Ever wondered what it would be like to study one of the oldest subjects in the world? ‘Liberal arts’ is one such subject – it goes back to the Ancient Greeks who considered a liberal arts education to be the ultimate mark of an educated person. Interestingly, while liberal arts education has long had an established place in the US higher education system, it has only recently resurfaced in continental Europe, where it originated. Meanwhile in Asia, discussions about introducing liberal arts have started to gain momentum in the past year (2013), while there is as yet only one liberal arts college based in Africa – Ashesi University in Ghana, founded in 2002.
Read on for a fuller exploration of the question “What is liberal arts?” – including all you need to know about what studying liberal arts entails and what students can gain from a liberal arts degree…
A brief history of liberal arts education
During the era of classical antiquity (when ancient Greece and ancient Rome intertwined creating the Greco-Roman world), liberal arts was considered essential education for a free individual active in civic life. At the time, this would have entailed being able to participate in public debate, defend oneself and serve in court and on juries, and perform military service. At this time, liberal arts covered only three subjects: grammar, rhetoric and logic, collectively known as the trivium. This was extended in medieval times to include four further subjects: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, named the quadrivium – so there were seven liberal arts subjects in the medieval liberal arts curriculum.
The trivium was considered preparatory work for the considerably more difficult quadrivium, with the quadrivium in turn being considered preparatory work for the more serious study of philosophy and theology. The aim of a liberal arts education was to produce a person who was virtuous and ethical, knowledgeable in many fields and highly articulate.
Although modern liberal arts curriculums have an updated choice of a larger range of subjects, it still retains the core aims of the liberal arts curricula maintained by the medieval universities: to develop well-rounded individuals with general knowledge of a wide range of subjects and with mastery of a range of transferable skills. They will become ‘global citizens’, with the capacity to pursue lifelong learning and become valuable members of their communities.
What is liberal arts today?
So, in a modern context, what is liberal arts education? There are now many subjects that fall within the broad scope of the category; a typical liberal arts degree program is interdisciplinary, covering topics within the humanities, as well as social, natural and formal sciences. There are differences in the particular subjects included in liberal arts degree programs at different institutions. However, the liberal arts spectrum is generally accepted as covering the following fields:
- Humanities – includes art, literature, linguistics, philosophy, religion, ethics, modern foreign languages, music, theater, speech, classical languages (Latin/Greek) etc.
- Social sciences – includes history, psychology, law, sociology, politics, gender studies, anthropology, economics, geography, business informatics, etc.
- Natural sciences – includes astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, botany, archaeology, zoology, geology, Earth sciences, etc.
- Formal sciences – includes mathematics, logic, statistics, etc.
The term ‘liberal arts education’ can also be applied to the dedicated study of just one of the above subjects (for example, a student studying a BA in Philosophy could be said to be undertaking a liberal arts education). In general, however, the term refers to degree programs that aim to provide a broader spectrum of knowledge and skills.
Liberal arts degrees in the US
Today, liberal arts degrees are most commonly offered in the US. There are hundreds of dedicated liberal arts colleges in the US, with even more institutions offering a liberal arts program alongside other options.
While some universities now offer a one-year associate’s degree in liberal arts, it’s more common for liberal arts degrees in the US to be earned over four years of full-time study. Students earn either a BA or a BSc certification and can then progress to either a graduate school or a professional school. Some students may also choose to specialize by picking a major or minor subject in a specific area (common subjects to major in include business, law, communication, research and politics).
Liberal arts colleges
There are some notable differences between dedicated liberal arts colleges and other universities in the US. Liberal arts colleges typically rely heavily on student participation and encourage a high level of student-teacher interaction, mentorship and collaboration. Whereas universities tend to prioritize research, liberal arts colleges have more staff members dedicated to teaching full-time, rather than a combination of graduate student teaching assistants and research professors. Most liberal arts colleges are small and residential, with smaller enrollment and class sizes and a lower student-teacher ratio, with teachers becoming mentors and even research partners with their students.
