What is Liberal Arts?

One of the questions we get asked most is “What is Liberal Arts?” closely followed by “What is a Liberal Arts Degree?”.

While Liberal Arts might be ‘the number one university course shortlisted by current year 12s’, even so when we visit schools and colleges, or students come to our open days, it’s still the first question we get asked.

In this video, made a while ago now, Professor Nigel Tubbs gives an introduction to what Liberal Arts Education is (you can also read along below).

Study beyond the limits of academic subjects

Study beyond the limits of academic subjects with Liberal Arts at Winchester

Posted by Liberal Arts at the University of Winchester on Thursday, 31 January 2019
The University of Winchester was the first university in the UK to introduce undergraduate and postgraduate Liberal Arts degrees

What are the questions you think about? 

Perhaps the things that interest you don’t fall neatly into any single academic subject. Well it’s only recently that universities have tied their curriculum into single subject degrees. For over 2,000 years they offered degrees in Liberal Arts which combined humanities, social and natural science, and the fine arts all centred around a philosophical outlook. 

This is the model that we’ve started again at Winchester while bringing it all up to date. Many of the questions that we ask in our degree are those that have always been at the centre of liberal arts. 

On one level these questions are the biggest questions that mankind can ask. Questions about the origin of life in the universe about whether or not there needs to be God, about freedom as a principle for running human societies and about whether there can be anything that counts as universally true for all humanity. 

Now when we look around us for answers to these questions we tend to see the obvious things, the things we take for granted, the things we expect to see but the people we study in modern liberal arts are those people who’ve looked at the world, asked themselves the big questions and come up with some of the most challenging, difficult, and inspiring answers. These are the people who look at the world around them and see things that the rest of us don’t. 

Pythagoras looked around him and saw a universe made out of numbers. Plato observed truth only in higher education and in escaping from the cave of ignorance. Aristotle saw God as a logical necessity in the universe whereas very recently Stephen Hawking has argued that god’s absolutely unnecessary for the creation of the universe.

Some have looked around them and seen beauty and order in the world and have used art to try to show the rest of us what they saw. Leonardo da Vinci famously saw beauty and harmony combined in the human body. He used art to convey movement, activity, expression, touch, the inner spirit of all things subjective, and he saw these as divine things. And Vincent van Gogh he saw divine beauty in colour and nature. And if true art makes us see things differently then this isn’t just a vase full of flowers. Why then when some modern artists look at the world do they see this or this?

The same has happened in music. For 2,000 years liberal arts explored the idea that harmony was the first principle upon which all life in the universe was based and it gave rise to the famous idea of the harmony of the spheres. As Shakespeare says ‘there’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st but in his motion like an angel sings’. When Beethoven looked around him he heard nature and freedom in music, and some even believe that the walls of buildings like these in France could sing out these harmonies of the universe. Now the ancients and the medieval would find it hard to understand how the modern world has so easily lost this idea that everything is divinely, philosophically, artistically, and musically connected.

But there’s another question we have to ask. We need to explore whether the answers to these questions give any meaning to our lives. What if the meaning of life as Shakespeare suggested is that it’s only a short play, a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

Liberal Arts has mostly taken a different view, it teaches, that if by critical self-examination one learns to know thyself then this will help one to discover meaning and possibly vocation in life.

In short, it’s the greatest questions that continue to inspire the most significant human, cultural and scientific achievements, and these achievements form the curriculum that we study in our modern liberal arts degree and you, you get the freedom to bring your questions to these people. But don’t underestimate just how challenging such freedom and education can be, we all know that life is much easier when people simply tell you what to do, so you don’t have to bother deciding things for yourself.

But if these are the kinds of ideas and questions you think you would like to spend your time studying at University then please do get in touch. Even if you just have questions, no especially because you have questions we will be delighted to hear from you.

Liberal Arts Degree

So you can see by now that Liberal Arts is a different kind of degree. In many ways it is formed around your questions and interests. So while it might feel like a new degree to you, and because of you a new degree to us, it is also the oldest form of higher education in the Western tradition. In many ways it is where the idea of higher education began. It contains ideas and research from all the well known academic subjects (psychology, history, sociology, art, English literature, political studies, religious studies, media studies, physics etc.). But liberal arts is not limited by any one subject boundary.

We like to think of Liberal Arts as philosophical study across humanities, social and natural science, and the arts. And while this means liberal arts is philosophical it is also very different from doing a singular philosophy degree. It’s ideal for you if you can’t fit your own interests within one or two single subjects, and you want to expand your knowledge, thinking, and understanding beyond “doing one thing”. It is a course that isn’t afraid to ask the big questions and we encourage you to explore you own answers.

So now you know a little about what a Liberal Arts degree is, you can always come and see us to find out more.

Read more about liberal arts from one of our past students > Maia talks about liberal arts education.