At high schools, colleges, and universities, one hears the phrases “liberal arts” and “humanities.” These terms are, however, poorly understood, ambiguous, and subject to misunderstandings.
The label ‘liberal arts’ emerged during the Middle Ages, when the world’s first universities were being organized - the University of Bologna was started some time prior to 1088 A.D.
“Liberal” in ‘liberal arts’ is related to the notion of freedom, and arose even earlier, during Roman times, because free men, as opposed to slaves, studied academic subjects. Of course, generalizations like that are susceptible to exceptions: Epictetus was a slave and yet authored philosophical essays.
In those medieval universities, the curriculum was structured around seven subjects: the lower level was the ‘trivium’ and consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; the upper level was the ‘quadrivium’ and included arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
From this original structure of the liberal arts we can already see the errors in the way some people currently use the term ‘liberal arts.’ From the beginning, ‘liberal arts’ included both mathematics and the observational or natural sciences.
Note also the medieval understanding of music: it is grouped among the mathematical disciplines. Some music historians use the word ‘objective’ to describe the music of the Middle Ages, indicating the way in which medieval composers, performers and listeners perceived the music: the intervals between notes, and the timing of the notes, was calculated according to principles of composition.
At the present time, the phrase ‘liberal arts’ has been expanded beyond its original meaning to include not only the observational and empirical sciences - chemistry, physics, biology, geology, etc. - as well as the ‘social sciences’ or ‘soft sciences’ like history, psychology, linguistics, literature, etc.
The contemporary understanding of ‘liberal arts’ does not include strictly professional programs like engineering, law, medicine, or business, as they are currently offered at American colleges and universities.
The ‘humanities’ are a subset of the liberal arts. They include history and literature - and the sub-disciplines of art history and music history. One dictionary defines ‘humanities’ as
learning or literature concerned with human culture, esp. literature, history, art, music, and philosophy.
The defining characteristic of the liberal arts is that they are not applied or practical. Biology is one of the liberal arts, while medicine is not. Physics is part of the liberal arts, while engineering is not. The dictionary defines ‘liberal arts’ as
academic subjects such as literature, philosophy, mathematics, and social and physical sciences as distinct from professional and technical subjects.
While debates will continue to rage about the proper role of the liberal arts in college curricula, and about the value of the humanities in professional preparation, such debates will be meaningful only when the terms are properly understood.