An Introduction to the Liberal Arts and AGES

Thomas R. Banks, Professor Emeritus of Classics Dorothy J. Parkander Professor Emeritus in Literature

The concept of the liberal arts has been an evolving human achievement, not a motionless given. From the classical period to our own time, civilizations have examined the experience of their forebears and their own circumstances, then created studies that seemed most likely to develop the happy—the truly happy—person. As the name suggests (Latin liberalis, free) this happiness was known to require freedom of mind, body and spirit. The artes liberales were to enable that freedom. The tradition of the concept eventually counted seven liberal arts and called them the Trivium (the written word, the spoken word, and logic) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). We would know them by other names and expanded concerns: the humanities, mathematics, natural science, social science, the fine arts, and the critical thinking that accompanies them all.

The origin of this concept, and its evolution since, was practical in so deep a way that it has to be considered idealistic as well. The ideal practicality lay in the goal of preparing a person to be in the deepest sense happy: fulfilled in mind, body, and spirit. This happiness would require the ability to fulfill a calling in many senses: in economic capability, in civic duty and leadership, and in the life of the mind as it confronts all the other richness and challenge of life. Further—and this deeper practicality especially distinguished the liberal arts— this learning must prepare one to meet opportunities and agonies never seen before. If learned well, then, the liberal arts are an ever-new resource for an unknown future.

At Augustana today, our enactment of the liberal arts is the curriculum called Augustana General Education Studies (AGES). Crucially, this begins with the courses we call Liberal Studies. These are introductions to the fundamental questions of the liberal arts. As such, they are the basis for deeper happiness, whether sought in citizenship, private life, or vocation. They are in effect—let us be emphatic here—the roots of any major field of study: not preliminary to the major, not in addition to the major, but where a major itself begins.

AGES continues with the Learning Perspectives and Learning Communities. The Learning Perspectives are the modern enactment of the Trivium and Quadrivium. They are the ways of inquiring into answers to serious questions. But the power of these ways, these perspectives, is weakened if isolated. The liberal arts are parts of a whole. Therefore the third component of AGES, the Learning Community, shows how to integrate learning from more than one perspective. Knowing the questions, knowing how to research and formulate answers, and knowing how to do this in a collaboration both of methods and of colleagues will be the means to achieve that deepest happiness—within self, society, and cosmos. Thus the mission statement of Augustana:

Augustana College, rooted in the liberal arts and sciences and a Lutheran expression of the Christian faith, is committed to offering a challenging education that develops qualities of mind, spirit and body necessary for a rewarding life of leadership and service in a diverse and changing world.