The Liberal Arts

liberalis – Latin for "characteristic of free men [as opposed to slaves]"
ars – Latin for "an activity requiring a specific skill"

  • Practice the trivium [grammar, logic and rhetoric] as your pedagogy

  • Study the quadrivium [arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music] as your curriculum

In antiquity
pedagogy - the principles, practice and profession of teaching and learning

The idea of “liberal arts” arose in Greece and Rome as a reference to

  • the set of skills learned and used by free men to make the collective choices that guided civic life

  • by identifying, relating and debating the issues of the day.

Training in and advancement of these skills coalesced into three formal and sequential disciplines that became known individually as grammar, logic and rhetoric … and collectively as the trivium. The slave who escorted the children and supervised their education was known as the pedagogue ... from paidos "child" + agōgos "leader". At Northfield, the trivium still escorts and supervises ALL students in every subject they engage.

>> For more on the trivium as pedagogy ...

In the middle ages
curriculum - Latin for "a running course or a fast chariot"

During the middle ages, European educators formally supplemented the trivium as pedagogy with courses of study in four specific subjects … arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music … because those subjects were essential to grasp the important science and culture of the day. Those four subjects of study became known collectively as the quadrivium ... bringing the total number of liberal arts to seven ... a perfect number representing the combination of learning [the trivium] + knowledge [the quadrivium].

>> For more on choosing a curriculum ...


  • The trivium is still the pedagogy which trains the student HOW to learn about anything at anytime.

  • However, in the modern age, the question of curriculum ... WHAT to study ... is broadening beyond the quadrivium as knowledge increases. The bright lights of STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] seem to reduce the traditional subjects of the liberal arts to little more than faint shadows of distant clouds … unworthy and irrelevant relics of less enlightened times. And yet, when properly understood, the liberal arts still beckon ... inviting us to identify, relate and debate the important scientific AND cultural issues of the day in order to:

    • transform simple boys and girls into thinking men and women

    • who can inform contemporary thought and invoke moral authority

    • to improve community life and sustain culture.

Our historically recent [but increasingly rapid] failure to honor and engage the liberal arts ... in both pedagogy and curriculum ... is driving us to confusion, conflict and chaos that is damaging community as well as the foundations of Western civilization. Strong words? Perhaps … but the need is great for a wider renaissance of the liberal arts … and Northfield still wants to be a part of that movement.