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What are the Liberal Arts?

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There’s a lot of talk in the academic world about “the liberal arts” and the value of a liberal arts education. But what does that mean, exactly?

Well, it can be confusing, since the liberal arts are necessarily politically liberal—and most of them aren’t ‘arts’! In the sphere of higher education, “liberal arts” generally means a broad-based education that gives the student a sense of how the world came to be the way it is as well as how it works now. Today, study areas for the liberal arts include music, mathematics, science, history, political science, philosophy, religious studies, psychology, theatre, and the world of language, including foreign languages, linguistics, and literature.

The Liberal Arts: Brief History

The liberal arts tradition has a rich history, stretching all the way back to antiquity. In ancient Rome and Greece, citizens were expected to study grammar, rhetoric, and logic—with the goal of being able to think critically and understand logical arguments as part of taking part in public life.

These three subjects came to be known as the Trivium and remained at the core of higher learning. Over time, music, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, poetry, history, philosophy, and Greek were added to the curriculum. From this came the more contemporary sense of liberal arts—a humanistic education based in classical literature and languages.

Liberal Arts Education Today

Today, a good liberal arts education lays the groundwork for specialization in nearly any field. Many graduate schools for high-paying careers prefer to admit students with a strong general liberal arts education, including most medical schools and law schools. Colleges and universities that offer a liberal arts curriculum general have four-year structured programs that award the student a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science. Most liberal arts programs feature the Socratic method of teaching, in which the professor leads students through a discussion, offering the class a series of questions that guides them in their exploration of a topic.

Liberal arts education does not have just the acquisition of knowledge as a goal—it also emphasizes the process of learning itself as a lifelong undertaking. The student at a liberal arts college learns to think critically and process information. In most liberal arts programs, students are expected to spend their first two years taking a mandatory or recommended course that explores all disciplines before declaring a major. It is even possible at some schools to major in the liberal arts or in “general studies” within the liberal arts.

Are You a Good Candidate for the Liberal Arts Experience?

Most liberal arts programs are also residential. In many cases, students are expected to live on campus with exceptions only for a few unique circumstances. At these schools, the entire college experience—from casual conversation over Wheaties at breakfast to work study jobs in the student union to concerts in the evening—are meant to be part of the larger body of experience as students expand their horizons and learn about the world and their place in it.

So…are the liberal arts for you? That’s not a question anyone else can answer except yourself. Some people certainly prefer a concentrated technical or trades-based education. If you think of education as a lifelong journey of understanding the world around you, however, a college or university specializing in liberal arts is a wonderful place to start.

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Elisabeth Bailey+

Elisabeth Bailey is a freelance writer and editor with particular interests in academics, food,and sustainability . She is also the author of A Taste of the Maritimes: Local, Seasonal Recipes the Whole Year Round and writes regularly for Canadian Farmers’ Almanac and the National Wildlife Federation. Elisabeth and her family live and enjoy great local food in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.


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