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.
As the Greeks conceived of it, grammar, logic and rhetoric formed the core of this education, along with arithmetic, geometry, music theory and astronomy. Learning these things helped people become citizens who could effectively engage in public debate, defend themselves in court, serve on juries and in the military.
Cicero called these disciplines liberalis ars, the liberal arts. The term is widely wielded and occasionally misunderstood, particularly in our current climate of polarized politics. The name “liberal arts” underscores the idea that free people—liberalis—must share basic knowledge of art or principled practice—ars—to be effective citizens and stewards of democracy.
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 liberalis ars 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, liberalis ars 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