In Defense of the Liberal Arts

I credit my liberal arts education with playing an important role in making me the well-rounded person I strive to be. In undergrad, I had the privilege to attend a liberal arts university, and while I graduated with two majors, I also took a variety of additional courses outside of those disciplines. I spent most of my time studying philosophy and history, but I rounded out my transcript with courses in two different foreign languages, multiple fields of science, government, rhetoric, and interdisciplinary studies—not to mention an extra couple of classes in my double majors. I earnestly believe that these additional courses combined with what I learned in my majors to make me a better, smarter, and more fully developed person.

The liberal arts are a group of disciplines that provide learners with grounding in a variety of different fields. Most American colleges and universities break the liberal arts into three components: humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences/mathematics. Humanities courses include philosophy, religion, fine arts, and literature. The social sciences umbrella covers history, economics, political science, psychology, law, and communication studies. Natural sciences comprise biology, chemistry, physics, and other traditional science classes. There’s a brief overview of each division below, but in short the humanities emphasize studying the individual human experience; the social sciences highlight how humans interact with the world; and the natural sciences focus on the world as humans understand it.

The term “humanities” includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.

National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-209)
https://www.neh.gov/about/history/national-foundation-arts-and-humanities-act-1965-pl-89-209

The social sciences are key to the understanding of many…societal issues such as the balance between economic growth and impact on the environment. In other words the social sciences examine what it means to be a social being, ranging from the minutiae of human behaviour and brain functions, to large scale social movements, demographics, economics and politics.

European Science Foundation, “What are the social sciences?”
http://archives.esf.org/hosting-experts/scientific-review-groups/social-sciences-soc.html

The scientific study of phenomena or laws of the physical world. Natural science includes physics, chemistry, biology and other cross-disciplines. Mathematics, statistics, and computer science may not be regarded as natural sciences but they are essential tools and framework in natural sciences.

Biology Online
https://www.biologyonline.com/dictionary/natural-science

In medieval and early modern times, Western universities offered little more than liberal arts options, as the purpose of education was to form men who could lead their citizens as politicians, military leaders, doctors, and educators. The guiding principle was that well-educated men would better understand the context of their time and be more ethical than their counterparts, making them selfless leaders who could steer their people through difficult times. In several ways, that approach no longer applies in the modern era. For starters, Western education for several centuries was limited to men, with virtually no female scholars. Further, university attendance was limited to the noble and clergy classes, meaning that for the vast majority of people, there was no need and especially no means to attend a college. The opening of academia to wider swaths of the population has changed the landscape of higher education.1 Finally, in some ways, our society seems to have eclipsed the need for a diverse and thorough education in a variety of subjects. Today, there are advanced degrees in virtually every discipline, meaning that there can be more specialization in higher education. If our political leaders need to be well-versed in the legal system, they can earn law degrees. Our doctors spend the better part of a decade in school, learning the important information that will help them keep us healthy. Colleges and universities centered around particular fields—the military academies, M.I.T., business schools—have arisen to take higher ed specialization to a new level, seemingly making liberal arts programs irrelevant.

Philosophia et septem artes liberales, the seven liberal arts. From the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century).
Source: Wikimedia Commons, license CC-BY-SA 3.0

However, liberal arts programs are not simply some relic of the past. They are invaluable approaches to education that bring out the best in learners. A huge number of students go into a university with one idea of what they want to do professionally and then graduate with a completely different career aspiration, having taken courses that changed their mindset. Dabbling in a variety of courses allows students to find their calling and enhance their skills while still in the relatively low-stakes world of university, as opposed to having to start over after spending a year in a field they have no passion for. Additionally, a background in the liberal arts—while not necessarily a steppingstone to civic leadership—helps prepare citizens for civic involvement in their community. A liberal arts education reaches beyond the classroom and the workplace to give graduates a perspective that enables them to thrive in a rapidly changing world, connect and communicate with the people around them (even those who are different from themselves), and participate in civic processes like voting and serving on a jury.

Another critique of liberal arts programs is that they unnecessarily add to the college student’s required course load. An important criticism of contemporary universities, especially in the United States, is that tuition costs have skyrocketed. With that in mind, many people would prefer to get a degree that teaches them the specialties of their field rather than a general education with some degree of specialization based on their major.

