Suggested Reading: “The Landscape of the Liberal Arts”

Mark Roche, “The Landscape of the Liberal Arts”

This chapter provides a rationale for the value of a liberal arts education, addressing briefly the recent history of the liberal arts, explaining the value of the liberal arts in diverse educational settings as opposed to simply residential liberal arts colleges, and exploring a contemporary rationale for the liberal arts.

What are the “liberal arts”? The term has its origin in the medieval concept of the artes liberalis, the seven liberal arts that were appropriate for a free man (the Latin liber means “free”). On the other hand, the artes illiberalis or artes mechanicae were pursued for economic purposes and involved vocational and practical arts, which prepared young persons to become weavers, blacksmiths, farmers, hunters, navigators, soldiers, or doctors. The seven liberal arts included three basic arts focused on developing a felicity with language: grammar (or language), rhetoric (or oratory), and dialectic (or logic). These were known as the trivium. Added to these were the four advanced mathematical-physical arts: geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy, which were known as the quadrivium. The liberal arts were preparatory not for gaining a livelihood but for the further study of law, medicine, and theology. Today we understand the liberal arts to involve study of the arts and sciences, and we contrast the liberal arts with vocational education. Some college students major in the liberal arts; virtually all others take a certain percentage of their courses in the liberal arts, including basic subjects such as composition, mathematics, and history, as well as electives in fields ranging from biology and economics to literature and philosophy.

Mark Roche, “The Landscape of the Liberal Arts”
© 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Published online in Wiley Online Library (
DOI: 10.1002/cc.20065

Questions to Consider:

  1. On pages 5-6, Roche offers three arguments for the value of a liberal arts education. Although his audience is composed of community college students and those who work in those institutions, I think Roche would argue that these are good reasons for any student to pursue a liberal arts education. To what extent do his arguments align with your own? What does Hope College do to emphasize to its students these or other rationales for a liberal arts education?
  2. Roche argues that liberal arts students “learn to participate meaningfully in the give-and-take of discussion, listening attentively and asking other students to clarify their points, articulating their own perspectives and offering evidence to support them, and asking good, searching questions that take discussions to higher levels.” (7) If Senior Seminar indirectly functions as a final assessment of our students, then should we expect them to have cultivated the virtues, skills, and dispositions necessary to “participate meaningfully” in the types of discussions that are the heart of Senior Seminar? What about the anecdotal evidence from students who say things like: “I wish I had been given the opportunity to have discussions like these before Senior Seminar.”
  3. Roche claims that a liberal arts education “is about understanding, through the asking of great questions and the development of new capacities as well as through other formative experiences, such as conversation with faculty members and fellow students, what kind of person one is and what kind of person one wants to become.” (9) Where in our academic program, other than Senior Seminar, does this development of understanding intentionally take place? What can we do, either as a community or individually, to increase the likelihood that each student develops an understanding of themselves—both in the present and in an imagined future?


Note: Neither I nor the Senior Seminar Program necessarily endorse all or any of the views, perspectives, or pedagogical practices in the readings that I recommend. Rather, I hope to stimulate and foster meaningful discussion and dialogue, which often means reading texts that you might find challenging and/or in opposition to your own attitudes and perspectives. Therefore, I hope that you find this suggested reading thought provoking.

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