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Liberal arts colleges provide education based in philosophy and courses that date back to the origin of higher education in Europe in the Middle Ages, when the early universities divided types of study into the “artes mechanicae” (mechanical arts) and “artes liberales” (liberal arts). According to Syracuse University dean Gerald Greenberg, writing in the  Washington Post , mechanical arts included practical skills such as cooking, masonry, metallurgy, and even weaving, which is one reason why a “basketweaving” course wouldn’t be provided by a liberal arts college. Specific liberal arts of the Middle Ages were music, geometry, arithmetic (math), astronomy, and grammar, rhetoric and logic. Today’s liberal arts colleges offer majors and courses that have their roots in the medieval “artes liberales” categories and philosophy of education that has been inspired by the original European and British universities.

The Role of the Trivium and Quadrivium

Nearly all contemporary liberal arts colleges include departments and educational divisions that are organized similarly to the medieval “liberal arts” identified by Syracuse dean Gerald Greenberg. Just as today, we recognize that music has a relationship to mathematics, the medieval quadrivium of four areas of study included music, geometry, arithmetic and astronomy. Liberal arts colleges today frequently have math, music, and astronomy and physics departments. The trivium includes grammar, rhetoric, and logic, which are echoed in today’s liberal arts college departments and divisions of philosophy, history, political science, and English, literature, writing, and speech.

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Liberal Refers to Academics, Not Politics

Some people believe that “liberal arts colleges” are politically liberal, but the academic term liberal refers to intellectual freedom, not an opposition to political “conservatism.” When it is used in conjunction with a college education, “liberal” means “liberated” as in free from strict educational guidelines or limited areas of study. Liberal arts curriculum today encompasses a college education that includes the humanities, social sciences, physical science, natural history, mathematics, and performance arts.  Harvard University’s Liberal Arts  program offers courses in the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences, and students are asked to learn to think critically and express their thoughts in reading and writing.

College Size and Lifestyle

Liberal arts colleges enroll fewer students than universities, especially large public universities or state colleges. Liberal arts students also typically live on campus in dorms. Students are also expected to devote most of their time to academic studies and to participate actively in campus government and social or athletic activities. Most colleges offering liberal arts education require students to take general education or core humanities courses which offer the “liberal” idea of academic education and intellectual growth outside of a specific major or discipline. A physics major at a liberal arts school will be asked to take humanities courses and study music, for example, while an art major could be asked to take some science courses to broaden their knowledge and learning.

The term “liberal arts” doesn’t refer only to studies of the arts, such as music, painting, or theater, and it can also include the sciences, such as physics. With its roots in the Middle Ages, the idea of liberal arts began in efforts to educate students to become good citizens and to understand many different aspects of life, from business to diplomacy and warfare.

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