What is Liberal Arts Education?

We call those studies liberal, then, which are worthy of a free man: they are those through which virtue and wisdom are either practised or sought and by which the body and mind is disposed towards all the best things.
Pier Paolo Vergerio, The Character and Studies Befitting a Free-Born Youth

Liberal arts education is very different from anything available at most UK higher education establishments. Rather than focusing on one subject in isolation, it emphasises breadth. Also, it sees all knowledge as connected, each aspect informing the whole.

The core of this education has traditionally been the seven liberal arts: the core disciplines of language - grammar, logic and rhetoric - as well as the arts of number including geometry and arithmetic. Philosophy and theology form an integral part of the Benedictus curriculum as students seek to understand the relationship that all studies have to what we can know about ourselves, the world and about God.

A liberal arts education will teach students to contribute to the continuing conversation of Western culture, exploring truth through dialogue. It forms a community of scholarship, introducing students to what Matthew Arnold called 'the best which has been thought and said in the world'.

The wide-ranging nature of this view of knowledge gives liberal arts education a unique coherence. It allows Benedictus to offer a fully rounded education for all, in the form of a single course in which all students read and study the same modules together.

An education in the liberal arts introduces students to the joy of learning for its own sake, equipping them to participate in the intellectual current running through Western civilisation. This is a great gift that will enrich the whole of a student's future life.


The Origin of the Liberal Arts

The liberal arts form the central educational tradition of Western civilisation. Born among the philosophers of 5th century Athens, carried forward by statesmen and public figures of the Roman republic and empire, it was ultimately through the Catholic Church that the tradition flourished across Europe and survived into the modern era.

Sometimes its survival was precarious - Alcuin of York was a rare champion of the liberal arts in the 8th century, called by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne to re-educate his court and, as a result, spread the culture across western Europe. Over the centuries scholars patronised by popes and secular courts, those active in the monastic tradition of St Benedict and later in the universities, helped preserve and gradually re-establish this system of education at the heart of Europe.

The Christian belief in a God of reason and also in man made in the image of God was a natural complement to the rational inquiry of the Greeks: in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, 'The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance'. Together, they provided the foundation for the cultural achievements of the Renaissance, symbolised most powerfully in Raphael's frescoes in the Vatican palace of The School of Athens (see image above) celebrating philosophy, the Parnassus, celebrating the arts and the Disputà, expressing the centrality of the dogma of the Trinity in the life of Christian society. This room is a painted statement of the liberal arts curriculum.

Preparatory drawing for the <em>Disputà</em>
Preparatory drawing for the Disputà


See what others have to say about the liberal arts on our Resources page.