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Liberal Arts And Liberal Sciences

  ‘Liberal arts’ (from Latin liber, ‘free man’ and ars, ‘skill’) was an expression coined in 14th-century Europe. It meant aristocratic pursuits and skills, as opposed to ‘the mechanical arts’: those appropriate to people of lower class. There were seven liberal arts, as defined in universities of the time, and they were divided into two groups. The trivium (‘triple path’) consisted of grammar, logic and rhetoric, and the more advanced quadrivium (‘four-fold path’) consisted of arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music. By studying these seven subjects, a young European could become a ‘master of arts’, and was qualified to proceed to the next stage, ‘doctor’ (‘learned’), in a single subject such as law, medicine or—the highest ranked—theology.

The liberal sciences, as defined in 15th-century Europe, were a variant of the above, and were regarded as a new-fangled aberration unfit for the ‘older’ universities. They were the basis for an educational curriculum which combined (what we would call) arts and science; like the liberal arts, they were intended for the education of aristocrats only, and had no connection with the skills required by ordinary working people; they came to underlie the French baccalauréat just as the liberal arts once underlay educational systems of other kinds. They were astronomy, drawing, grammar, painting and physics. KMcL



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