What are the Liberal Arts?

By now, you (incoming students) have no doubt undergone the rite of passage that consists of sitting through countless speeches on the sanctity of the liberal arts. This is perhaps especially true of the new students at Claremont McKenna College, a school that boasts of putting the “liberal arts in action.” Understanding exactly what kind of action these liberal arts are planning to take is of some concern; but more crucial is a question that has likely, perhaps surprisingly, remained unanswered to this point: What are the liberal arts?

The idea of the liberal arts is rooted in the writings of Plato, defined as the disciplines that one studies for the sake of knowledge itself, not in order to prepare for a specific vocation (though that may be a side-effect). In Book VII of The Republic, Plato elaborates on several areas of concentration that meet this criteria, which have over time been amended and are today generally thought to include arithmetic, the humanities (history, literature, philosophy, religious studies, and the visual and performing arts), the natural sciences, and the social sciences (economics, political science, psychology, and sociology).

Thankfully, you only have to choose one of them to study – maybe two if you’re an overachiever (which, of course, you all are). I mean, that’s why we have majors, right? Actually, Plato makes his contempt for specialization of study clear in another of his dialogues, The Apology. It was impossible for the Socratics to consider one who had only mastered a single subject to be truly learned, because true understanding comes with examining difficult questions from every point of view and mode of thought imaginable. The idea that specialization is harmful reveals the crucial concept that the liberal arts are, while distinct, all interconnected. Indeed, how can one look at complex topics, such as abortion or healthcare, without considering the scientific, philosophical, political, and economic realities that necessarily accompany them? What can past human experience, documented in literature and history and art, teach us about these difficult questions that reality alone cannot?

While this may seem daunting, fully understanding each of these disciplines should not be the standard by which you measure the success of your liberal arts education. A few hours of concentration every week over the course of a semester is woefully inadequate for becoming completely learned in any particular subject; similarly, four years’ or even a lifetime’s worth of thought is insufficient for mastering the liberal arts. Even Socrates at his time of death admitted to being ignorant of much of the world, but he also regarded the humility that he acquired from fully understanding his own ignorance as one of the great advantages of the examined life. Don’t be surprised if, four years from now, you leave this campus with more questions than answers; even more, be happy – it means you did something right.

So, what does this add-up to? What does thinking the most profound thoughts that have ever been thought, reading the most eloquent words that have ever been written, over a diverse array of subjects and without corrupting bias, ultimately create? Well, it creates you. The liberal arts are ultimately about, through understanding the world, understanding and creating your “self.” It’s about having those Elizabeth Bennet moments, where you don’t recognize the “you” of two seconds ago.

When I read Alexis de Tocqueville, Jane Austen, and the greatest thinkers that humanity has produced, see the way that they make seamless connections between what just prior seemed like completely different worlds, put to eloquent language what I could only describe as shapeless emotions and feelings buried somewhere deep within my soul, it makes me unable to recognize the person who occupied my body just moments ago. It’s a humbling experience, but it’s also an addicting one. These moments demonstrate just how completely wrong you were about a particular idea, show how woefully inadequate your own thought was to a certain problem, and reveal the deep-set flaws in your character; but they also develop within you a passion to read anything you can get your hands on and to push the limits of your thought in order to find the next major breakthrough. And developing this mentality, developing a tireless thirst for knowledge and inexhaustible dedication to thought, is what studying liberal arts is about.

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