Deconstructing The Term 'Liberal Arts'

When I visited home over Christmas break, I was greeted with what was essentially the same irritating question from many different people: “Has your liberal arts college turned you liberal yet?”

The answer, dear friends of my parents, is no. My liberal arts college has not yet turned me into a “raging liberal” or a “tree-hugger." However, I do admittedly recycle my cardboard, as radical as that may be. But just because I’m going to college at a place that encourages recycling simply does not mean my political ideologies are going to change that drastically.

There is a large misconception about the term “liberal arts” that I would like to address. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, the liberal arts are those “areas of study that are intended to give you general knowledge rather than to develop specific skills needed for a profession." Subjects commonly classified as the liberal arts are literature, languages, art, music, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology, and science. The liberal arts are in no way the specific study of liberal politics. Politics itself isn't even a main focus of the liberal arts.

The irony that the liberal arts and liberal politics are associated is that the study of liberal arts originated in ancient Greece, arguably one of the most democracy-based republican societies in history. The Greeks believed that these subjects, which now fall under the category of liberal arts, were essential for a “free person to know in order to take an active part in civic life.”

To deconstruct the notion of the liberal arts being the study of liberal politics further, one can look at the roots of the words “liberal” and "arts." The term “liberal” comes from the Latin word “liberalis” meaning “of a free person. The term “art” comes from the Latin word “arte” meaning “craft or skill.” Literally translated from Latin, the root words of “liberal arts” becomes “the skills of a free person.

The notion of liberal arts being affiliated with liberal politics is a wrong and warped perception, fed by the connotation of the word “liberal." Just like the word “tense” carries multiple meanings (the tense of a verb, her shoulders were tense, the man tenses the rope), so does the word “liberal.”

Ultimately, it is important to remember that liberal arts and liberal politics are two separate, distinct ideas. Attending a liberal arts college no more makes one liberal leaning in politics any more than being a Republican makes a politician truthful.

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