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The value of the liberal arts

October 08, 2001

When I was l4 years old, I began a course in analytic geometry. I had always enjoyed mathematics and had appreciated its sensible techniques, but nothing had prepared me for what I was about to experience. The class began with the idea of analysis, the translation of lines and surfaces into numbers and letters, then plunged into the Pythagorean theorem. As the theorem was laid out before me, it suddenly occurred to me that I was not merely acquiring a bit of useful information—that if you squared the hypotenuse of a right triangle, it would equal the sum of the squares of the other two sides—but a piece of demonstrable truth. The power of that moment was such that it lingers with me to this day.

I remember that I was signed up to do something athletic that day and had to pull myself away, not from the classroom, but from a kind of reverie that had descended upon me. Here, for the first time in all my years of studying math, I had acquired something far deeper than a formula: I knew why the theorem was true. I could tell why a series of symbols correctly and adequately described a set of lines and surfaces.

Why that experience, among the many I had in the classrooms of my youth, stays with me I’m not sure. Certainly, it is not the theorem itself. Not being a mathematician or an engineer, I never had an overwhelming need for the theorem. I must have used it on my college entrance exams, and it may have been implied in other mathematical problems I have since solved. Yet, that is not what lingers. In fact, to this day I doubt that I could recount very much from my analytic geometry course. What stays with me is that reverie—that formative excitement—that accompanied my first taste of mathematical proof.

I also acquired that day a new confidence in my experience at large. For if I could conquer that particular theorem, I seemed to reason, if I could truly understand why it was true and not merely that it was true, I could transfer that mastery to other experiences. Not that I became a Prospero, ruling all in my way with a magic wand, but I did sense a new command of my universe, a new poise in life and an embrace of its mysteries. I can’t explain why this is so. I can only attest that it happened.

Now, notice what I have been doing by relating this small personal experience. I’ve been trying to describe a moment of transformation in my life. But I’ve been describing it in an almost defensive manner, as if needing to validate my many years of studying mathematics.

Anytime we inquire into the value of liberal arts, we pose, perhaps uniquely in American society, a defensive question. Even to state that high-minded phrase, the “value of the liberal arts,” is to ask whether, in fact, they have any value.

Value is a word with multiple meanings. There are moral values and intellectual values. Friendship is a value, as love is. To the modern ear, however, certainly in this country, value is first and foremost something economic. A thing has value if you can do something with it. We tend to think of value as a synonym for utility.

In asking about the value of the liberal arts, then, we are asking whether there is any point to them. Can you do anything with them? Will they make you any money? Do they have any value in this sense?


What are the “liberal arts”? We talk about them constantly. Virtually every U.S. college of consequence proclaims with pride that it is a college of liberal arts or that the liberal arts are the core of what it does.

The term artes liberales first appears in writings of Cicero in the first century B.C.E., though in concept, they derive from the ancient Greek orators and rhetoricians. They were not, as we think of them today, a cluster of open-ended disciplines, but a set of knowledges or skills whose prin-ciples had already been discovered. They were “arts” or techniques of language and number acquired through painstaking work involving a master and a student. They were called “liberal” arts because the skills involved were not the kind a slave (or a woman, for that matter) performed, but the kind befitting a free citizen. They were called “liberal” not because they made you free—a much later meaning that is standard today—but because you were free.

If you wanted to study grammar, rhetoric and logic, which were the most basic of the liberal arts in traditional society, you couldn’t be a slave; because they were the arts of a citizen, you would have no need of them. Nor could you be a craftsman or a mechanic, for you wouldn’t have time to study. You had to be free.

From their very inception, in fact, the liberal arts were the skills of an elite. That rankles a bit, as well it might, particularly when one thinks of the “arts” that were left to those who were not free in this manner. These were the artes mechanicae or the artes serviles, the mechanical or servile arts like brick making, house building, shoe cobbling, baking—any of the arts that require the use of the hands. The liberal arts, in short, were the kind that kept your hands clean. Such was their origin among the ancient Greeks, and such was their career among the Roman republicans, the Renaissance humanists, the British liberals and the American colonists. Only today, stripped of their classist and sexist origins, have the liberal arts achieved a more egalitarian bent, yet even today they retain the somewhat “precious” character of their birth.

