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While the composition and purposes of the liberal arts have been matters of interest for centuries, the last 100 years have seen an extraordinary number of attempts to define the taxonomy and functionality of artes liberales in the American context, from The Seven Liberal Arts (1906), a high school teacher’s plain-spoken monograph that tracks a wearying trajectory of zigs and zags from ancient Greece onward; to Liberal Education and Home Economics, part of a mid-century Columbia University series that attempted to link the liberal arts to everything else; and into our day, with recent anxious appreciations (a powerful subgenre of the literature on liberal arts) by such eminences as Louis Menand and Andrew Delbanco.
The liberal arts idea is a Western cultural phenomenon that draws its central principles from Greece, Rome, and early Christianity. It has since shape-shifted many times under pressure from zeitgeists such as the Renaissance, the first glimpse of germs, and present-day political exigencies that seem to be moving state-appointed regents in Texas to try and recast their flagship public university as a vocational institute.
What can be agreed upon by most authorities is that while the liberal arts may have seeded in the time of Plato, they flowered in the time of Caesar, when they were viewed not as a curriculum, as they are understood today, but as a set of competencies that, according to Cicero, were “proper for a free citizen,” by which he meant men of wealth and breeding who had obligations in society and, more importantly, in political life.
Many human activities common to both the first century and the 21st (e.g., befriending, child-raising, pressing olives, suffering) can be conducted with grace and wisdom or without, but for the Roman ruling class, mastery of a mere seven realms of understanding was sufficient to meet need. The septem, as they used to say on the Via Appia, comprised grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, all of which are found in present-day liberal arts conceptions, though with some additions, subtractions, and dilations. Music, for example, has fallen out of central importance (any art will serve in the Boston College core curriculum scheme), while the social and natural sciences have pushed their way in and thoroughly overshadowed poor astronomy.
It’s not been the composition of the liberal arts that’s driven and continues to drive most of American analysis, however, but the question of their utility, as straightforwardly exampled recently in a Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed that noted “They say . . . students who study the liberal arts do not develop the skills they need to succeed in the workplace. This is an absurd and entirely unsubstantial claim.”
The ancients seem not to have thought much about the usefulness of liberal arts except as an engine of self-knowledge and civic engagement; and the pre-moderns assumed rather naturally that it was useful for a man to study Latin and Greek texts if he wanted to live the life of a noble, diplomat, ecclesiastic, physician, professor, or lawyer. But practicality is a deep American concern, and in the last century or so we have raised theories of the liberal arts as an inoculation against ills that include cynicism, decadence (particularly among college students), atheism, inflexibility, fascism, bigotry, mediocrity, conformity, careerism, Islamic terrorism, narcissism, incivility, drab lives, drab minds, dishonesty (particularly in business and following revelations of bad behavior on Wall Street), and, of course, Sputnik. (I’m being abstemious; a Web search for “value of liberal arts” points to 20.1 million trailheads.)
In 1976, the philosopher of education Thomas F. Green wrote, “I have tried, in a dozen different ways, to frame those propositions that might enter into a distinctly American view of liberal education. I am now ready to pronounce unqualifiedly that the effort has been a failure. I suspect, indeed, that there is no such thing as the American theory of liberal education.” Five years on, the Sloan Foundation published what seemed from the confident title—”The New Liberal Arts”‚—to be the answer to Green’s prayers; but then the subtitle, “An Exchange of Views,” tumbled everything into customary mystery.
Of course there are many cultural creations that are mysterious, that resist the auditor’s valuation, and yet are known to be of inestimable worth. (My own Top 10 includes marriage, samurai movies featuring the blind swordsman Zatoichi, and bourbon.) That the liberal arts—”a traditionalist curriculum made up of liberal subjects,” as one wag has noted—still stir thought, passion, speech, and (admittedly too much) ink 100 generations past Cicero’s time seems to me as strong a representation of value as I need.
Our story on the utilitarian purposes of Boston College’s new liberal arts building begins here.
Read more by Ben Birnbaum