What Is “Liberal Arts”?

What Is “Liberal Arts”?
portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
By Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on June 9, 2020

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Ask 10 people to define the term "liberal arts," and you'll likely get 10 different answers. Is math a liberal art? What about biology or chemistry? Although the liberal arts definition has evolved over time, nowadays the field comprises four major areas of study: the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences.

Despite recent drops in the percentage of liberal arts degree-holders, liberal arts majors remain popular among college students in the U.S., particularly among associate degree-seekers.

If you're considering pursuing a liberal arts degree or attending a liberal arts college, then you'll need to understand exactly what you'll be studying and prioritizing in your education.

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A Liberal Arts Definition and History

The diverse fields that make up the liberal arts today have their origin in ancient Greece. They were a way to prepare men to make decisions for their city-state. Civic participation required training in rhetoric, philosophy, arithmetic, and grammar. The ancient Romans built on the Greek model, naming it humanitas, or "human nature or civilization."

In the medieval era, scholars divided the seven liberal arts into the trivium — grammar, logic, and rhetoric — and the quadrivium — mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy. Renaissance humanists resurrected the Roman studia humanitatis, or "studies of humanity," in their educational system, which emphasized rhetoric, history, and moral philosophy.

Today, liberal arts includes majors in the humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Prominent universities like Oxford and Cambridge taught a liberal arts curriculum, which early American institutions of higher learning — including Harvard and Yale — adopted as well.

The Yale Report of 1828 defended the value of a liberal arts education, asserting that "the ground work of a thorough education must be broad, and deep, and solid." Rather than emphasizing vocational or technical knowledge, the report argued, the liberal arts should teach broad skills, such as how to analyze information, build and evaluate arguments, and communicate effectively.

These core skills still make up the foundation of liberal arts education. Today, liberal arts includes majors in the humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences — all fields that help students build critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills.

What Is a Liberal Arts Degree?

Many conflate liberal arts with the humanities, but in reality a liberal arts degree is a broad term that includes majors in not only the humanities but also the arts, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Examples of humanities liberal arts majors are English, history, philosophy, communications, and foreign languages, while arts majors include subjects like music, design, theater, and painting.

Some schools even offer a liberal arts major, in which students can pursue an interdisciplinary course of study.

In the social sciences, majors in political science, economics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology would qualify as liberal arts degrees. And in the natural sciences, a liberal arts degree could be a major in biology, mathematics, chemistry, environmental science, or physics.

At many universities, the College of Arts and Sciences grants liberal arts degrees. Liberal arts also makes up the basis for most general education requirements, which promote the ideal of broad-based training in several disciplines. Some schools even offer a liberal arts major, in which students can pursue an interdisciplinary course of study.

Ultimately, a liberal arts degree trains students to think critically and communicate their ideas. According to Princeton's Office of Admission, "By exploring issues, ideas, and methods across the humanities and the arts, and the natural and social sciences, [liberal arts majors] will learn to read critically, write cogently, and think broadly."

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What Is a Liberal Arts College?

While many colleges and universities grant liberal arts degrees, a liberal arts college offers a focused liberal arts education. These colleges generally emphasize small class sizes and a curriculum centered on the humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Like students earning a liberal arts degree at a research institution, students at liberal arts colleges must fulfill general education requirements that emphasize critical thinking, problem-solving, and reasoning skills.

[Liberal arts] colleges generally emphasize small class sizes and a curriculum centered on the humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Maine's Bowdoin College explains that "a modern liberal arts education takes whatever you're passionate about — history, medicine, music, law, neuroscience, engineering, poetry, teaching, biology — and helps you understand how it will impact the world around you."

Liberal arts colleges see higher education as more than just job training. According to Jonathan Veitch, president of Occidental College, "A liberal arts college takes seriously the notion that a job isn't a job, it's a vocation, so it better bring meaning to your life and help you think through what that might look like."

Should You Get a Liberal Arts Degree?

Whether a liberal arts degree is worth it to you depends on your interests, skills, and chosen career path. The following motivations can help you figure out whether you should consider pursuing a liberal arts degree.

A liberal arts education teaches you some of the most in-demand skills out there, including critical thinking and creative problem-solving.

If you are passionate about writing, public speaking, and/or helping people, a liberal arts degree may be an ideal choice for you.

Arguably one of the biggest benefits of a liberal arts degree is the ability to apply the skills you gain from it to an array of industries and jobs. If you are unsure about what kind of job you want, or are interested in multiple career paths, a liberal arts education can help you identify — and ultimately achieve — your goals.

Many liberal arts majors don't earn a huge income right off the bat, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to earn more later on. As long as you're willing to work hard, you can make your liberal arts degree worthwhile.

Additional Liberal Arts Resources

A comprehensive guide to choosing the best liberal arts degree and career for you.

Our 2020 list of the best liberal arts programs at U.S. colleges and universities.

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