• Ellen

History of liberal arts

If you haven't already read my blog what is a liberal arts degree I would suggest reading that first. The liberal arts have been around for an extremely long time going back as far as the ancient Greeks. Yet the core principles are still very much the same even if the content has adapted to the times. At the heart of my liberal arts degree and the vast majority is the aim to build what is called "global citizens". In the simplest explanation this means having the skills to function well in society. However that is more to being a global citizen that simply being a part of society.


It is about looking at problems with a world view, how will it effect not just you, not just your town/city but how will it impact on the wider world. Is this decision the most utilitarian and is it write to use the utility of the masses to judge a situation by? (A utilitarian is a type of ethical theory based in philosophy. Which states that the most ethical action is the one that creates the most happiness for the largest majority, but it overlooks great suffering of the minority. There are other ethical theories too but all with their own flaws.) Part of being a global citizen is also about being about to think critically about problems along with developing the skills to debate effectively. (This is Oxfam's definition of a global citizen)


Back to the history of a liberal arts education! Historically a liberal arts education was split into two category's the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium was made up of grammar, logic and rhetoric, with arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy making up the quadrivium. These subjects were aimed at creating well rounded students who were global citizens. In my experience of a liberal arts degree (but all universities do things differently) our core curriculum has a strong base in philosophy and social sciences, with history, geography and creative writing built in to the curriculum. philosophy, English and sociology would cover the logic and rhetoric of liberal arts passed. I have only just finished my first year but I am aware we look at music and creative practices in our second year, which ticks off music from the historical version. On my particular degree we tend to stick to the humanities based subjects, however we do bring in some basic science concepts (our first week we a discussion about fracking) as we have shared lessons with the natural sciences class (this is a parallel version of the liberal arts but based on the sciences and not the humanities, some universities combine the two).


Although liberal arts originated in ancient Greece, there are very few European universities offering liberal arts degrees; however, in the UK the number is gradually rising. The main place that offers a liberal arts degree is the USA but these don't tend to be what would be classed as a "traditional" liberal arts education. If you fancy reading more about ancient Greek liberal arts, I would recommend reading The Republic by Plato, it can be difficult to read at times, but as he sets out his ideal world he gives an insight into what his education system would be like, which appears to based off of the trivium and quadrivium but with a few alterations. On top of this you get to read Plato's philosophical views and possibly some of Socrates we aren't sure exactly which theories are which! you are welcome to ask any questions you have about liberal arts and I will do my best to answer.

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