Fareed Zakaria, a columnist for The Washington Post and host of “Fareed Zakaria GPS” on CNN, has a new book out titled “In Defense of a Liberal Education.” In a piece about his book published in The Post, he wrote:

If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities. From President Obama on down, public officials have cautioned against pursuing degrees like art history, which are seen as expensive luxuries in today’s world. Republicans want to go several steps further and defund these kinds of majors. “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” asked Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott. “I don’t think so.” America’s last bipartisan cause is this: A liberal education is irrelevant, and technical training is the new path forward. It is the only way, we are told, to ensure that Americans survive in an age defined by technology and shaped by global competition. The stakes could not be higher.
This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future.

What is the liberal education that Zakaria is talking about? As it turns out, many people don’t understand what a liberal education actually is. This post will explain it. It was written by  Gerald Greenberg, senior associate dean of  academic affairs; humanities; curriculum, instruction, and programs in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University. Greenberg is a linguistics expert who teaches courses in Russian and whose interests include Russian and Slavic linguistics as well as syntactic theory. He has published many articles and essays on a variety of topics, including areas such as stress placement, the syntax of various non-finite constructions, case marking, and language change.

By Gerald Greenberg

ARTS, SCIENCES, EDUCATION: They all liberate, are liberating, are LIBERAL.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the value of the liberal arts recently, but there is a much longer history of concern and debate about the liberal arts and liberal education that can be found in many sources.[1]  Frequently these discussions become confused and unfocused. One reason is that it is difficult to explain what the liberal arts ARE, but another is because there is confusion about what the term liberal arts MEANS. I addressed the former in my post found in the Answer Sheet on January 7th, 2015; I address the latter in this post today.

Why is there such confusion about the meaning of the term LIBERAL ARTS? Different people have a different understanding of what the term means, so confusion arises when someone communicates with someone who does not share her or his understanding of the term.

In America today the word arts in isolation is typically associated with The Arts, the fine arts and the performing arts, as in the fields of painting, music, theater, dance, and so on. But arts comes from the Latin root ars, art- meaning “art, skill.” This is where artifact and artificial come from: something made by human skill/art.

During the Middle Ages there were areas of study referred to as the artes mechanicae “the mechanical arts” and areas of study known as theartes liberales “the liberal arts.”[ii] The former included seven areas which might include fields such as weaving, agriculture, masonry, warfare, trade, cooking, metallurgy[iii] and the latter included music, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy (referred to as the quadrivium), and grammar, rhetoric, and logic (referred to as the trivium).

The concept of fine arts and performing arts as coherent fields understood as The Arts is a later development. This leaves us with three different groupings of arts: artes mechanicae (mechanical or servile arts), artes liberales (liberal arts), and The Arts (fine and performing arts). In other words: arts in the phrases liberal arts or liberal arts education does not mean ART.

In America today liberal more often than not brings to mind the meaning opposite to conservative, particularly in the political sense of liberals versus conservatives. But the liberal in liberal arts and liberal education does not stand in contrast to conservative. Rather, it derives from the Latin liberalis, associated with the meaning of freedom. Liberal, not as opposed to conservative, but as free, in contrast to imprisoned, subjugated, or incarcerated. Free citizens studied the trivium and quadrivium as part of their liberal education, as these skills were considered the ones that would enable them to function successfully as free citizens in society.

These liberal skills were also free in the sense that they were not tied or constrained to skills used for the purpose of production of artifacts as in the case of the servile arts. Thus, the word liberal in liberal arts and liberal education does not refer to the opposite of conservative; it refers to free, the opposite of constrained and subjugated, an education for free citizens.

It’s no wonder there is so much confusion about the phrases liberal arts and liberal education. In addition, the use of the word sciences appears in the phrase arts and sciences! Different variations of these phrases can be found throughout today’s discussions: the liberal arts, the liberal arts and sciences, a liberal education, a liberal arts education, and a liberal arts and sciences education. Each time one is used it has the potential to mean different things to different people.

The phrase liberal arts today does not refer to The Arts, or even the humanities; it is a broader concept. In fact, in phrases like liberal arts core, or liberal arts education, the word arts is meant to encompass the humanities, and the social sciences, and the natural and physical sciences, including mathematics. The phrase liberal education does not refer to a curriculum that contrasts with a conservative education; it refers to a curriculum designed to provide students with the knowledge and abilities to become successful, productive members of a free society. It provides them the opportunity to practice free-thinking. (Remember, liberal as in free, as opposed to constrained or subjugated.) It teaches them how to think critically, communicate clearly, analyze and solve complex problems, appreciate others, understand the physical world, and be prepared to learn continuously so they can work with others and on their own to meet the challenges of the future.

While a single post can’t create a universal understanding or use of these phrases, it can identify the potential for confusing them and promote careful consideration for those who use or encounter them. While the term liberal arts and sciences might be the most explicit version in the group, it probably appears less frequently than liberal education and liberal arts.

And, since they are all used, and sometimes understood to mean different things, it is important to remember that regardless of which phrase is used: liberal arts and sciences education, liberal arts education, or liberal educationThey all refer to the same concept!

Thanks to my colleague, Kandice Salomone, for helping me to clarify some of my thoughts for this post.

[i] Two good sources in this regard are Bruce Kimball’s Orators & Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education. New York: College Entrance Examination Board (1995) and Michael Roth’s Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. Yale University Press (2014).

[ii] See Kimball’s Orators & Philosophers for a more complete history of the uses and meanings of this term.

[iii] There are other characterizations of artes mechanicae that include fields such as medicine, shoemaking, armaments, commerce, tailoring, architecture, metalwork, alchemy, navigation.