“THE OBJECT of education is to teach us to love Beauty,” said Plato. Aristotle claimed it was to make us “feel joy and grief at the right things.”
John Henry Newman said liberal arts education is the process by which the intellect “is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own object and for its own highest culture.” The idea that the well-rounded person requires a period in early adulthood devoted to high culture and works of demanding abstraction runs through the long course of Western civilization.
The “philosophical habit of mind,” Newman said, is the highest benefit of higher education. The term liberal arts comes from the artes liberales of classical antiquity, which stood for the artistic and scientific pursuits of free men as opposed to slaves. Freedom required cultivation of the mind in a small minority. The term was used in the Middle Ages to refer to the study of grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, and music.
What is liberal arts today? Given the vocational trend and that students at most colleges choose their own courses, it is rare that they receive either education for its own sake or a rigorous immersion in all things that are important. Imagine the wasted dollars. Today the liberal arts stands, as Allan Bloom aptly noted, for the closing of the American mind.