late 14c., translating Latin artes liberales; the name for the seven attainments directed to intellectual enlargement, rather than immediate practical purpose, and thus deemed worthy of a free man (liberal in this sense is opposed to servile or mechanical). They were divided into the trivium -- grammar, logic, rhetoric (see trivial) -- and the quadrivium -- arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy. Explained by Fowler (1926) as "the education designed for a gentleman (Latin liber a free man) & ... opposed on the one hand to technical or professional or any special training, & on the other to education that stops short before manhood is reached."
The study of [the classics] is fitly called a liberal education, because it emancipates the mind from every narrow provincialism, whether of egoism or tradition, and is the apprenticeship that every one must serve before becoming a free brother of the guild which passes the torch of life from age to age. [James Russell Lowell, "Among my Books"]