What Does “Liberal Arts” Mean?: Evaluating Eastern’s identity requires answering this question.

Is Eastern a liberal arts college? If we want to know the answer, we must know something about what “liberal arts” means.

It was the early Medievals who canonized the liberal arts. The premise was that activities are internally ordered towards some goal. The “fine arts”, painting, drama, dance, music, etc., are ordered towards the making or performing of beautiful things. The “useful arts”, carpentry, engineering, law, nursing, etc., are ordered towards meeting some inescapable need of human society.

The “liberal arts” are those which aim at libera, Latin for freedom. But this is not merely freedom from outside interference, in the way we think of political freedom; if it is a freedom from anything, it is from vice, from the chaos of a disordered soul. Primarily it is a freedom for something; the pianist is only truly free to play Mozart once she has ordered her mind and fingers by practice. By practicing the liberal arts, the human becomes free to think, to pursue truth for its own sake.

It is not a question of what “subjects” one studies. It is a question of what arts one acquires. The liberal arts begin with these three: Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric. Grammar teaches us where words come from and how they are ordered. Logic teaches us to argue, to use words sensibly. Rhetoric teaches us to organize words so as to be pleasing and persuasive.

This may seem dull; after all, who wants to study grammar? And yet, for a human to be free, he must master language. Frederick Douglass writes that it was only when he learned to read that he became aware of the wretchedness of his slavery and sought to escape it. Once he had tasted the freedom which came with the ability to read, he says, “I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast… Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking!” Plato agrees. It is unpleasant to be dragged out of the cave, filled with only shadows, into the light of truth. And yet this is the beginning of freedom.

Is Eastern a liberal arts college? What is at stake in this question is far more than institutional identity, marketing strategies or the variety of course offerings. An ancient ideal is at stake, one which marks the connection between truth and freedom.

Sources: Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, ch. 7.


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