If our students, particularly those from working-class backgrounds, feel that their relatives are unsympathetic with what they are doing, I think it grows out of this long tradition of an elite in society declaring itself free of dirt. At the very least, it comes from a suspicion of the “gentility,” which the British made a virtue, and which crossed the ocean and became embedded in the curricula of the colonial colleges to which most of our institutions of higher education trace their origins.

The British gloried in the notion of liberality as something attached to what a gentleman does. They even made distinctions within the professions. Certain professions came to be regarded as more “liberal” than others. In medicine, for example, a physician was deemed liberal in a way a dentist or a surgeon was not. To this day in Britain, a medical doctor is called Doctor and a surgeon is called Mister. Even in the language of the professions, distinctions are drawn between the kind that make your hands dirty and those that do not.

In our own country, we have tended to draw the distinction between the arts and sciences, on the one hand, and the professions at large, on the other. Today, however, the tables are turned. We can think of ourselves as elite in studying the arts and sciences, and thus sense ourselves as special if not superior, but the professions have grown up, certainly economically, and their practitioners can feel contemptuous of those who idle away their time studying philosophy, history, biology, the arts, indeed anything that seems to have no traction in society. Most parents, if not their sons and daughters, can relate to this.


By the early Middle Ages, the liberal arts had been codified as an educational program of seven distinct studies. In the words of the philosopher Boethius (d. 524), the mathematical disciplines of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy converged “like a place where four roads meet” and, thus, were called the quadrivium. The three language-based “arts” of grammar, rhetoric and logic were known correspondingly as the trivium. (Is it any wonder that colleges today require SATs to evaluate their applicants’ language and math skills?)

For much of Western history, the three language arts, above all that of persuasive speaking, were given priority in the curriculum, with those of the quadrivium and other philosophical and scientific studies providing bits of information that the engaged citizen might use. Music was not conceived as a form of expression, but as a kind of rhythmics that brought order to the soul, while astronomy, as a kind of “harmony of the spheres,” aligned one with the cycles of the universe. The entire program was ordered to an overarching civic, and at times religious, purpose.

A contrary tradition, harking back to Pythagoras and to the Republic of Plato, saw in the mathematical arts the beginning of philosophy, understood here as the regular principles that underlie any body of appearances. The human senses do not of themselves reveal truth; appearances, in fact, can deceive, cutting short the search for what is enduring and true. The mathematical disciplines lift us beyond our senses, show us patterns that we cannot see, and prepare us for the study of philosophy and the discovery of “forms,” which are truth itself. On this rendering, the arts of language, however useful, must be measured by logic and science, the royal roads to human understanding. Neither of these educational arrangements survives unchanged today. Yet, elements of each are readily found in a “liberal arts” college like our own, as are the noble aims of “training civic leaders” and “pursuing knowledge for its own sake.”


What is the point of a curriculum of this sort? To what does it lead? Does it, in fact, have value?

As any parent or employer will acknowledge, making the case for the “trivial” arts of grammar, rhetoric and logic is not a challenge. Who, after all, could object to the effort to train ourselves to write correctly, argue persuasively and think analytically? My claim, however, goes beyond this obvious utility: in any democracy, and particularly in an advanced economy, there is no set of skills more important than these.

When I first came to Lewis & Clark as president, I visited the founding partner of a major Portland law firm. In the course of our conversation, he asked about the College’s curriculum. “We get a lot of students from fine schools,” he explained, “yet many of them fail here as associates. Do you know why? It’s not,” he continued, “because they don’t know the law. It’s because they can’t write.”

Later that week, I visited the head of a microelectronics firm. He told me that he often finds himself in a contest of wits with his own personnel department. Its aim, he said, is to hire the best and brightest engineers with the most highly refined skills, for without these fundamental technical abilities, the company would flounder. His concern, however, is to find leaders for the company, and, thus, he finds himself evaluating his engineers in a new way. He assumes they are technically adept and know the intricacies of the business. But he seeks individuals who can communicate clearly; who know how to think straight in many matters; and who are flexible, open, tolerant, and inventive. He looks for a second level of skills that no amount of engineering training, however sophisticated, can provide. Frequently, the best and brightest who were brought into the firm and served it well for several years were not those he could advance to positions of leadership.

Two corporate leaders at the center of the most prominent professions of modern society were telling me the same thing. Whatever you do, don’t abandon the fundamental skills of grammar, rhetoric and logic. Without them, we will get nowhere.

