Standing the Test of Time: The Idea of a Liberal Arts Education

By Lindsey Liles

Amid the Roman temples and aqueducts, gladiators and emperors, another great achievement arose which is still relevant today: the idea of a liberal arts education. The word “liberal” comes from the Latin word liberalis, which means “of freedom, pertaining to or befitting a free man.” In Roman society, free men of means were entitled to pursue a liberal education: one that did not culminate in the mastery of a trade, but was meant instead to cultivate the mind through the acquisition of knowledge. It was a broad based education encompassing the humanities, sciences, mathematics, and social sciences, all with the aim of creating dutiful and virtuous citizens.

In his letter On Liberal and Vocational Studies, the Roman philosopher and author Seneca heralded a liberal education as “the study of wisdom, and that is lofty, brave, and great-souled,” even going so far as to condemn all other studies as “puny and puerile.” It was an idea concerning education that was to stand the test of time and one that would be manifested in the creation of universities. Hundreds of years later Cardinal John Henry Newman, a celebrated Victorian author, published The Idea of a University. In it Newman builds upon the thoughts of Roman philosophers like Seneca and Cicero. He professes that “knowledge is a state or condition of mind,” and that such “cultivation of mind is surely worth seeking.”

In The Idea of a University, Newman justifies the need for a range of disciplines to be offered to the students of a university. He believed that the many subjects “have multiplied bearings one on another, and…complete, correct, [and] balance each other.” Newman warned that if a student’s reading is confined simply to one subject, “such division of labour may favour the advancement of a particular pursuit.” Such exclusive learning, he observed, “has a tendency to contract his mind.” If, however, a university is successful in its broad offerings of subjects, the student will, according to Newman, “apprehend the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them.” Newman concluded his case by declaring: “hence it is that his education is called Liberal.”  If the object of a university is achieved, in its students “a habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom” – the cultivation of these qualities of mind, Newman argued, was the purpose of higher education.

Since the time of the Roman Empire, and since the time of John Henry Newman, the world has changed and developed beyond the wildest imaginations of these earlier eras. One thing, however, has remained constant: the belief that a liberal arts education provides the surest and most true path to the attainment of knowledge. And better yet, no longer is a liberal education restricted to men and the upper rungs of society. Now, it is available to everyone. Universities all over the world produce the “pure and clear atmosphere of thought” that Newman advocated, thereby producing students with “cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, and a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life.” 

Lindsey Liles is a senior English and Biology major at Sewanee: The University of the South. Sewanee is home to the Beta of Tennessee Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.