Students at Shimer College pose for a still photo during Shimer’s earlier history
The liberal arts approach to education has a long and rich history. It has been shaping human minds for thousands of years and has long been known for its influence in molding citizens into well-rounded, life-long learners. Those privileged enough to pursue a liberal arts education receive the opportunity to explore freedom of thought and to expand their minds through thought-provoking studies.
If you’re curious about a liberal arts education and how it all started, read on to discover more about this educational philosophy’s captivating history.
The Greco-Roman Period Founded Liberal Arts Programs
The very beginnings of liberal arts education can be traced back to the Greco-Roman period, which took place between 332 and 395 AD. During this time, a liberal arts education was considered necessary to living a free and active civic life. An education rooted in the liberal arts was believed to prepare students to participate in jury duties, the military, and public debate. At this point in history, pupils who had the privilege to pursue a liberal arts education were considered great thinkers. In fact, many texts produced during this period are still relevant to students today. For example, Shimer College students still read the works of greats from this era including Plato's The Republic.
Students enrolled in an alternative liberal arts college today will still feel the influences of the original liberal arts foundation, the trivium. The trivium—meaning where three roads meet—was composed of the three core subjects that were taught during this period, which included grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Even today, liberal arts students still practice these concepts. Rhetoric, which is the practice of persuasively speaking in a group environment, is a major part of classes and discussions at liberal arts schools like Shimer.
Liberal Arts Programs Evolved During the Medieval Period
In an effort to expand the liberal arts curriculum and to continue to create citizens who were ethical, knowledgeable, and capable of free thought, liberal arts education evolved during the medieval period. The medieval period began in 476 AD and ended around 1500 AD.
During this time, the trivium was expanded into the quadrivium, which introduced four new areas of study including arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (some of which are still taught in liberal arts colleges today). This new syllabus was considered the preparation for even higher levels of educational study in the areas of philosophy and theology.
Students in liberal arts programs at colleges like Shimer will read several great books written during the medieval period. For example, in the Humanities 3: Philosophy and Theology course offered at Shimer College, students will explore Anselm's religious work Proslogion and Thomas Aquinas's best-know work Summa Theologica.
Liberal Arts Colleges Came to the United States
The history of higher education in the United States is rooted in liberal arts studies, which dates back to 1636. It all started at Harvard University, which originally offered a liberal arts education. However, during the 1800s, the American education system received criticism for its lack of advancements in the scientific realm. During this time, Yale’s president, Jeremiah Day, formed a committee to defend the liberal arts educational structure. His committee wrote The Yale Report of 1828, which defended its classic curriculum, arguing that those who pursue this type of education graduate as well-rounded and open-minded citizens.
As a result of this document, liberal arts colleges began popping up around the United States. Even though Harvard and Yale are no longer liberal arts universities, The Yale Report of 1828 remains the guiding force in the philosophy surrounding liberal arts education in America. To this day, a liberal arts education encourages students to be well-rounded thinkers in many areas, rather than simply trained for one specific skill-set or job.
Many liberal arts colleges like Shimer (then known as Mount Carroll Seminary) were founded after 1828
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