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Liberal Arts - Learning to Think

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A liberal arts education refers to studies in a college or university intended to provide general knowledge and develop intellect. Most liberal arts colleges offer majors in “traditional” liberal arts fields – language, history, and science. Students who complete the degree requirements typically earn a bachelor’s degree.

The term ‘liberal arts’ is taken from the Latin phrase liberales artes, which means, “that which should be known by a free man.” A liberal arts education does not teach a single point of view, but rather provides the tools to find your own conclusion from competing points of view.

A Liberal studies major provides a student with broad knowledge about the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Students usually have the option to customize their major with the help of an academic advisor. Many people who major in the liberal arts have to create their own career path. If this uncertainty doesn’t alarm you, you may have what it takes to be a liberal arts major.

Just because there’s no clearly defined career path for the liberal arts major, doesn’t mean that you won’t pick up valuable career skills. You’ll study a broad range of topics, build a solid vocabulary, and develop reasoning and judgment. This is opposed to technical skills leatned with other majors.

Many employers know that a liberal arts education prepares students for successful careers. In 2000, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) surveyed employers across the country to determine what they look for when hiring new employees. The survey revealed that employers tend to focus on finding graduates with the right skills rather than the right major. The majority of employers believed that a new employee with the right skills could easily learn the specifics of an industry. The survey also showed that employers desire transferable skills such as written and verbal communication skills, the ability to solve complex problems, and to adapt in a changing workplace. These transferable skills are characteristic of a liberal arts education.

As students pursue a liberal arts education there are steps they can take to make themselves more marketable to potential employers. These include pursuing a minor, elective classes, work experience, internships, volunteer opportunities, and extracurricular activities. To explore careers, students can meet with campus advisers or career counselors to learn of potential career options. They can also conduct informational interviews with people already in the field. Ask about skills you should develop and opportunities to develop them.

A liberal arts education can also provide an excellent foundation for students who wish to pursue graduate study. Candidates with a liberal arts background are appealing. They’ve more than likely demonstrated an ability to learn and succeed.

The value of a liberal arts education goes far beyond its economic value. Liberal arts graduates are equipped with the skills to become valuable members of the community. They understand problems, generate solid solutions, and communicate those solutions to others.

When they first arrive at college, many students are surprised at the general education classes they must take in order to graduate. They wonder why someone who wants to be an accountant should study subjects that have nothing to do with that field. Why should you have to study something outside your major? To answer this question, let’s look at some of the benefits of a liberal arts education:

  • A liberal arts education teaches you how to think. Your mind is a muscle; exercise makes it stronger. What you found difficult at first – attention, concentration, grasping new concepts, the ability to follow arguments – becomes easier with varied study.
  • You will also learn that thinking has its own orderly structure and set of rules. Many subjects help the student to develop an ordered mind, and each subject contributes in a slightly different way. Once you develop good thinking habits, you will be able to perform better in any job.
  • You will be able to think for yourself. The diverse body of knowledge you will gain and the tools of examination and analysis that you will use will enable you to develop your own opinions, attitudes, values, and beliefs, based on your own examination and evaluation.
  • Good judgment depends upon knowing many areas of study. It requires the ability to think independently, in the face of pressures, distortions, and overemphasized truths. The world becomes understandable. A broad education will provide many tools for understanding.
  • College provides a telescope. No institution however great, no faculty however adept, can teach you in four years everything you need to know either now or in the future. By teaching you how to learn and how to organize ideas, you will understand new material more easily and learn faster.
  • The more you learn, the more you can learn. Knowledge builds upon knowledge. When you learn something, your brain remembers how you learned it and sets up new pathways
  • Old knowledge clarifies new knowledge. The general knowledge supplied by a liberal arts education will help you learn new subjects by one of the most common methods of learning—analogy. People are best taught by using something they already understand to explain something they don’t. The more you initially know and are familiar with, the more you can know.
  • General knowledge enhances creativity. Knowledge of many subject areas provides a fertilization of ideas and a mind that produces new ideas and better understanding. The greater your knowledge, the more creative you will be.

A general education provides a context for all knowledge. To see how one’s chosen area fits into the whole, a general, liberal education is necessary. A well-rounded education produces a map of the universe showing the relative disposition of things and ideas. This view provides an understanding of hierarchies, relationships, value, cause, importance, associations, and dependencies. It is this orientation that will give you a stable foundation for life.

But the term “liberal arts education” has at best a fuzzy meaning for most people. It has been argued that a liberal arts education is actually a life education. While helping individuals to work together despite their differences, concepts of diversity and multiculturalism result in values and competencies needed in a pluralistic society like the United States. It also prepares the individual to recognize the interdependency of all of our global partners and to appreciate the differences and similarities among world cultures.

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