What is a Liberal Arts Education?

What is a Liberal Arts Education?
Posted on 01/15/2024
Liberal arts wheel illustration“The goal of Thomas MacLaren School is to develop young men and women who are fully human and fully awake to the world.” – Mission Statement, Thomas MacLaren School

Reading our mission statement, one might observe that it says nothing whatsoever about getting into a great college, having a successful career, or getting high test scores. Of course we are happy for our students to have those experiences, but we believe that humans ultimately desire more—are meant for more—than these exterior goods. 

What type of education, then, can take us beyond such utilitarian, external goods and help us to develop our full human potential? 

Our conviction is that what is called “a liberal arts education” is best suited to this end. Although this term is familiar to most, and we have all certainly heard the words “liberal” and “arts” used in various contexts, the specific weight that they carry here is of great meaning to us in our work at MacLaren.

Our Latin students know that the word “liberal” comes from the Latin word liberalis. Specifically, it has to do with being a “free” person (that is, one who is not enslaved). Historically, a free person is someone who has the ability to learn both for the sake of learning, in a leisurely way, and for the sake of the community in which they are expected to play an important role. 

The word “art,” which comes from the Latin word ars, is not restricted to art as in a painting or poem or sonata. In fact, that meaning developed much later. The word can more flexibly be understood as “a skill specific to a purpose.”

Taken together, the “liberal arts” are something like “skills that are fitting to the purpose of freedom and human dignity.” And a liberal arts education is one that aims at providing us with those skills.

When we are talking about developing skills, we might be talking about something very specific – solving a quadratic equation, writing a well-crafted essay, playing an intricate piece of music flawlessly – but, crucially, all of these individual skills are worth developing only insofar as they continue to free us to be fully human, fully awake and alive.

One frequent misunderstanding of the liberal arts is that we are only talking about the humanities – literature, philosophy, and history. But the definition above makes clear that the liberal arts are absolutely not restricted to any specific disciplines. What differentiates a liberal arts education from any other is the final goal, not simply the content.

This medieval illustration of the artes liberales  helps us to understand this difference. This image—which was reconstructed from an illuminated encyclopedia called Hortus deliciarum—depicts the wheel of the liberal arts.
   Liberal arts wheel
Herrad, Hortus deliciarum, ed. Rosalie Green et al (London: Warburg Institute, 1979), vol 2, fol. 32r, pl. 9.

Above each one of the arches can be seen the name of one of the seven subjects that together constituted a liberal arts education as it was originally conceived: Dialectic, Rhetoric, Grammar, Astronomy, Music, Arithmetic, and Geometry. These would have encompassed all areas of mathematical, scientific, artistic, and literary knowledge of the time. Note that art, science, writing, and math are all placed on equal footing around the central figure, none higher than her peers. Now imagine replacing these with our more modern disciplines – literature and composition, biology, algebra, and so on.

This provides an excellent visual depiction of our belief that none of these studies are superior to the other, and that, at the same time, the circle would not be complete if any were to be missing. 

Now consider that these disciplines all circle around a queen: Philosophy. 

We usually think of philosophy as a separate discipline, but this suggests that philosophy, or “a love of wisdom,” underlies all of our studies. In every class, in every lesson, we seek wisdom by continuing to refine our power of attention and learning not only how to answer questions but how to ask them. In every area of a liberal arts curriculum, we want students to be asking why and how this will help them to live the most beautiful, good, and true life possible. We want to guide them to consider how what they learn will both contribute to their own interior freedom and help them act freely in the interest of others.  

Our curriculum, then, is informed by the various areas of study traditionally known as the liberal arts, but it’s important to remember that a list of classes or studies is not the sole indicator of a liberal arts education.

In his address “Toward a General Theory of Liberal Education,” Professor Timothy Fuller of Colorado College clarifies this: “Liberal learning thus understood is not a technique or a set of courses—it is an education in imagination. It is the attempt to elicit more not fewer ways of seeing the world, but not by making everything or anything an object of formal study. It is not many things that are required but imaginative response in encountering things which are themselves a consequence of imaginative response.” 

Bringing all of this together, we understand the liberal arts to be all areas of study involving skill and labor—the sciences, humanities, and arts—that give us eyes to see and ears to hear, allowing our imagination to expand and our loves to be shaped in accordance with the reality encountered. They awaken and deepen our freedom authentically. They make us more human by liberating us from the world of utility and work and by helping us ascend to the richest and fullest experiences of life.

A MacLaren education is one that assumes that knowing more about the human heart, the physical world, and our shared human history is a good in and of itself. And, as such, it is good for all people, regardless of where they are from or what they want to do in the future. And the great news is, this type of education never stops. We can’t wait to keep learning with you. 

— Mary Faith Hall, Executive Director
— Bridget Rector, Executive Director Elect
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