On Specialization and the Liberal Arts

This is a brief presentation I wrote for Duquesne’s Interdisciplinary Symposium. I read it to kick off the conference.

The liberal arts are seven branches of knowledge: the trivium of arts pertaining to the mind– logic, grammar, and rhetoric (or, reckoning, reading, and writing), and the quadrivium of arts pertaining to matter (or, quantity and number)– arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Bachelor of Arts is the degree awarded to those demonstrating proficiency in these arts, Master of Arts to those with greater proficiency. The liberal arts are “liberal” in the sense of free; they constitute the education proper to a free person. They are prerequisite for any number of more particular arts or disciplines since they are tools for any number of other disciplines and because proficiency with them means one has developed her own capabilities in preparation for all sorts of tasks. Though these arts are foundational to our educations and historically to our educational programs and institutions, the liberal arts have stopped being central to our educations– even our so-called liberal arts educations. Rather, much of the liberal arts are left by the wayside while what we study becomes more specialized. No one expects that a “liberal arts” education will involve arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Similarly, those in the so-called “hard sciences” may regard studies derived from the trivium as mere intellectual luxuries. The trivium and quadrivium have been pulled apart and are then subdivided even farther into specific disciplines.

Here I’ll say a little about the problems that come with the increase of academic specialization, and how this process breaks up the whole formed by the liberal arts. I’ll also discuss how interdisciplinary studies help to rebuild the liberal arts and show that the trivium is not trivial, but that it provides a basis for original ideas. In other words, interdisciplinary studies do not break boundaries of “traditionally defined disciplines,” but rather reveal that these boundaries broke up a prior unity.


The development of academic specialties mirrors, and sometimes overlaps with, the development of jobs– not only of particular jobs, but of the idea of a “job” at all. Beginning in the fifteenth century, “there is a steady progress of fragmentation of the stages of work” (McLuhan, p. 20). These stages of work are mechanized– a certain set of rules govern them, and the tasks of the job are specific. The person carrying out the job becomes more and more of a specialist; eventually she is an “expert” at her particular task. She is a part of a system (as Pink Floyd puts it, a “brick in the wall”). David Schwartz references this process when he describes his experience as a psychologist attempting to help those who have been institutionalized or labeled developmentally disabled. He explains that professionals each have “a box in the organization chart” (p. 21) in which they are forced to stay and relate in a prescribed role with particular tasks as well as a particular way of doing them. They get in trouble when they stray from their role since this inevitably means invading someone else’s box in the organizational chart. So, she fits herself to the task. As our technology develops the capability to do more and as we become more specialized in our tasks (or in a sense, to do less), we have to consider the possibility of some strange results. Marshall McLuhan presents these possible results in the form of a joke: “’Come into my parlor,’ says the computer to the specialist.” The secret is, human beings are not very good specialists (not like computers), and the more precise we become, the less suited we are to our tasks. We don’t fit into boxes on organizational charts.

Another approach to work, thought, academia, and living– one represented by interdisciplinary studies and which existed outside of gradual developments in specialization– is to fit one’s task to oneself. Think, for example, of Blaise Pascal, whose activities ranged from composing philosophical and theological writings to making contributions to the geometry of conic sections to inventing a calculator. Or perhaps think of Gottfried Leibniz, an inventor of calculus, a theory of motion, and a series of metaphysical ideas; or Goethe, whose many activities made him a playwright, poet, and theorist on colors and plant morphology. What is truly amazing about these thinkers and the many like them is not the breadth of ideas into which they delved– that’s missing the point. Rather, what is amazing is the way their ideas fit together into a whole, and they inadvertently reveal that these “disciplines” are not so disparate, at all. Each of these thinkers has a way to see the world. They don’t think of their activities as belonging to different disciplines per se– rather, their various ideas have been divided their views up into categories from without. To see what I mean, read Pascal’s Pensees while thinking of his interest in mathematics (many of the pensees have an intricate mathematical structure– it’s like reading a proof), or Leibniz’s calculus while keeping his “monadology” in mind. It is not only in the minds of individual thinkers that these various aspects of thinking about the world come together.

One might also think of the whole formed by Euclid’s geometry books and Plato’s dialogues: Euclid reveals the structure of the world and making it “mathematical” (from ancient Greek “mathema,” or learnable) by reconstructing the world in steps. Plato’s dialogues discover forms, such as the Good, the Just, and the Beautiful, and through steps in argument which make them it knowable. Another example is Isaac Newton’s discovery that the same natural laws that govern the planets govern the earth, alongside Kant’s assertion that there is a single moral law which applies to all of humanity. Examples like these reveal that ideas are better thought of as aspects of a whole than as truly separate disciplines. Specialization is an attempt to know more by going deeply into a piece of the whole, but at some point these specialties or disciplines become farther from one another until we forget they make up a whole or until they truly no longer fit together and there isn’t a possibility for dialogue between specialties. Why is it that humanities students think it doesn’t matter whether or not they know any mathematics?

Interdisciplinary studies, then, are not so much about opening up paths between different disciplines but removing barriers between them. The interdisciplinarian develops abilities which transcend a particular discipline. She finds common strands among disciplines rather than becoming a jack of all trades. She develops a unique and informed perspective, as only a human being can do. This is the aim of a liberal arts education; it is what a person educated in the liberal arts should be able to do.


Joseph, Mariam. (2002). The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books.

“Liberal Arts.” From Encyclopedia Britannica Concise. Retrieved 2pm 2/12/2008. http://concise.britannica.com/ebc/article-9370154/liberal-arts

McLuhan, Marshall & Fiore, Quentin. (1967). The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam Books.

Schwartz, David. (1997). Who Cares?: Rediscovering Community. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Snow, C.P. (1959). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s