In the West, the history of the humanities can be traced to ancient Greece, as the basis of a broad education for citizens. During Roman times, the concept of the seven liberal arts evolved, involving grammar, rhetoric and logic (the trivium), along with arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music (the quadrivium). These subjects formed the bulk of medieval education, with the emphasis being on the humanities as skills or “ways of doing”.

A major shift occurred with the Renaissance humanism of the fifteenth century when the humanities began to be regarded as subjects to study rather than practice, with a corresponding shift away from traditional fields into areas such as literature and history. In the 20th century, this view was in turn challenged by the postmodernist movement, which sought to redefine the humanities in more egalitarian terms suitable for a democratic society since the Greek and Roman societies in which the humanities originated were not at all democratic.