The history of a liberal arts education dates back to classical antiquity. Stemming from the Latin word ‘liberalis.’ meaning “appropriate for free men,” a liberal arts education was a course of study considered essential for free citizens of Greece and Rome. In the minds of the ancient Greeks and Romans, a liberal arts education was necessary for a human being to be free. On the other hand, vocational or technical studies were often thought to best fit non-free members of society or slaves. To those fortunate enough to be awarded a liberal arts education, their education emphasized civic duty and the development of the whole human being to their full potential through the study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic.
Ultimately, the main goal for free citizens of Greece and Rome was to participate in civic life. Therefore studies in liberal arts, such as grammar, rhetoric, and logic, reflected the skills necessary for civic duty. During medieval times subject matter was extended to include arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. In modern times, liberal arts colleges today also strive to develop the whole human being by instructing students in a wide range of subjects and courses. As a result, the curriculum of these liberal arts colleges often focus on a range of subjects in the arts, humanities, social sciences, science, and mathematics.
Roots of the Liberal Arts Teaching Method
In addition, a liberal arts education also takes root in the Socratic Method, named after the famous Greek philosopher Socrates. Socrates used a unique method of teaching in a question and dialogue format that challenged students to support their arguments and to stimulate critical thinking. In modern liberal arts colleges today, liberal arts colleges typically employ the Socratic teaching method which emphasizes discussion and feedback. Like Socrates who encouraged debate amongst his students, the faculty’s role in a modern liberal arts institution is to engage students in this creative process and encourage interaction and debate. This style of teaching is very different from large public universities which primarily engage in passive learning through lecture.
American History of Liberal Arts Colleges
The history of the American higher-education system is as old as the United States itself. Higher education in the American colonies began as early as1636 with the founding of Harvard University. Over the next several decades other colleges began to spring up in Harvard’s wake. These institutions, like Harvard, were often small, religiously affiliated, and modeled after England’s own Cambridge and Oxford institutions.
Despite the success of these institutions, the American higher education system received much scrutiny in the 1800s. During that time, there were many advances in science and technology that were often not reflected in the approved college curriculums. It was argued at the time that the college curriculum should reflect these scientific advances. As a result, these debates focused on the nature of a liberal arts education as well as argued for a broader curriculum. These ideas were addressed by Yale’s president, Jeremiah Day, and his committee in the “The Yale Report of 1828.” Although Yale is no longer considered a liberal arts institution today, the philosophy behind “The Yale Report of 1828” has become the sound argument for a liberal arts education ever since and has laid the foundation for the philosophy of liberal arts colleges nationwide.
In response to the argument posed in “The Yale Report of 1828,” several liberal arts institutions were created throughout the eastern United States. However, in the mid-19th century, a new education paradigm swept the nation. This time the focus was on the ‘research university’ that emphasized a well-rounded education along with intensive research. These research universities as well as technical schools contradicted the mission of traditional liberal arts colleges. In addition, many institutions that were once considered liberal arts colleges like Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, switched their teaching methods to suit this new paradigm and are no longer considered liberal arts colleges today.
Despite this change in educational focus, several colleges have stayed true to their liberal arts ideals and roots. The characteristics of these liberal arts colleges
are unique in that they continue to enroll a small student body and commit themselves to a broad liberal arts education. These institutions include prestigious schools like Amherst, Bowdoin, Swarthmore, Wesleyan, and Williams, to name a few.
Recent History of Liberal Arts Colleges
Although liberal arts colleges were typically institutions created for wealthy white men in the early days of the American higher education system, liberal arts colleges today feature a diverse student body. Some liberal arts colleges even cater to certain demographics which were once considered a minority population in education. For example, Smith College founded in 1871 was established in order to provide “the highest quality undergraduate education for women.” The establishment of Smith College was primarily a reaction to early prejudiced beliefs that prohibited women from attending college.
As you can see, the American higher-education system has strong roots in classical teaching methods and has evolved dramatically from its early origins. Liberal arts colleges today are a small but well regarded academic force in the American higher education system which seeks to to create better people with a better balance of character through a broad range of study.
Due to their unique philosophy and teaching method, the liberal arts college has over time become a unique part of the American education system and is often ranked separately in the US News and World Report’s annual college ranking list. Today there are hundreds of liberal arts colleges available in the United States, all of which are dedicated to supporting a curriculum that wishes to create well-rounded students. These colleges are often well regarded for their education as well as the students that they produce.