What Is a Liberal Arts Education?
Education for Freedom, Not for Slavery!
The classical liberal arts are a set of seven subjects that were highly valued by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The three verbal arts made up the Trivium, which simply meant three courses:
- Grammar (the study of sentences)
- Logic (the study of arguments)
- Rhetoric (the art of persuasion)
There were also four arts of number, space, and time. They were called the Quadrivium, which meant four courses:
- Mathematics (the art of number)
- Geometry (the art of number and space)
- Music (the art of number and time)
- Astronomy (the art of number, space, and time)
In this video, I explain what these studies are, and how they help you become wise and reasonable:
The liberal arts curriculum was developed in ancient Athens. The Athenians felt that this curriculum gave students a well-rounded education. Their term for “well-rounded education” gave rise to our term encyclopaedia. These seven subjects help students learn to think rationally and express themselves reasonably and persuasively. The ancient Athenians felt that this kind of education strengthened their political system, which was called democracy.
No king in the ancient Greek world was rich enough to afford a standing army. A man such as Pericles who hoped to gain power in a city-state such as Athens had to gain the support of the men of military age. As a result, many political decisions were made through a process of public discussions. Later on, the Athenian well-rounded education became popular in Rome, especially during the time of the Roman Republic, when much of the political power was in the hands of elected officials, as opposed to hereditary kings.
As the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca explained, the Romans called these studies the liberal arts because they considered them to be appropriate for free men, as opposed to slaves. In ancient Rome, the liberal arts were reserved for the sons of aristocrats, to prepare them for a career in the Senate. Slaves were taught nothing but the servile arts, to make them better servants. The common people learned the mechanical arts (baking and weaving and so on), to make them more productive as workers. The servile and mechanical arts can be called the practical arts.
Unless you can somehow survive on the fruits of other people’s labor, you need some sort of training in the practical arts if you want to make a living. So there’s nothing wrong with learning or teaching the practical arts. But if we want to live in a democracy, we also need working people to have a solid grounding in the liberal arts. Unfortunately, the studies for free people are being suppressed in the public schools of the Land of the Free. Members of the educational establishment have worked hard to persuade English teachers that grammar lessons do more harm than good. Yet without a good grasp of grammar, students cannot even begin to study logic. Without an understanding of the basic principles of logic, they will not know how to make reasonable arguments. Our political discussions have become ugly and unproductive because so few of us have had any real training in the liberal arts, starting with grammar.
There are many ways to prevent people from learning the liberal arts. The most obvious approach is just to deprive them of education of any kind. The sneakiest way is to train and even force teachers to use teaching methods that do not work.
For the past hundred years, many of our public school teachers have been forced to use a method of reading instruction that does not work. As a result, millions of Americans are functionally illiterate. When the parents complain that their children are not learning to read, they are told at first that the child isn’t “ready” to read. Eventually, they are told that the child has a mysterious brain disease whose only symptom is that the child is not learning to read. Yet in nearly all cases, the problem is not in the child’s brain or the child’s family. The problem is in the school. In Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free, I explained how this problem started, and how you can solve it.
Photo by leighblackall