The original seven liberal arts, in the classical world, consisted of the trivium of deductive reasoning comprised of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium of quantitative reasoning, which encompassed geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music. In Rethinking Liberal Education (1996), Bruce Kimball describes how the medieval European universities added to the seven liberal arts “the three philosophies”: natural philosophy (empirical science), moral philosophy (human thought and behavior), and metaphysics (ontology, or the study of being). These categories of the liberal arts, inherited from the medieval European university, find their modern forms in the science, social studies, and humanities divisions into which Grinnell College, like many colleges and universities today, distributes its academic departments. Interdisciplinary programs draw upon multiple departments to examine newer areas of study such as environmental studies, global development, gender and women’s studies, technology, and American studies.
Grinnell faculty members have articulated six areas of study in the current curriculum that are important elements of a liberal education. Students should review this list for guidance as they consider their curricular plans.
- Nothing enhances the expression of knowledge better than engaging, clear, and accurate language. Reading closely, thinking clearly, and writing effectively form a web of connected skills, whether practiced in the First-Year Tutorial, in the Writing Lab, in designated writing courses, or in courses ranging from the introductory to the advanced level in almost every discipline. Students planning their academic programs should strive for the ability to convey their ideas with power and grace, to analyze and formulate arguments, and to adapt each piece of writing to its context and audience.
- Study of a language other than one’s own opens the mind to new ways of thinking. Language placement tests are offered during New Student Orientation, and students are asked to determine their appropriate level at that time. Many Grinnell College faculty members urge their advisees to study a nonnative language and its literature, not only for the exposure to a rich alternative world of cultural meanings, but also to gain a valuable perspective (unavailable to the monolingual person) on the workings of language itself. For careful planning, students should note that many off-campus study opportunities, the Alternative Language Study Option, certain academic majors, and many types of postgraduate study require specific levels of demonstrated ability in foreign languages.
- An education in the natural sciences—biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology—introduces techniques of observation and experimentation, the relation of data to hypotheses, and the practice of scientific reasoning. This work trains the mind to relate concrete empirical information to abstract models, stimulating multidimensional and creative habits of thought. Sustained experience in the laboratory and a grasp of basic scientific principles lead to a better understanding of commonly observed phenomena. Nonspecialists who are scientifically literate bring valuable understanding to public discourse and to an increasing number of professional settings.
- Quantitative reasoning, with emphasis on mathematical models and methods above the secondary-school level, aids in the expression of hypotheses, processes, and theoretical relations. A course in statistics can be helpful for all students, and particularly for those who might work in the social and behavioral sciences. Studies in computer science offer valuable exposure to principles of logic and problem-solving paradigms.
- The study of human behavior and society leads students to investigate their own identities and to gain insight into social categories and relations. Faculty advisers often urge students to take a sustained look at the history of a specific society, and also to examine a contemporary society (or a segment of it) that is unfamiliar. In light of these encounters, students learn to make and evaluate their own political and ethical choices. Whether a student explores anthropology, economics, education, history, philosophy, political science, religious studies, sociology, or interdisciplinary studies, this question will lie near the heart of the inquiry: in what ways have people lived together, and how should they live together?
- Students enlarge their understanding of the liberal arts through the study of creative expression. In the analysis of creative works, whether through historical survey of forms, aesthetic theory, or interpretive practice, the arts occupy the foreground, though knowledge of history and society may inform the analysis. In this way, courses in literature, music, theatre, dance, and the visual arts complement studies in anthropology, history, philosophy, religious studies, and other fields. Students also benefit from learning, through direct instruction in artistic or literary technique, the intense discipline of art and its interplay between conscious intent and unconscious design.
Students of the liberal arts should use this framework as a starting point for intellectual discovery and personal development as they plan their four years of study in consultation with their advisers.