of the macrocosm. Together they embodied Western human enquiry into the first principles of the natural universe and into the lives needed to live true to them. It was always considered to be 'education for its own sake'.
In Modern Liberal Arts we retrieve this ancient and medieval search for first principles across all subject boundaries. But we also explore modern civilizations and cultures, covering selected areas of enquiry in philosophy, the humanities, natural and social sciences, and the visual and the fine arts. Our BA Modern Liberal Arts explores ancient and modern ideas in a truly integrated way. It is a new approach to the oldest university degree in Europe.
This 12th century illustration depicts the 7 Liberal Arts circled around Philosophy.
In the Middle Ages Liberal Arts became the melting pot for Pagan, Judaic, Christian and Islamic intellectual tolerance in the centuries before the European Renaissance. But by the 14th century the spirit of Liberal Arts had been lost to the letter of the prescriptive instrumentalism of Scholastic compendia. These were opposed in the Renaissance by Petrarch and others, and a new humanistic form of Liberal Arts emerged which included the whole range of the arts.
Education for its own sake
In the 19th century Cardinal Newman defended Liberal Arts as an education that was valuable for its own sake. Some, people, he said, insist education should issue in something which can be 'weighed and measured ' because they believe everything has its price. They hold to be useless any education that does not advance our manufactures, improve our lands or the economy, or make men a lawyer, an engineer, a surgeon, or a scientist.
Famously, Newman stated that 'intellectual culture is its own end; for what has its end in itself, has its use in itself also '. This century, Rowan Williams has reminded us that 'the most difficult challenge in the Western University world today is how the university avoids being completely dominated by this external pressure to produce and to offer functional training [in favour of] the common culture of learning humanity.'
- Modern Liberal Arts retains this commitment to education as an end in and for itself. If you enjoy asking the difficult questions, reading, thinking and discussing things, if you enjoy learning for its own sake, then you are already part of the Liberal Arts tradition.