Tweet from Twitter user @JasonMWX. Text reads “If we hate the cost of college so much, let’s get rid of all gen Eds that are unrelated to a major. Why do I have to take a music class when my major is meteorology? It makes no sense and is a huge waste of money. HS [high school] is for broad education, college is for specialization.”

But this argument misses three important points. First, the sticker price of tuition has certainly increased over the last few decades, most notably in the lead-up to the economic downturn of the late 2000s. It is important to note that tuition is not the primary driver of these inflated prices. Each year, College Board publishes a study on cost trends in higher education, and the data have consistently shown that tuition and associated fees do not drive rising college costs. Even room and board, once an afterthought to college costs and now the second-highest expense for most students, has stayed more or less stagnant when compared to inflation. Instead, the changes in college cost over the last two decades have grown in tandem with grants and federal funding assistance that covers students’ costs. While schools have gotten more expensive, the federal government has defrayed many of these costs for students, resulting in a manageable increase of roughly $100 per year. According to College Board’s report, the average net price for tuition, fees, and room and board at private four-year schools (usually the most expensive institutions) “increased from about $13,400 (in 2019 dollars) in 2011-12 to an estimated $14,400 in 2019-20; this net price remains below its level from 2001-02 through 2008-09.”2 The cost of college remains high and inaccessible for many people, but the rate at which costs are increasing has been grossly exaggerated and misunderstood.

Image description: Text and photo of empty lecture hall over light green background. Text: “The changes in college cost over the last two decades have grown in tandem with grants and federal funding assistance that covers students’ costs.”

Second, the well-rounded individuals who come out of liberal arts degree programs have two significant advantages on the job market. Their broad training and background lead to higher rates of hire and employment. And once they are in a job, their unique approach to problems makes them more likely to be promoted and earn raises. For instance, a programmer who plans to work on artificial intelligence projects might see no need for a philosophy class in undergraduate. But when that same programmer is put on a project that helps resolve ethical dilemmata—think of the debates over self-driving cars—they’ll need a grounding in ethics to be of use to the project.3 If that programmer sticks out for not having any experience in ethics, they will look bad to their project manager, who might not recommend them for a future project, despite the programmer’s strengths and  contributions in other areas. On the other hand, in a room full of programmers who have no background in philosophy or ethics, the one programmer who does have that training might quickly make an impression on the project manager, fast-tracking their way to another project and perhaps a management position of their own.

Third, this position misunderstands how college degrees work. A bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution will require roughly 120 credit hours, whether all of those hours are in one’s major or spread throughout the university. Only taking courses in one’s major won’t suddenly make a four-year degree obtainable in two years. One way to cut down on costs is to spend two years taking courses at a two-year institution or community college, but those courses will likely be in general education and liberal arts. One way or another, those with bachelor’s degrees must complete 120 hours of classes—and taking only classes within their major won’t decrease the time or financial commitment they have to make.

Liberal arts programs have a rich and storied history in the annals of higher education. No longer the marker of a distinguished noble citizen, but instead representing a well-educated graduate who will be adaptable to whatever their job requires of them, liberal arts education represents the best parts of the Western academic tradition. There are legitimate critiques of American colleges and universities, and the cost of these institutions remains a barrier to many who seek higher education. But the liberal arts are a boon to students, not something to be shunned, and their influence on millions of students each year prepares graduates for the world after college.

  1. https://educationdata.org/number-of-college-graduates/
  2. https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/trends-college-pricing-2019-full-report.pdf, pg. 19
  3. https://interestingengineering.com/are-we-programming-killer-cars-the-ethics-of-autonomous-vehicles

Additional information from https://careerwise.minnstate.edu/education/liberalarts.html

Published by Alexander

I have always been a student of history: in undergrad I explored both Philosophy and History as double majors, while my MA program was in Global History. My primary focus is Latin American history, with a particular interest in Chilean history. I am highly interested in examining the world around me and working to ensure that it is an equitable place for all to live. I am currently furloughed from my work in Residence Life at a small, private university, so I'm using my time and energy to explore my passions and carve out a niche for myself in the world of academia. My hometown is Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but I've lived in a few East Coast states and Oklahoma during my lifetime. My major passions include baseball, naval history and culture, and exploring and adventuring with my Queensland Heeler named Sylens. You can usually catch me listening to pop or rock music, reading historical fiction and nonfiction, or playing strategic board and video games.

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