What are the Liberal Arts?
If you’ve been around homeschooling or Catholic education for any length of time, you’ve probably come across the term “liberal arts.” I remember hearing about the liberal arts almost as soon as I dove into Catholic homeschooling over twenty years ago. it was a common idea in writing and discussion about curricula. There was always lots of chatter on the merits of liberal arts, how to structure a liberal arts program, resources for the liberal arts, etc. It was a pretty central idea to Catholic homeschooling and remains so to this day.
The only problem was… I had no idea what it meant!
It was one of those situations where everybody around me seemed to grasp the concept, and I didn’t want to look dumb. So I nodded and listened, hoping to pick it up by context. And I did pick up bits and pieces. For example, I gathered that there was a greater focus on literature, that it was sometimes called “classical education,” and that there seemed to be a particular “canon” of subjects that encapsulated core concepts. But what finally opened my eyes to truly grasp the big picture was reading the book A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning by Fr. James Schall, S.J. This book helped pull together everything I had picked up over the years to get a comprehensive understanding of what it means to be educated in the liberal arts.
Now, I can’t believe I was the only parent out there nodding and pretending to understand the liberal arts when I was actually clueless! If you are hazy about what a liberal arts education means, this article will clarify things for you!
What is “Liberal” About the Liberal Arts?
Let’s start with the basics. What does “liberal” mean?
The word liberal can be confusing, as people associate it with political beliefs. However, when talking about the liberal arts, we need to go back to a more fundamental meaning. Liberal comes from the Latin word liber, which means “free” (this is the root of English words such as liberty, libertine, and liberate). So, the liberal arts are the free arts. But in what sense are they free?
The liberal arts are free in a twofold sense:
First, they are free because they were considered the ideal course of study for free men. In the context of ancient Rome, manual labor was done by slaves, wage workers, and craftsmen, all of whom were typically “bound” in some way to either a master (if a slave) or a wealthy patron. By contrast, the free gentleman was the man who had the leisure time to devote himself to a course of study more delightful, geared towards intellectual enrichment and personal growth. So, only free men had the leisure to pursue this kind of study.
Second, because the course of study was not ordered toward physical work, it was considered “free” from utilitarian ends. Skills like farming, carpentry, or manual labor are all ordered towards physical productivity for the purpose of making a living. But the liberal arts are free from pecuniary concerns; they exist not to help us make a living but to live better.
What is the Core of a Liberal Arts Curriculum?
The “free” nature of the liberal arts appeals to many today because of the way popular education has become about training children to make money, forming them into cogs in the corporate machine. Liberal arts thus attract people who yearn for a more holistic approach to education, where the focus is more on personal development.
What, then, constitutes the core of a liberal arts curriculum?
What constitutes the liberal arts has changed over time. Still, in general, the liberal arts are those subjects identified as the humanities. They are the courses that pertain to human society and cultural expression, including the fundamental questions people have asked about their existence. Today, this generally includes literature, music, languages, history, and philosophy. It can be contrasted to a STEM-focused curriculum, which is oriented around the hard sciences. A liberal arts education is focused on the “big ideas” of human history as expressed in art, literature, philosophy, and religion.
Keep in mind that liberal arts is a big tent that has historically accommodated various disciplines. For example, the Medievals included arithmetic and astronomy among the liberal arts, while the Greeks did not. The medieval liberal arts curriculum was centered around seven courses subdivided into two groups called the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy, and Music). By the 1800s, however, liberal arts had expanded to include the study of history and literature, while astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry were no longer considered part of the humanities, having been relegated to the hard sciences. So, there is no canonical “list” of required subjects.
Furthermore, within Catholic circles, a liberal arts education will be further focused on those aspects of human creativity that are consonant with a Catholic worldview. This is why you frequently find Catholic literary classics like Augustine, Dante, and Chaucer as core texts in a liberal arts curriculum.
What is the Value of a Liberal Arts Education??
If the liberal arts aren’t ordered towards the job market, what is their value?
The benefit of studying the liberal arts is that they teach us how to think. Or, to put it another way, the purpose of a liberal education is to form the intellect—not to do this particular task or train for that specific career, but to be a well-rounded human being, reflective and endowed with critical thinking skills. It is essentially a course of study in human nature, with all its promise and tragedy.
Obviously, this is helpful for students planning to study the humanities at the collegiate level or who hope to teach them down the road (as a history teacher, I draw on the liberal arts every day). But on a more fundamental level, the liberal arts serve as an excellent foundation for any future study because they equip students with the essential intellectual abilities necessary for success. This is why the liberal arts are so prevalent in Catholic homeschooling, as they offer students the best academic tradition of the Christian West in a comprehensive curriculum that forms the mind while nurturing the soul. They are tried and true, having formed generations of great thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas to Tolkien.
A liberal arts curriculum is flexible enough to allow for variations or emphases depending on interest (e.g., a student interested in languages can lean heavily into Greek and Latin, while a student interested in literature can focus more on the classics).
Homeschool Connections offers several courses that can form the core of a liberal arts curriculum. With multiple options in Greek, Latin, history, literature, and philosophy, we can help you build a liberal arts program to suit your family’s needs.
What are your thoughts on the liberal arts? What questions do you have about Catholic homeschooling? You can connect with me and other homeschool parents by joining our Homeschool Connections Community or our Facebook group today.
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