This article, an excerpt from Microsoft Encarta © (encyclopaedia), will probably provide you some – if not all – information on liberal arts education.

“Liberal Arts” is a term often used to refer to unspecialized and non-scientific courses of study pursued by undergraduate students at a college or university. The term “liberal arts” can also refer more broadly to all undergraduate studies in the arts and sciences, which include such subjects as literature, history, and political science. Liberal arts studies generally are distinguished from prevocational or pre-professional studies, which more directly prepare a student for specific kinds of employment. Examples of prevocational and pre-professional studies include programs in the health sciences, engineering, architecture, and computer programming. Prevocational or pre-professional courses of study constitute an increasing majority of higher education programs worldwide. In the United States, less than a third of all college students graduate with bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts subjects. Nonetheless, liberal arts education still has passionate advocates. Defenders of the liberal arts claim that a broad-based, non-specialized education prepares young people for the variety of experiences and occupations they can expect to pursue over the course of a lifetime.

Liberal arts education traces its roots to ancient Greece. In the Academy, an informal school established about 387 BC by the Greek philosopher Plato, education was based on principles of philosophy. Plato’s educational ideal advocated the pursuit of knowledge and understanding through scientific discovery, critical originality, and the overthrow of accepted assumptions. In contrast to Plato’s philosophical model of education, a school founded about the same time by Isocrates, a Greek orator, advocated a predominantly literary ideal. Isocrates’s goal was to form intellectual elite of skilled orators who would be capable of providing political leadership. He based his educational method on teaching the students moral virtue, powers of judgment, and the ability to make prudent decisions in public life. The curriculum at Isocrates’s school was grounded in the study of the Iliad and the Odyssey, famous epics by the Greek poet Homer.

In European schools during the Middle Ages, educators combined these rival educational ideals in a liberal arts curriculum consisting of grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry. These subjects comprised the so-called seven liberal arts curriculum. A version of this curriculum was later incorporated in the curriculum of the medieval universities and survived into the Renaissance, a period of profound interest in the arts that lasted from the 14th to the 16th and 17th centuries. The seven liberal arts also served as the curriculum of colleges in colonial America during the 17th and 18th centuries. The dominant emphasis in the institutions of higher education in early modern Europe and North America was literary in nature rather than philosophical or scientific. During the 18th and 19th centuries, technological advances such as the development of the steam locomotive and the invention of the cotton gin, led to the Industrial Revolution. Education in Europe and North America gradually came to reflect the transition from an agrarian society to a modern industrial society by shifting away from a predominantly literary emphasis toward a model based more on the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

A building at Bard College, a liberal arts school in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

A building at Bard College, a liberal arts school in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

Today, North American colleges and universities offer undergraduate courses of study that reflect a complex mixture of educational objectives. In many respects, modern liberal arts programs retain Plato’s emphasis on the pursuit of critical originality and the advancement of knowledge. This educational ideal draws much of its inspiration from scientific advances pioneered at universities emphasizing advanced research. At the same time, North American colleges and universities demonstrate Isocrates’s concerns for the development of moral and intellectual excellence through literary and rhetorical studies. This educational philosophy is championed especially by contemporary proponents of an undergraduate curriculum centred on the study of classical texts of Western civilization. Advocates of the scientific model of education and advocates of the literary and rhetorical model both agree that a liberal arts education should span a broad range of academic fields. Educators at many colleges and universities have increasingly expanded this range to include the study of non-Western texts and cultures.