Liberal Studies

Mortimer Adler on Liberal Studies

A liberal education is commonly associated with education in the liberal arts. What, then, are the liberal arts, and what is the relation of the liberal arts disciplines to one another and to higher education as a whole? Consider Mortimer Adler's response to these questions:

Let us first be clear about the meaning of the liberal arts and liberal educations. The liberal arts are traditionally intended to develop the faculties of the human mind, those powers of intelligence and imagination without which no intellectual work can be accomplished.

The liberal-arts tradition goes back to the medieval curriculum. It consisted of two parts. The first part, trivium, comprised grammar, rhetoric, and logic. It taught the arts of reading and writing, of listening and speaking, and of sound thinking. The other part, the quadrivium, consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (not audible music, but music conceived as a mathematical science). It taught the arts of observation, calculation, and measurement, how to apprehend the quantitative aspect of things. Nowadays, of course, we would add many more sciences, natural and social. . . .

The aim of liberal education, however, is not to produce scientists. It seeks to develop free human beings who know how to use their minds and are able to think for themselves. Its primary aim is not the development of professional competence, although a liberal education is indispensable for any intellectual profession. It produces citizens who can exercise their political liberty responsibly.