Northfield School of the Liberal Arts


The Liberal Arts

“Liberal Arts.” The meaning of  these  two words is often muddled by modern connotations of the separate parts. “Liberal” in the context of the Liberal Arts , has nothing to do with a political party, while “arts” in the same context, does not refer simply to a creative practice. To explain these words and their full meaning to the Northfield community, we will take you through a practice we often perform here at school: we will take you to the roots.

The Latin word liberalis means "characteristic of free men" (as opposed to slaves).  Ars means “an activity requiring a specific skill." The idea of “liberal arts” arose in Greece and Rome as a reference to the set of skills common to the free people who were responsible for considering the issues and making the choices necessary to guide civic life. These were skills that permitted them to identify, relate and debate the issues and choices of the day. Training in and advancement of these skills soon coalesced into three formal and sequential disciplines that became known individually as grammar, logic and rhetoric. Collectively, this trio of disciplines became known as the Trivium.

During the middle ages, European educators believed that this list was incomplete. In addition to knowing the practice of the Trivium, a truly educated person should be able to apply these disciplines to  scientific and cultural issues of their day.

And so, in response to this need, the supplementary skills of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music were added to the three original disciplines. These four subjects became known collectively as the Quadrivium.

Thus, the Trivium trained the student how to learn and the Quadrivium presented the student with what to study in contemporary science and culture. The seven arts collectively represented a wholistic, even perfect (as the number seven in Christian tradition suggests) pursuit of knowledge. This sevenfold approach to learning was the nearest a scholar could come to acquiring the oneness of Truth. 

We live in a time of cultural conflict, chaos and malaise in which individuals are uprooted from meaningful people, places, and beliefs. The common defense of this cultural confusion, as evident in our STEM-steeped educational settings, is to make progress. This system assumes that our students need better jobs to make more money, that will solve bigger problems. At Northfield, we feel that the ironic answer for a better future is to take a step into our past. By honoring and practicing the Liberal Arts, we are working towards a renaissance of the skills and affections that will assist individuals and communities toward a realization of rootedness and meaning. 


Further Reading
on the Liberal Arts

The History of a Liberal Arts Education

The history of a Liberal Arts education dates back to classical antiquity. Stemming from the Latin word ‘liberalis.’ meaning “appropriate for free men,” a liberal arts education was a course of study considered essential...

The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education

An explanation of Hutchins and Mortimer Adler’s motivation to publish The Great Books of the Western World. These “great books” remain an important source of study at Northfield.