Founded as an academic division in 1940, Liberal Arts is one of the major categories of "arts" offered at RISD, along with design and fine arts. It has had a significant role in the institution's history. As early as the 1880s, RISD students were offered lectures in the history of art, ornament, and design, as well as in botany and anatomy. In the 1930s, when the school began granting its first degrees, two years of English became required, and a wide range of courses in art history, economics, French, history, physics, and public speaking were added to the curriculum. In 1956, leaders of the College specifically cited the importance of the humanities in training students for leadership in their fields and modified RISD's degree requirements to create a balance between students' general education and professional study. Broad study in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences still shapes the Liberal Arts curriculum today. Throughout their four years at RISD, students are not only working with diverse media in their major studios but also immersing themselves in books; exploring Museum artifacts; interpreting images and objects; writing, criticizing, and debating ideas; and observing and testing natural phenomena. This work, as former President John R. Frazier once put it, sustains a RISD education’s essential combination of “know-how” and “know-why.”
Long before there was a Division of Liberal Arts, Math and Science — e.g. Algebra, Anatomy, Anthropology, Botany, Chemistry, Economics, Engineering, Geometry, Physics, and Psychology — have been important elements in each department’s curriculum.