Published: Oct. 1, 2018 By

The ancient Greeks had many good ideas. One of them was democracy, the foundation of our government. Another was that education—one that prepared citizens to steer the ship of state—was a foundation of democracy.


James W.C. White

The Romans formalized this notion into the artes liberales (“liberal arts”), a set of skills and practices in which all citizens should be educated. Cicero lists these as geometry, music, literature, natural science, ethics, politics, and, above all, the rhetorical skills required to communicate effectively and persuasively.

The fields we number among the liberal arts have grown in the 2,000 years since Cicero defined the notion, but the basic conception—the idea that the full range of these skills are needed to equip the citizens of free societies for full participation in democracy and in a life fulfilled on individual terms—remains the same.

Today in the College of Arts and Sciences, the liberal arts—updated to include a broader range of subjects—remain central to the education of all students. 

You see our commitment to the liberal arts in our newly revised general-education curriculum, which became effective this fall. The gen-ed curriculum, a requirement for every student in the college, obliges students to take and pass courses in a broad and diverse range of disciplines. 

Under the curriculum, students must pass a minimum of 12 credits in each of the three divisions of the College of Arts and Sciences: the arts and humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. They must also pass 3 credits of classes in quantitative reasoning and math plus 6 credits of writing. Finally, they take 6 credits to meet the diversity requirement, which exists to prepare students to function and lead in our multicultural, multiethnic, transnational and global society.

Our gen-ed curriculum reflects the old idea of artes liberales as applied to the challenges of the future. College graduates today are expected to change jobs more frequently than in the past and adapt to a rapidly changing employment landscape. The liberal arts are designed to train students to adapt, think critically, step out of their comfort zone and work well in trans-disciplinary teams. But perhaps most importantly, artes liberales ignite an enduring passion to learn.

George Norlin, the “kindly professor of Greek” who was among CU’s most influential presidents, publicly fretted that universities in the 1920s were emphasizing professional study at the expense of the liberal arts. He said such training might yield many tightly focused specialists, “mere bolts and rivets in a vastly complicated machine.”

He heralded “a curriculum of training in the fundamentals of a common, cultivated life.” Such an education helps people think critically, write well and adapt comfortably in swiftly changing times. This kind of education, Norlin said, helps “keep civilization alive.” 

Today, we echo great thinkers of yesterday as we champion a superior education for tomorrow.

James W.C. White is interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.