What are the liberal arts and Misconceptions

The Merriam-Webster defines liberal arts as fields of study "intended to give you general knowledge rather than to develop specific skills needed for a profession." This is too critical and does not reflect the abundant career options students have with a liberal arts education.

Sadly, this misconception about liberal arts education is widespread. There is a general fear that breadth of knowledge does not guarantee depth of knowledge. On the contrary, liberal arts students have the opportunity to specialize in a number of topics of their choice. Finally, liberal arts educations have changed over the centuries and decades. More often than not, liberal arts resembled specialized humanities subjects.

Evolution of Liberal Arts Education

Liberal Arts education dates back to the ancient world. The original fields of study in the liberal arts were grammar, rhetoric, and logic. It was believed that mastery of these three areas was essential to engage in civil society. Communication was highly valued.

Other subjects such as geometry, mathematics, music, and astronomy were added on throughout the centuries. The Renaissance revamped the liberal arts education by adding subjects in the humanities such as linguistics, poetry, and history to the core liberal arts education. Essentially, liberal arts may include anything except strictly professional or technical studies.

In 1636 Harvard University became first university to offer a liberal arts education in the United States. Debate sparked in the early 19th century about what should be included in a liberal arts education. By that time a number of colleges proclaimed to be offering the highly-sought after liberal arts degree. An 1828 document called the Yale Report declared liberal arts education would focus on the civil and cultural, rather than the professional. This was in response to the number of technical schools and training appearing in the United States.

Today strictly liberal arts colleges are in the minority. A true liberal arts school will generally offer courses in a variety of arts and sciences but it is strictly for undergraduate studies, with a few exceptions. One characteristic of a liberal arts college is that there is a large "core curriculum" focused on the humanities and studies that date back to the first liberal art schools in the ancient world.

Liberal Arts Education Today

Most universities and colleges in the United States include a concise version of the liberal arts education. It is often referred to as the "core curriculum." The number of credits to complete the core curriculum varies by university. Essentially, these are the classes that universities deem necessary to earn a bachelor's degree, regardless of what they end up majoring in. Readers will notice the similarities between a broad, cultural liberal arts education and a modern core curriculum which emphasizes exposure to make students more well-rounded scholars.

Very few colleges offer a four-year broad or general enough to be considered just a liberal arts degree. As noted, most include the liberal arts aspect just in the core curriculum. One school that still offers a traditional liberal arts education is St. John's College in Annapolis. It has a satellite campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is probably the closest a student of the 21st century can get to a historic liberal arts curriculum. In essence, students read the "great books" or the defining books that shaped Western society. Students study traditional liberal arts subjects like literature, theology, and political theory. They also examine non-traditional liberal art subjects like physics and chemistry. All of these subjects are studied by reading distinguished, historic scholars. The curriculum is also chronological. Thus freshman read texts from the ancient world, sophomores and juniors read renaissance and enlightenment works. Finally, the senior year is focused on the modern world (late 19th to mid 20th century).

More often than not, a liberal arts degree today refers to someone who majored in the humanities, such as English, philosophy or theology. When people think of a liberal arts degree, they tend to think of these degrees rather than a general degree comprising multiple subjects.


The blessing and curse of a liberal arts degree is that you can qualify for a number of entry-level careers. The difficulty is choosing which one to apply for! While a neuroscience laboratory isn't likely to hire you, a history major who happens to have work experience in an office is just as likely to get an administrative position as a communication major. In fact, many employers have stated they value the skills gained with a liberal arts education like strong use of language and critical-thinking skills.

That being said, many liberal art degree students do end up pursuing graduate school to specialize their career. It is entirely possible to have a managerial position with just a bachelor's of arts and to make six figures, but it certainly doesn't come quite as easy for a English major than it does for a Computer Science major.

The immediate career prospects are not obvious or direct with a liberal arts education or humanities degree. However, the chance to explore diverse career options may appeal to students who are not quite sure of their chosen career path upon matriculating into college.