“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” – Thomas Jefferson
The ancient Roman system of education called liberalia studia or “liberal studies” has been immensely influential on the modern world. In a nutshell, liberal studies are those which give a man his liberty. Liberty is not preserved by government, it is maintained by those who understand what erodes it and what fortifies it. Simply put, liberty is preserved by virtue and eroded by vice.
Some have claimed that the liberal arts bestow virtue upon its students, but they do not. Seneca explained it best in “Epistle 88”:
Our ancestors used to teach their children nothing that could be learned while lying down… But neither the new system nor the old teaches or nourishes virtue. For what good does it do us to guide a horse and control his speed with the curb, and then find that our own passions, utterly uncurbed, bolt with us? Or to beat many opponents in wrestling or boxing, and then to find that we ourselves are beaten by anger? “What then,” you say, “do the liberal studies contribute nothing to our welfare?” Very much in other respects, but nothing at all as regards virtue. For even these arts of which I have spoken, though admittedly of a low grade – depending as they do upon handiwork – contribute greatly toward the equipment of life, but nevertheless have nothing to do with virtue. And if you inquire, “Why, then, do we educate our children in the liberal studies?” It is not because they can bestow virtue, but because they prepare the soul for the reception of virtue. Just as that “primary course,” as the ancients called it, in grammar, which gave boys their elementary training, does not teach them the liberal arts, but prepares the ground for their early acquisition of these arts, so the liberal arts do not conduct the soul all the way to virtue, but merely set it going in that direction.
In classical antiquity, liberal arts was a catch-phrase for those subjects of study deemed essential for a free person to master in order to acquire the qualities that distinguished him from a slave. Hence, the system was more concerned with producing students who knew how to live a good life than it was with teaching students to make a living. Students trained in the liberal arts were taught to think, to have minds free from traditional beliefs that tend to be accepted uncritically. The liberal arts are in this sense liberating arts, providing those grounded in its principles the means of leading their culture into all that is good, beautiful and true.