Liberal Arts, Then and Now: Creating the Wise or the Foolish?

Jordan Elliott, Head of OES Upper School

The liberal arts: essential topics of study for the movers and shakers, people who want to be well-educated and are convinced that they can make a difference in the world. Many current educators, such as Jordan Elliott, head of the Oregon Episcopal Upper School, insist that the liberal arts create well-rounded students ready to take on the world; however, is this branch of study really worthwhile?

Liberal arts education was an idea first introduced in the Renaissance period by humanists studying and analyzing classical Greco-Roman texts. The men (and occasional women) who studied these texts searched for human nature, and they also “sought through reinterpretation and underlying harmony between the pagan and secular and the Christian faith” (Mckay 413).  A more modern definition, according to Jordan Elliott, would be very similar; liberal arts education is “preparing to be successful,” and although the subjects needed today are different, the basic principles are still the same. More necessary subjects today would include “math, science, communication skills, and critical thinking,” as opposed to the studying of texts and rhetoric (Elliott).

The main disciplines taught in a Renaissance-era liberal arts education were history, ethics, and rhetoric (Mckay 414). Jordan makes ties between these concepts and modern ones; history is still very important, which is why many students take a humanities class. Ethics is replaced with general character development, something stressed in al branches of a modern liberal arts education, and rhetoric, the skill of speaking eloquently, has been replaced with expression through writing. The key to all of this is the skill of critical thinking, or asking questions and identifying important factors, something taught in both modern and Renaissance liberal arts educations (Elliott).

Wilson Smith and Thomas Bender, authors of American Higher Education Transformed, 1940-2005, tend to agree with Elliott, saying that a modern liberal arts education helps the student make connections between talking and listening, and also declaring that a liberal arts education “enables one to explore and fulfill one’s humanities” (Smith 163). Wilson and Bender also take a similar stance as Elliott, saying that humanities is an important subject in modern education. Also, their idea of the point of a liberal arts education is that there is no fixed or eternal content, whereas in the Renaissance the content and sequence, as well as the masculinity, of a liberal arts education was fixed. This would seem to contradict what I have learned of a liberal arts education, especially in the humanities; during the brief foray I had into humanities I read many of the same works as the Renaissance men would have, mostly famous Greek and Latin texts.

I also read “The Praise of Folly” (not the version I read, but still a good one), an essay written by Erasmus in a letter to his close friend Thomas More, to gain a better understanding of opinions of the liberal arts during Renaissance times, and was jarred to find Erasmus openly making fun of the liberal arts, even while making his liberal arts educational background very clear. He praises great authors and mocks the life of scholars in the same paragraph, insulting Machiavelli’s “The Prince” while praising philosophy and rhetoric. I am inclined to take Erasmus’ words with a grain of salt, as he comes off as a great cynic, much like modern satirists.

It seems to me, someone who has access to a private secondary education and goals of college and beyond, that the liberal arts are an important tool for the successful people of the modern world; however, I would imagine that someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to experience a liberal arts education would view it as a waste of time. How can reading old books about a bunch a dead white guys possibly be effective outside of school?

Works Cited

Elliott, Jordan. Personal interview. 1 Feb. 2012.

Erasmus, Desiderius, and Loon Hendrik Willem Van. The Praise of Folly,. New York: Published for the Classics Club by W.J. Black, 1942. Print.

McKay, John P. A history of Western society. 9th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Print.

Smith, Wilson, and Thomas Bender. American Higher Education Transformed, 1940-2005: Documenting the National Discourse. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2008. Google Books. Web. 7 Feb. 2012. <;.



  1. mollyageofreason

    Do you think there’s a way to show people who disagree with liberal arts education the benefits you see of liberal arts?

    • harperlarp

      Molly: Thank you for so much for replying! My personal belief on this matter is that a liberal arts education is not for everyone, not just because of the content but also because of the methods teachers use in a liberal arts education. I have spent the past few summers volunteering as an assistant in summer school classrooms for first through fifth graders, and the main thing I have taken away from this experience is that everyone learns best in different environments. Some students need a lot of time one on one with a teacher, while others are much more productive by themselves or in groups of other students. Tying this back to the original question, the way I see it is that a liberal arts education offers much more benefit to students who require in-depth discussion about the material and opportunities to make connections with their teachers. Students who learn better by sitting in a lecture hall and taking notes would not, I think, see the benefit of a typical liberal arts education. Thank you again so much for this interesting question! – Harper

  2. katiereindeer

    Do you think rhetoric has been completely replaced by writing at OES? What about the in class presentations that we do?

    How do you think Science Research embodies the views of education that you discuss?

    • harperlarp

      Katie: Thank you for bringing up these interesting points! To answer your first question, no, I don’t think rhetoric has been entirely obliterated. In classes I have taken part in at OES, not only have I been required to do occasional oral presentations, but I have also been encouraged by my teachers to be active in class discussions about the material we have covered. I do, however, hold firm in my belief that in terms of communication, particularly in literature-based classes such as English and history, writing is a much more effective and practical means of illustrating a point than speaking. As for your second question, I think the science research project embodies much of what a liberal arts education is all about. Finding a topic that interests you, delving deeper into the background and writing a research paper, conducting research yourself to get more information, and analyzing your data to understand your topic more clearly; all of this can be directly tied to what Smith and Bender said about liberal arts enabling a person to explore their world. Thank you again for such thought-provoking questions! – Harper

  3. kristin888

    Do you think that Erasmus purposely wrote about liberal arts in a satirical manner in order to emphasize and point out certain changes in values during the Renaissance?

  4. austin0907

    How does a liberal arts education hold up in such a competitive job world where there is a need for “the best of the best” and a specific focus on new advances in science and technology in particular?

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