What are Liberal Arts?

Liberal Arts and Liberalism

Many Europeans, Slovaks included, often ask “What is liberal arts?” Some even wonder whether we are a school representing some kind of political party promoting ‘liberalism’. Although it is not easy to define the liberal arts, they are very different from the ideology called ‘liberalism’. Instead of a definition, let  me offer a description of this old European concept of studying.

As the expressions themselves imply, the ‘liberal arts’ and ‘liberalism’ are concerned first and foremost with liberty. But there the similarities end. The liberal arts, or the artes liberales, are those arts that make one free. In the Renaissance, they were entitled the ‘studies of the humanities’, or the studia humanitatis – not only the studies that concern humanity, but those studies that foster humanity, in particular, those qualities that demonstrate the very best of which humanity is capable, both the highest culture and the virtue of humaneness. The goal was to attain compassion for one’s fellows without condescension, refinement without elitism, and all based on a rigorous education. Historically, the liberal arts and the humanities have included grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy: that is, those arts concerned with the human mind and spirit, as opposed to those arts primarily focused on preserving our biological existence, such as economics and medicine.

Liberalism, by contrast, is founded upon the claim that every individual has the right to live a free life. Thus, each individual should not be subject to the arbitrary rule of another and must give their consent to be governed. This foundation leads to such rights as freedom of the individual, freedom of association, freedom of speech, participation in elections, etc. The liberal arts can contribute to or inspire a free society, but they are not partisan to any political party or ideology.

The Liberal Arts Today

What does liberal arts mean today? It represents the belief that education can be inspiring and fulfilling, and that learning does not occur passively, from a lecturing professor to a listening student. True teaching and learning means that professor and student – both adult individuals – familiarize themselves and analyze theories and problems together, in particular those theories and problems that concern how we interact with each other socially, politically, culturally, and so on. Some of the very best thinkers in the past have reflected upon such problems with great skill and insight. Their most pressing contribution may be in teaching us how to think with greater clarity, discernment, and judgment. Many thinkers, from Plato onwards, deal with perennial questions: how to live our lives, how to contribute to the common good, or how to avoid evil in its many forms.

There is a belief that modern technology and science – progressing at a dizzying pace – will enable us to understand and solve the pressing problems of today. This is an illusion, never clearer than now, at the beginning of the 21st century. Global problems with respect to the environment, political and religious strife, poverty, or ethnic tension will not be solved with technical gadgets, faster computers, or genetic manipulation. 

The improvement of all these issues, if not their resolution, lies to a great extent in the cultivation of the human mind and, for this, education is indispensable. It is largely this aspect that liberal arts education has in mind – some call it education for global citizenship, some education for the 21st century, others education with respect to other people. I would define liberal arts education as the education of critically minded individuals aware that great problems and big dreams need a modest, persevering, and critical mind to move towards practical goals through small steps, while not obstructing the aspirations of others.

How to achieve such a goal in today’s world of political and other turmoil? Liberal arts education is focused on society, politics, culture, and science using critical thinking and the intellectual skills needed for solving problems whose nature we might not even know yet. It is not a question of teaching certain fields and disciplines. We believe that the way a subject is taught is just as important as what is taught.

The method of teaching is simple, although very demanding both for student and teacher. Texts are analyzed, interpreted and compared – both in discussion and in writing. The evaluation of students takes place continuously, not at the end of the semester. In a small circle, with a maximum of 12 students, an individual can demonstrate and test in an open-minded and welcoming environment whether and to what extent they understand texts by Plato or Shakespeare, Arendt or Tony Judt. In such an intimate environment, a teacher can model a discussion as well as inspire and listen attentively to students. This is something that a large, even well-known university generally cannot offer for bachelor-level education. Indeed, there is very little serious education going on in an auditorium with 300 students.

Why should we place such emphasis on or invest so much energy into this education? Only in this way can a student gain the skills and knowledge necessary to develop the versatility of thought essential to addressing, in a careful, prescient, and visionary way, the problems we face.

Education for the Future, Relying on the Past

We do not know the future that awaits our increasingly globalized societies. We do not even know what kind of employment the job market will offer in 20 years. What kind of skills does a student really need? A liberal arts education teaches core skills that are critical not just for success in business or academia, but also for making a meaningful contribution to one’s society.

It is not a coincidence that in the US about 1,200 liberal arts colleges form the foundation of a very solid educational system. The US higher education system is expensive, and riddled with a variety of problems, but still it is considered among the best in the world. No doubt, this is to a large extent thanks to liberal arts colleges and their focus on high-quality education.

In Europe, the implementation of the Bologna Declaration since 2006 has made one of its priorities the creation of bachelor’s studies. Considering that liberal arts focuses on undergraduate education, the Bologna process has allowed the return of liberal arts studies to Europe. As of 2016, there are over 40 liberal arts programmes and colleges within the EU. Over 20 of these liberal arts institutions are connected through the European Consortium of Liberal Arts and Sciences (ECOLAS) network and we can state with some pride that ECOLAS is based at BISLA in Bratislava, Slovakia.


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