liberal arts

plural noun

: college or university studies (such as language, philosophy, literature, abstract science) intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (such as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills
: the medieval studies comprising the trivium and quadrivium

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Why do we call the liberal arts "liberal"?

The liberal in liberal arts, a cornerstone of the education of so many, has very little to do with political leanings; its roots can be traced to the Latin word liber, meaning “free, unrestricted.” Our language took the term from the Latin liberales artes, which described the education given to freeman and members of the upper classes, and involved training in the mind (grammar, logic, geometry, etc.). The lower classes were educated in the servile arts, which were mechanical or occupational in nature. The phrase liberal arts has been part of our language for a very long time, with use dating back to the 14th century.

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web The pilot flew the couple's son to his liberal arts college in his private plane for the start of the fall semester. Adam England, Peoplemag, 27 Jan. 2023 The private liberal arts college has about 1,700 students and is located in Yonkers. Steve Almasy, CNN, 20 Jan. 2023 Set in the 1980s, the film centers on Driver’s Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college in New England. Tyler Coates, The Hollywood Reporter, 14 Jan. 2023 The private liberal arts college reported 2% enrollment growth in the fall, the third consecutive year increasing total and new student enrollment. Ryan Anderson, Arkansas Online, 10 Jan. 2023 In early May 1998, Moore was at the peak — about to graduate from Valley Forge with an associate’s degree in liberal arts and continue his education at Johns Hopkins University. Sydney Trent, Washington Post, 2 Nov. 2022 After graduating in 1977 from Bryn Mawr School, Ms. Shaeffer earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts in 1981 from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, now Randolph College, in Lynchburg, Virginia. Frederick N. Rasmussen, Baltimore Sun, 8 June 2022 Sarah Lawrence College is a small, liberal arts school that is located in Bronxville, N.Y., and boasts a population of around 1,675 undergraduate and graduate students. Fox News, 20 Jan. 2023 Westminster College, a small liberal arts school in New Wilmington, plays the exterior of the military academy in the film. Kelly Allen, House Beautiful, 12 Jan. 2023 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'liberal arts.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Word History

First Known Use

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 2

Time Traveler
The first known use of liberal arts was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near liberal arts

Cite this Entry

“Liberal arts.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 9 Feb. 2023.

Kids Definition

liberal arts

noun plural
: the studies (as literature, philosophy, languages, or history) in a college or university intended to develop the mind in a general way rather than give professional or vocational skills

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