It is clear that the Liberal Arts—classically understood to be the study of grammar, logic, and rhetoric—has become passé in the modern context. Part of the reason, it is claimed, is that the study of these arts is not directly related to any particular marketable skill; there is no quantifyable payoff for mastering these disciplines, no price tag on them. Many employers are ready and willing to purchase a person’s skill or knowledge in medicine, mechanics, engineering, or accounting, to name a few—there is a price tag on these disciplines. But, ironically, the value of the Liberal Arts lies precisely in their intransitive nature; that is, “the effects of studying these arts stays within the individual and perfects the faculties of the mind and spirit” (Marguerite McGlinn). They cannot be purchased in the job market, for no amount of currency is worthy of them.
In her wonderful book, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, Sister Miriam Joseph likens the study of the Liberal Arts to the blooming of a rose.
In true liberal education…the essential activity of the student is to relate the facts learned into a unified, organic whole, to assimilate them as…the rose assimilates food from the soil and increases in size, vitality, and beauty. […] The utilitarian or servile arts enable one to be a servant—of another person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business—and to earn a living. The liberal arts, in contrast, teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth.
The teacher of the Liberal Arts, then, is like a rose gardener, carefully pruning and producing conditions conducive to growth. Yet, the analogy can’t be pressed beyond this point, since the rose gardener is actually a rose himself, steadily being cultivated by the Liberal Arts.
May the classical understanding of the value of the Liberal Arts be redeemed in our day to the glory of God.