But the economic case for basic leadership skills is more compelling still. Seventy percent of the jobs of this new century, labor economists tell us, have not been invented. We don’t even have a name for them. We may have analogies and similar positions, but the precise jobs don’t yet exist. If this is the case, how can a college prepare its students for jobs that haven’t even been invented? The best way, surely, is to train them liberally, to sharpen their analytic and communication skills so that they become flexible and open to change, indeed can manage change itself.

And what of that other cluster of liberal arts, the “quantitative” skills of arithmetic and geometry, harmonics and astronomy? There are times, I confess, when I regret their passing from the scene. Society might profit from more dependable skills of calculation—or at least a better sense of statistics. And to have caught the rhythm of a heroic poem, moved one’s body to a regular beat, and observed the parade of celestial bodies might bring some joy, if not harmony, to our world. But this hardly rises to the level of a defense of the quadrivium.

Fortunately or not, the quadrivium of today would not be recognized by the ancients. Over the course of many centuries, arithmetic and geometry became mere youthful exercises, supplemented and in part replaced by calculus and set theory, by combinatorics and various algebras, studied both for their own sakes and as the bases of many natural sciences.

Music severed its hard connection with rhythmic poetry and became linked with manifold forms of human invention in a cluster named the beaux arts—an arena dabbled in by many but perfected by specialists, reserved for those who have the talent to create new visions or to challenge our sensibilities. Supported by philosophical theories of aesthetics, the fine arts became the special preserve of an imaginative elite, no less rarified than mathematics.

After the Renaissance, notions of celestial harmonies yielded to Newtonian physics (and since then, to Einstein), and astronomy became a science like those of the Earth, joined in time with the ever-evolving experimental studies of our biological and physical universe.

In time, too, human communities, polities and economic systems became objects of formal investigation, and these were added to the literary, historical and philosophical disciplines that derived, directly or indirectly, from the study of grammar, rhetoric and logic. The result today is the variegated universe of the arts and sciences, in one or more of which disciplines the students of Lewis & Clark, like those of most colleges, are expected to “major.”

But why? What’s the point of studying disciplines of this kind, above all if you will never (except for the few who become professors) master them for use in an actual profession? The arts of writing, speaking and thinking may have immediate and ongoing purposes, but are the disciplines of basic knowledge similarly “useful”?

If nothing else, the study of the arts and sciences heightens one’s sense of variety, shows the complexity of our human and natural universe, and brings a sophistication to one’s experience that no other enterprise quite can. Attention to detail is made razor-sharp.

More than that, when studied well, the liberal arts develop in you the possibility for greater tolerance, and, thus, better citizenship. I say this with some hesitation, for it seems to invoke the very elitism that many of our critics rightly question. But think about it. So many of us in the world live by instinct. Too often we read headlines or hear the views of pundits and react by impulse rather than with studied reflection. Elements of intolerance seep into our consciousness, and we rush to judgment. If you have studied broadly in the arts and sciences, if you have learned to suspend your judgment until relevant data have been gathered and their patterns made manifest, if you have come to have your ideas tested by peers whose own search for truth is as intense as your own, you should, over time, acquire that habit of restraint that is basic to good citizenship.

Then, there is this: studying arts and sciences in college has about it an appealing amateurish quality. You’re not expected to master them in the manner of scholars. But you are expected to expose yourself to them, to do whatever it takes to acquire their mental discipline, and in this way you gain confidence in your own experience. You see beyond your experience to its hidden structures, and in this way come to master your environment. A piece of music will no longer be simply a score. A text that you read will no longer be simply a poem or a work of drama. It will become something you understand from the inside out, whose allusions and metaphors are suddenly more real to you than ordinary life. Similarly, a human system or natural phenomenon will cease being a simple object, for its form is now seen as an extension of your own complexity.

Finally, and most fundamentally, the arts and sciences bring with them the challenge of inquiry and the thrill of discovery. I end where I began—in the days of my youth, studying the Pythagorean theorem. There is no truer or greater thrill in life than that sense of “eureka” that comes when you have taken a work, a problem or an experience and made its truth your own. It is a thrill that reaches down into your soul and never allows you to be the person you were before. That, finally, is the value—if not the utility—of the liberal arts.

—by Michael Mooney, professor of intellectual history and president of Lewis & Clark College

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