Chatham: A Liberal Arts College?

By: Jamie Wiggan

“Liberal Arts” is a dated term—that is, outside of college campuses. Apart from designating a particular degree format or institution of higher education, it is a term that is all but extinct. Why then does this linguistic relic linger with us? And why is it included in Chatham’s mission statement?
The medieval European university curriculum, by adopting the modes of classical learning, was composed of seven disciplines: grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the trivium); and Geometry, Music, Arithmetic, and Astronomy (the quadrivium)—which together comprise the seven liberal arts. Clearly the modern liberal arts curriculum has evolved from its medieval origins, but perhaps its most enduring feature is carried in the name. By referring to arts “worthy of a free man”, the origins of the term reflect the discriminatory attitudes toward women and slaves that characterized the classical world, and much of subsequent European history. But beneath this ugly veneer lurks the true value of the liberal arts and a clue as to why the privileged ranks of society have long guarded them with greedy hands.
In many societies throughout history, the status of a “free man” is comparable to receiving a perennial VIP pass at birth—redeemable at all of life’s major outlets. If nothing more, it was your right to go about your day without undue hassle because other people groups were the designated societal scapegoats. In Ancient ‘democratic’ Athens, at least, it was what qualified you as a citizen. But being a truly “free” man also meant freedom from working to support oneself. In their case, education was not sought for its vocational prospects, but solely for the expansion and cultivation of the mind. The paradox is that the liberal arts are the province of “free” people only so much as they serve to liberate the mind through the enriching world of thought.
If looking back to the origins of liberal arts evokes a Marxian narrative of the “haves” over the “have-nots”, I find that today there is a different struggle at play: the assumption that undergraduates have to choose between a useless education or a lucrative education. You can be stupid—yet presumably a nerd—like me by wasting thousands of dollars on a history degree that you’ll never pay off with that job as a museum curator; or you can be smart and study business or accounting and assuredly get rich soon after graduating. Today, education is not determined by financial standing prior to enrolling so much as it is by awaited financial standing upon completion.
Still, many American schools proudly hold to their heritage as liberal arts colleges, proudly heralding the value of a varied and expansive (or perhaps just expensive?) education. In recent years, a number of articles published by Forbes, USA today and The Atlantic have suggested resurgence in the perceived value of liberal arts degrees—specifically, of all places, in the tech industry. This claim is supported by pointing to the ever-evolving demands of employers, where it is said that there is an increasing need for people able to draw connections across different mediums—to join the dots; in short to be more than a one-trick-pony.
My view is that students should not decide their course of study with nothing more than financial considerations in mind. Nor should they feel that they have to. Whether you aspire to be an investment banker, a software coder, or a humble curator for an obscure and unpopular museum, your education is not simply a ticket into your chosen profession but the necessary shaping of your mind to enable you to undertake it with proficiency and resourcefulness. The beauty of the liberal arts model is that even if you opt for a “vocational” program, the curriculum ensures that you will be informed and enriched beyond the necessary skills of your field.
Perhaps this point is best captured in the opening line of Chatham’s mission statement: “Chatham University prepares its students to build lives of purpose, value, and fulfilling work . . .through professional skill development and liberal arts learning”. Is it successful? You tell me.