The history of a Liberal Education is that of the migration and transformation of an educational ideal. The meaning, purpose, and goals of a Liberal Education have long been disputed. The two main understandings of such an education are derived from eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinking and classical antiquity respectively. The Enlightenment model advances that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to free the individual from time and place-bound ways of thinking and doing things in favor of pure reason: This model places an emphasis on rational criticism and objectivity.
The Classical understanding, by contrast, does not purport to create free individuals but rather requires that an individual already be free to undertake it. During times of classical antiquity, this type of education was intended for the elite who were exempt from work; non-free members of society might rather pursue vocational training. Instead of divesting students of the beliefs and values of the ambient culture, the Classical model attempts to inculcate its students with the values of the place and time in the creation of a fully developed individual who can adequately participate in civic life and fulfill their civic duty. As such, students of the liberal arts during classical antiquity were required to study subjects like grammar not just to learn about syntax and parts of speech, but to be exposed to the ideals that permeated the literature of the day.
Liberal Education as we know it in Europe today is not clearly one model or the other but is rather a still-evolving concept acted on (and acting upon) disparate spheres. LESC 2019 specifically examines the relationship of Liberal Education to the spheres of politics, technology, society, economy, and education. A non-governmental educational consulting group called ECOLAS (The European College of Liberal Arts and Sciences), which emerged as a consequence of the reforms initiated in the Bologna process at the 1990s, says that Liberal Education students should have: 1) the capacity to understand the importance of multiple perspectives in examining and solving a problem; 2) the necessary cultural breadth of learning vital to transnational relationships; 3) acute skills in critical analysis and synthesis; 4) the ability to articulate a position accurately and persuasively; and 5) a passion for lifelong learning.
Not every Liberal Education program focuses on the same topics or on fostering the same capabilities, but all Liberal Education programs participating in LESC meet the criteria set for students in a Liberal Education program.