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Published: July 12, 2011

Liberal arts

In modern education, a broad area of academic subjects unrelated to the sciences or to professional or vocational preparation.jects. The term dates back to ancient Greece, when philosopher/educators such as Plato and Aristotle defined the liberal arts as seven in number and consisting of those subjects that helped develop the upper-class citizen’s intellect and morality—as opposed to the useful or practical arts, for the lower classes.
In the Middle Ages, the seven liberal arts were studied in two stages at the university level: the elementary trivium, leading to a bachelor’s degree, and the advanced quadrivium, leading to a master’s degree. The trivium (“three roads”) consisted of three subjects: grammar, rhetoric and logic. The quadrivium (“four roads”) consisted of mathematics and astronomy; the three philosophies, or natural philosophy (physics), moral philosophy (religious studies) and mental philosophy (ethics); ancient languages (biblical and classical); and literature, music (mostly liturgical) and divinity.
At the beginning of the era of progressive education, early in the 20th century, the American educator and philosopher JOHN DEWEY redefined the liberal arts as “the sort of education that every member of the community should have: the education that will liberate his capacities and thereby contribute to his own happiness and his social usefulness.” In effect, the liberal arts and a liberal education are designed “to free the mind and spirit from specialized, practical, vocational education.”
For a variety of reasons, however, many American political leaders, many educators and, apparently, many college students have emphatically disagreed with Dewey’s assessment of the liberal arts. Indeed, of students at four-year colleges in the United States, the percentage majoring in liberal arts subjects declined to fewer than one-third by the end of the 20th century. Only 17% of all college students attended pure liberal arts institutions in 2001, compared to 50% in 1960. In the last two decades of the 20th century, about 50 such institutions had ceased operations. During most of that time, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a “cold war,” in which each sought to extend its international sphere of influence with impressive technological gains in the military and aerospace sectors. In the United States, American political leaders and educators stepped up their efforts to improve and expand science, mathematics and engineering education and encourage the young to study related subjects. At the more mundane level, many students feared (justifiably) that a liberal arts major would not be an effective vehicle for finding top-paying jobs after graduation. The net result was a 14.6% drop in English and literature majors at fouryear colleges, a 32.3% decline in foreign-language majors, a 40.7% decline in mathematics majors, a 7.6% decrease in philosophy majors and a 13.8% drop in history and political science majors. The only liberal arts majors that showed an increase were the performing arts, with a jump of 53%. In contrast, the number of business administration majors soared by more than 50%, to more than 225,000, or almost 19.5% of all majors at four-year colleges—by far the largest single group of majors. Education majors, in contrast, dropped nearly 40%, to about 105,500, or almost about 9% of all college majors.