Last Updated: September 02, 2021

Liberal Arts and its General Misconceptions

Merriam-Webster defines liberal arts as a field of study "intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities as opposed to professional or vocational skills." This is too critical and does not reflect the richness of the discipline with regards to its interdisciplinary approach, and 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 the depth of knowledge. On the contrary, liberal arts students have the opportunity to specialize in several topics of their choice. Liberal arts education has changed over the centuries and offers dynamism to the idea of education. One must keep in mind that the primary aim of education was never filling minds and pockets, instead, it aims to generate people of character and brilliance that benefit society, and add value to the concept of education itself.

Evolution of Liberal Arts Education

Liberal Arts education dates back to ancient times. The original fields of study in the liberal arts were grammar, rhetoric, and logic (known as the trivium). 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 (known as the quadrivium) were added on through 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 the first university to offer a liberal arts education in the United States. Debates sparked in the early 19th century about what should be included in a liberal arts education. By that time, several 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 that appeared in the United States.

In the present day, 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 ancient times.

Liberal Arts Education Today: Busting Major Misconceptions

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 required 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 that emphasize on providing exposure to make students more well-rounded scholars. Despite the comprehensive nature of the discipline, people often tend to have various assumptions about the Liberal Arts, mostly, that it is not worth the time, effort, and money.

Affordability

It is a common understanding among people that liberal arts colleges are generally expensive for students hailing from humble financial backgrounds. This assumption is partly true when comparing the fees structure of major liberal arts institutions. But this is also partly untrue considering the number of grants, financial aid, and scholarship packages these colleges offer to make education affordable. The superior educational quality, engaging activities, and valuable experiences that these colleges offer make the aspect of cost a negligible issue.

Worthiness

It is a popular assumption that Liberal Arts is a discipline that does not cover popular streams like science and mathematics, just because it does not explicitly seem that way. Having this misconception (that Liberal Arts is solely a humanities-based discipline) makes people believe that liberal arts students lack merit or intelligence. Intelligence is a subjective aspect. Writing a great book that has the capacity to transform minds does not necessarily require concrete, mathematical intelligence. Neither does it indicate that the person who wrote the book is devoid of the same.

Unemployment

To be hired for any job in any sector, the candidate must have appropriate skills and relevant knowledge to perform their duties efficiently. Qualifications are undoubtedly important as well, and a major in liberal arts will in no way prevent students from achieving their dream job. Liberal Arts is a discipline with a multifaceted approach, signifying that it does include sciences as much as it includes arts or humanities. Therefore, it is false to believe that liberal arts students do not have scope for employment, or that STEM jobs are impossible, or that being a Starbucks employee is the only option. Interestingly, the former chief executive of Starbucks, Howard Schultz earned a degree in Liberal Arts.

Incompetence

A widespread misconception about Liberal Arts education is that it does not train students to achieve practical or professional skills. Liberal Arts primarily offer diverse choices for students, with regards to specialties. It gives an excellent scope to boost critical thinking, creativity, research skills, and a lot more, making students more versatile. This also largely depends on how students choose to design their curriculum and the field they choose to specialize in. Dual majors are also an option in this area. Given the vast range of skills that students develop through liberal arts education, incompetence can never be a possibility. Instead, students will be capable enough to apply major skills in various fields, while also achieving adaptability.

Ideological

The term 'Liberal' is frequently misinterpreted as a political ideology. Though Liberal Arts as a discipline, includes political science as a major, it does not involve any political indoctrination of a particular ideology or party. Given that the root meaning of liberal arts is free man, it unquestionably encompasses different beliefs and ideologies and chooses to delve deeper into it. More than having a political agenda, the discipline promotes free-thinking, learning, and applying the knowledge gained for the betterment of society.

Broadness

It is commonly understood that the Liberal Arts is a bit too mainstream or generic without any specificity. It should be considered here, that as much as Liberal Arts offers a variety of options, it also allows students to choose their preferred specialty. The choice that is offered helps students gain a better understanding of various subjects before they finally discover their true interest and decide to choose a specialty. It is not always a great idea for all students to pursue an educational career that is too specific.

Constricted

Liberal Arts in ancient times consisted of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), and later the quadrivium (geometry, mathematics, music, and astronomy). In the present day, the discipline has evolved, but it still primarily inculcates natural sciences and math, along with arts and humanities. In fact, it has evolved well enough to inculcate a variety of subjects under its umbrella. Therefore, considering liberal arts education as constricted, will be a false notion. Instead, just as the name suggests, Liberal Arts should be known for its 'liberal' outlook, versatility, flexibility, and dynamism.

Size

Considering the liberal arts colleges in the US, it is a general view that the size of the campus is too small, thereby, not bustling with activity. The campus size is comparatively smaller than most of the expansive universities across the country. But it should be understood that these colleges unquestionably offer enough diversity. Given that there are various courses, the number of activities is never less. The best part about a small campus is that it allows more interactions among students as well as teachers. This develops deeper bonds, better participation, and gives students the scope to perform better. It also depends on the student if they wish to experience learning in a less crowded atmosphere. In case one wishes to pursue liberal arts education in a large campus, there are several public universities as well as private universities (Harvard University, Yale, etc.) that offer strong liberal arts programs.

Career Prospects for Liberal Arts Students

With a liberal arts degree, one can qualify for several entry-level careers initially, and then move on to more lucrative options once a specialty is chosen. The major decision is choosing which one to apply for. In fact, many employers have stated that 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 in their careers. It is entirely possible to have a managerial position with just a Bachelor of Arts degree and to make six figures.

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. One must also reflect upon the fact, that solely obtaining a degree does not guarantee anyone a lucrative job or a safe future automatically. Securing a job requires hard work, skills, genuine effort, passion, and a lot more. Similarly, it is ignorant to believe that Liberal Arts education does not offer adequate or immediate employment opportunities, or that it robs students of a bright future.
Major career options that students can take up when pursuing liberal arts majors include: