The scope of the liberal arts has changed with society. It once emphasised the education of elites in the classics; but, with the rise of science and humanities during the Age of Enlightenment, the scope and meaning of "liberal arts" expanded to include them. Still excluded from the liberal arts are topics that are specific to particular occupations, such as agriculture, business, dentistry, engineering, medicine, pedagogy (school-teaching), and pharmacy.
In the history of education, the seven liberal arts comprised two groups of studies: the trivium and the quadrivium. Studies in the trivium involved grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (logic); and studies in the quadrivium involved arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. These liberal arts made up the core curriculum of the medieval universities. The term liberal in liberal arts is from the Latin word liberalis, meaning "appropriate for free men" (social and political elites), and they were contrasted with the servile arts. The liberal arts thus initially represented the kinds of skills and general knowledge needed by the elite echelon of society, whereas the servile arts represented specialized tradesman skills and knowledge needed by persons who were employed by the elite.
Today, the liberal arts are often promoted as "liberal" in a later Enlightenment sense, as liberating of the mind, removing prejudices and unjustified assumptions. In spite of the earlier medieval meaning, this is regarded by many today as the more relevant sense of the broader term liberal education.
In the United States, Liberal arts colleges are still a particular kind of higher education institution that are typified by their rejection of more direct vocational education during undergraduate studies. Following completion of their undergraduate studies at liberal arts colleges, graduates often do obtain specialized training by going to other institutions, such as professional schools (for instance, in business, law, medicine, or theology) or graduate schools.
Institutions outside the United States that have been inspired by U.S. liberal-arts colleges include the European College of Liberal Arts in Germany and Ashesi University in Ghana. This category of higher education does not exist in the United Kingdom, and the term "liberal arts" is very little used in any contemporary context in the UK. In Melbourne, Australia, Victoria University offers a two year TAFE Diploma known as The Diploma of Liberal Arts.
- Charles Blaich, Anne Bost, Ed Chan, and Richard Lynch. Defining Liberal Arts Education. Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, 2004.
- Friedlander, Jack. Measuring the Benefits of Liberal Arts Education in Washington's Community Colleges. Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Community Colleges, 1982a. (ED 217 918)
- Blanshard, Brand. The Uses of a Liberal Education: And Other Talks to Students. (Open Court, 1973. ISBN 0812694295)
- Wriston, Hénry M. The Nature of a Liberal College. Lawrence University Press, 1937.
- Philosophy of Liberal Education
- Liberal Arts at the Community College
- A Descriptive Analysis of the Community College Liberal Arts Curriculum
- The Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Artsde:Artes liberales