liberal arts

plural noun

Definition of liberal arts 

1 : the medieval studies comprising the trivium and quadrivium

2 : 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

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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.

Examples of liberal arts in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web

Landing a job in today’s leading industries requires access to in-demand skills – whether advanced training in a science, technology, engineering, or math discipline or the critical thinking and clear communication embodied in a liberal arts degree., "Should Massachusetts drop tuition and fees for in-state students at its public colleges and universities?," 22 June 2018 That Reed would agree to this, and especially under political pressure, is an insult to the meaning of a liberal arts degree. The Editorial Board, WSJ, "Reed College Bows to the Bullies," 19 Apr. 2018 In year 20, the liberal arts people have knocked them off the rails. Recode Staff, Recode, "Full transcript: Business management expert and author Tom Peters on Recode Decode," 7 July 2018 Isaacson said that Tufts is an attractive place to recruit from because of its selectivity, and its dual strengths as both a liberal arts college and a research university. Thomas Oide,, "Tufts extends its presidential tree," 18 June 2018 The last level has seven stairs, symbolizing the seven liberal arts and sciences, which Masons are encouraged to study. Detroit Free Press, "Tour offers a peek inside Detroit's Masonic Temple," 17 June 2018 The school, which emphasizes study of the classics and liberal arts, graduated 73 seniors. Hayley Harding,, "For Classical Magnet Graduates, Learning Was For Life Not School," 15 June 2018 Several smaller liberal arts colleges have already taken the step, but the move from the University of Chicago (ranked #3 in the U.S. News & World Report’s national university rankings) marks a watershed moment in the higher education world. Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY, "University of Chicago becomes first elite college to make SAT, ACT optional for applicants," 14 June 2018 Clougherty, as per posts on her Twitter account, she is apparently headed into her first year at Elon University, a liberal arts college in North Carolina. Madeleine Marr, miamiherald, "This Parkland singer hit the high note in an emotional performance at the Tonys," 11 June 2018

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.

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First Known Use of liberal arts

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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7 Oct 2018

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

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liberal arts


English Language Learners Definition of liberal arts

: areas of study (such as history, language, and literature) that are intended to give you general knowledge rather than to develop specific skills needed for a profession

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