Adler On

Liberal Arts

As currently used by the educational establishment, the phrase "liberal arts" applies to any academic program that offers a course of study that is not strictly vocational.

That is not what the phrase "liberal arts" referred to in antiquity and the Middle Ages. In Plato's Republic, where the education of the guardians is considered, the seven liberal arts are first mentioned.

They are the verbal arts of the trivium and the mathematical arts of the quadrivium. The three arts of the trivium are the arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The four arts of the quadrivium are the arts of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Taken together, the seven arts were understood to provide the skills required to deal with works in what we now call the humanities and with work in mathematics and in what we now call the sciences.

In the universities of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Bachelor of Arts degree was conferred on those who had completed their initiation into the arts of the trivium. Their teachers were masters of these arts and having an M.A. degree was the highest academic attainment. There was no Ph.D. degree; that was an invention of the German universities in the nineteenth century. The three higher faculties were the faculties of medicine, law and theology.

I have reworded the arts of the trivium as the skills of reading and writing, of speaking, and listening, or reasoning and of persuading. In my account of the Paideia reform of public schooling in the United States. I have advocated the coaching of these fundamental skills as requisite for all students. They are skills that all initiates should possess when they graduate from secondary school and should be awarded the B.A. degree.

To become masters of these arts may take the better part of a lifetime, not only in so-called liberal colleges but also in the years of maturity. If are colleges are to be places of liberal learning, there should be no training for specific jobs that involve earning a living. Specific job training should be given only to those not going to college, but who, after receiving their B.A. degree, spend time in vocational training that is offered by community colleges.

In our universities, there should also be instruction in purely liberal programs that may include the preparation of teachers and preparation for the learned professions.

The Paideia Proposal (1982) [On Behalf of the Paideia Group]
The Paideia Program (1984) [with Members of the Paideia Group]

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary (1995)

Revised 17 December 2000