One of my difficulties with the whole line of discussion is that I don't think that college, or education more generally, should be thought of primarily in terms of return on investment or preparation for making a living. Certainly, it can be useful for that. College has become something of a signaling mechanism in our society for "this is an educated, able and adaptable person with a certain ability to stick to something and self motivate (at least enough to graduate)", and as such people with college degrees have doors open to them which people without can find it harder to open. However, despite that, and despite the ever-increasing drum beat of "you must go to college to get a good job" and it's unrealistic (and thus dangerous) cousin "if you go to college, you will be sure to get a good job", I think the purpose of a college education ought to be to become a more fully educated person in the sense traditionally described by the Liberal Arts.
Hopefully, a few readers have just sat up and thought: "Wait a minute, are you saying that only a liberal arts education fulfills the goals of going to college? What about math and science? Should everyone be liberals arts majors?"
No, I'm certainly not excluding math and science. And indeed, I think one of the problems with the way that we often think these days about "liberal arts" and the nature of education is that we tend far too much to equate "liberal arts" exclusively with fields such as languages, literature, history and philosophy.
As one generally reads in a brief essay on the topic, the term "liberal arts" goes back to Roman antiquity, and designates the arts appropriate to a free man. Further, the term "art" had a meaning more along the lines of "craft" or "skill". So the liberal arts comprise the crafts and skills appropriate to a free man. Brandon, I thought, summed this up well at Siris a while back:
The word indicates a kind of craft; it's a productive skill, and one who learns a liberal art becomes an artisan, shaping, and making, and adapting things to good and useful and beautiful ends. Liberal arts are distinguished in one way from servile arts, which are devoted to making oneself useful to other people, and in another way from the manual arts, which make material products (handiworks, things that can be manufactured, things made and shaped by hand). Thus liberal arts are the crafts that involve making those intellectual and imaginative constructions that assist each person in thinking and determining his or her own ends as a free individual. The liberal arts in this sense are literally the arts of free reason.You get a sense of this looking at the traditional list of liberal arts. You have the Trivium which move from the more mechanical to the more abstract: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic
And it cannot be emphasized enough: they make things, and these things, along with the products of all the other arts, are what make up the material of civilization.
The Quadrivium have an opposite progression from the more abstract to the more applied: Mathematics, Geometry, Music, Astronomy Especially once one keeps in mind that to the ancient and medieval authors who compiled this list of seven, music was at least as much a science as an art, being heavily based on mathematics and conceptions of pattern and proportion (in a conception of the universe where everything from the movement of the heavenly spheres to the operation of the human body was understood in terms of pattern and proportion.) Astronomy included observational astronomy (though an awful lot of what we now know about the universe was then unknown) but also involved all of the measures and calculations that people performed using the movement of the stars and planets: navigation, calculation of orbits, predictions as to conjunctions and eclipses, etc.
We don't live in a medieval world anymore, and many aspects of our understanding of the world have changed. I'm not here to present a plan for education based on somehow applying the "Seven Liberal Arts" to modern education. Rather, I think it might be useful to think a bit about what made these the arts of a free man (as opposed to service arts or manual arts) and how we might apply that concept to our modern world.
At the most basic level, it seems to me that these liberal arts have in common that they are more general learned skills that emphasize understanding and adaptability. They are not trained skills suited only to accomplishing a specific sort of task.
In more modern terms, an understanding of subjects such as: mathematics, statistical analysis, relational database structure, or a programming language (and the more conceptional background of what a programming language is and how it works) would fall in the category of liberals arts. They are adaptable skills rooted in general knowledge which a "freeman" might well use in the process of building civilization.
A "servile" approach to these same areas of knowledge could be taken, if instead of focusing on an education which is general and adaptable, one focused on training very specific ways of dealing with very specific situations. To draw on another area: Learning to express oneself clearly and persuasively in writing is a liberal art. Medical transcription is a matter of training. This does not, of course, mean that medical transcription is something unworthy of being done. It's simply that learning to do it is a matter of training. Perhaps someone who has pursued a liberal arts education would end up taking training to work in medical transcription. The liberal arts background might be of any amount of help to the person who becomes a medical transcriber, but it is not the business of the liberal arts to train someone in so specialized a field.
Now clearly, by this sort of definition "liberal arts" is a very wide range of subjects. I don't think it likely that in our increasingly complex world someone would be likely to master all of them, nor is that needed. Breadth is certainly desirable, and I think it fits well with the understanding of the "skills of a free man" that I'm describing here, but different people have different aptitudes, and I don't think its necessary or even desirable to try to push everyone pursuing a liberal arts type of education to master everything that might be thought of as a liberal art. What I do think is important to consider, however, in thinking about education in relation to the liberal arts is the approach which emphasizes a general though thorough understanding of a subject, and the adaptability which comes with that, as compared to the very task-specific kind of learning which is more properly termed "training".