Liberal arts degrees in Europe
Though the concept of liberal arts originates in Europe, today it’s much less prevalent than in the US – though in recent years liberal arts degrees have become more widely available. At the moment less than half of European countries have liberal arts colleges or universities with a liberal arts degree program; namely Bulgaria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. Of these, only the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany have more than one institution teaching liberal arts degrees.
Benefits of a liberal arts degree
If you’re still unsure whether a liberal arts degree is for you, here are some of the key benefits of a liberal arts degree:
- Preparation for work in a variety of sectors: you will gain a strong foundation knowledge in a wider range of subjects than if you were to take a degree specializing in a single subject or vocation.
- Introduction to career choices: the range of subjects taught in a liberal arts degree program means students can be introduced to subjects they may not have otherwise encountered, enabling them to make a more informed decision when choosing their preferred career path.
- Stepping stone to other careers: the knowledge achieved during a liberal arts education can help you to better maneuver yourself out of your current career into another.
- Liberal arts degrees are appealing to employers: in a recent survey of CEOs in the US, 74% said they would recommend a liberal arts education to students. Employers recognize that liberal arts graduates have the necessary transferable skills to adapt to a changing workplace.
- Provides a foundation for graduate study: a potential graduate student with a liberal arts background will have the ability to learn across a diverse field of studies, with the foundation knowledge to go straight into graduate study in any subject they choose.
- Provides skills to become a valuable community member: a liberal arts education extends beyond academia and the workplace to give graduates the necessary qualities that can enable them to adapt and thrive in the world, communicate with and understand other members of the community and have a broadened perspective.
Careers with a liberal arts degree
Instead of choosing a career at the beginning of their degree, liberal arts students are more likely to be focusing on learning as much as they can about the world around them, which opens up opportunities across many industry sectors. While some of the following careers require further education (such as a master’s or doctorate degree) some typical careers with a liberal arts degree include:
- Academia: the interdisciplinary knowledge and skills gained from a liberal arts education will lend an extra dimension as you explore, research, and/or teach a chosen subject.
- Art: photography, commercial art, painting, interior, graphic and visual design
- Education: pursue additional qualifications to become a teacher, where you can use your breadth of knowledge to help a wider range of students, or to teach a wider range of subjects.
- Interpreter: many liberal arts students learn at least one foreign language, which can help you become a qualified translator, transcriber or interpreter, become a foreign language teacher or journalist, or work in the tourism and travel industry.
- Marketing: whether you choose advertising, promotions, public relations, journalism, news editing or copywriting, the humanities subjects you covered will help you understand people better, while your communication skills will help you be better understood.
- Political science: careers in this field include law, public policy, politics, business, and working for NGOs and charities.
- Other career paths: biology (healthcare, laboratory assistant, research assistant), business (entrepreneur, store manager, salesperson), event planning, environment (conservation, public policy), finance (banker, accountant, financial analyst), law enforcement, research analysis (combining statistics and psychology), and social services (such as counselling or therapy).
Skills gained from a liberal arts degree
Across the world, advocates of liberal arts education criticize the educational formats and curriculums of other degree programs for their over-emphasis of technical capabilities while neglecting other vital skills. Nonetheless, it can be difficult for a potential student to conceptualize what they will gain from such a wide-ranging degree. To help you out, here are some of the key skills gained from a liberal arts degree for a typical student:
- Analytical, evaluative, critical and creative thinking skills
- Effective oral and written communication skills
- Problem-solving and pattern intelligence skills
- Ability to learn and synthesize new ideas
- Experience in quantitative and qualitative data analysis
- Critical and reflective reading skills
- Numerical skills
- Effective research skills
- Organization and time-management skills
- Information literacy skills
- Ability to adapt easily to situations
- Ethical decision-making skills
- Ability to pose meaningful questions
- Ability to work in a team
- Self-confidence and self-understanding
- Ability to be sensitive to others and be tolerant of cultural differences
- Foreign language skills and cross-cultural knowledge
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