Liberal Arts is perhaps one of the oldest fields of study in the world. It was already an essential part of the traditional curriculum in the Roman Empire, where the “liberal pursuits” was called liberalia studia. With such an extraordinary tradition, it’s almost obvious to ask if a Liberal Arts degree is still worthwhile to study today, especially if you spend the most precious years of your life studying it.
The world is becoming an increasingly globalised and digitalised place with the advent of new technologies to help share information quicker than you can say liberalia studia.
Attention spans are shorter and instead of reading through entire textbooks to study, many students access notes and study guides published online for a study process that is quick and easy.
There is no doubt that universities worldwide have shifted towards more modern degrees. Fields like Digital Marketing, Computer Science, and International Business seem to have a much higher demand and be much more practical degrees to complete, driving future innovation and preparing students to be the pioneers within their fields. In comparison, an initial glance at Liberal Arts degrees may lead to the observation of a field of study that is a little outdated and possibly falling behind a world that is rapidly developing in technology and digitalization.
It looks as if there’s less of a practical application with a degree in the Liberal Arts, which is based on long hours spent in the library reading books and not checking Facebook every five minutes. The field of study seems to be falling behind in this worldwide race for innovation.
In that context a Liberal Arts degree hardly seems like a worthwhile investment – or is it?
It may then seem surprising that many of the world’s top and most-respected universities offer courses in Liberal Arts, and that these courses are, in fact, quite popular amongst the student body. Of Stanford University’s seven schools, for example, the School for Liberal Arts, or the School of Humanities and Sciences, is the largest and is the foundation of a Liberal Arts education. With 23 departments and 23 interdisciplinary programs, it serves as the University’s home for fundamental research. 27% of all Stanford students are enrolled in Liberal Arts programs, making it one of the most popular fields.
Comprehensive Liberal Arts programs are also some of the most popular courses at world’s leading institutions such as Yale, Cambridge, and Oxford. Are the Liberal Arts students at these Universities all wrong?
A typical Liberal Arts curriculum offers students the opportunity to explore a huge range of fascinating subjects within four major elements: the Humanities, Social sciences, Natural sciences, and Formal sciences. A whole spectrum of subjects, from literature and history, to astronomy and mathematics, are available under these four main elements, resulting in an incredibly broad education.
The element of the Humanities includes topics such as philosophy, art, literature, linguistics, religion, ethics, modern foreign languages, music, theater, speech, and classical languages such as Latin or Greek. Perhaps one of the oldest disciplines of Liberal Arts, the Humanities studies aspects of human culture and society from centuries ago to the 21st century. Students learn concepts and ideas from the great thinkers of the world and study the influence they’ve had on the world we know today.
A Liberal Arts student who chooses subjects under the Humanities will use methods that are primarily critical and have a historical element. You could study ancient and modern languages, or philosophy spanning the eras. Many institutions provide an extensive list of Humanities subjects, so regardless if you are a Liberal Arts student or not, a core curriculum can be enriched with courses in philosophy, literature, and the arts.
Under the Social sciences element, you’ll find subjects such as history, psychology, law, sociology, politics, gender studies, anthropology, economics, geography, and business informatics. This is a category that is concerned with society as a whole and the relationships among individuals within a society. Studying the Social sciences enables you to pick from a large list of modules, which means you can tailor your Liberal Arts degree to your own interests and career aspirations. Students have the freedom to specialise in, for example, international politics or to maintain a more general approach to their degree. Many universities also offer students the chance to undertake a voluntary work placement in their local community, which provides a career-focused approach to learning.
The element of Natural sciences features courses in astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, botany, archaeology, zoology, geology, and earth sciences. It is a branch of science that focuses on the description, prediction, and understanding of natural phenomena based on empirical evidence from observation and experimentation. There are two main branches under Natural sciences: life science and physical science. Life science, or biological science, involves the study of organisms such as plants, microorganisms, and animals including human beings. Physics, space science, chemistry, and Earth science fall under the category of physical science and usually focuses on the composition and statistical properties of the subject matter in question.
Underneath the element of Formal sciences you’ll find courses that include mathematics, logic, and statistics, disciplines that are concerned with formal systems. Formal sciences subjects help students develop and learn language tools that characterise abstract structures described by sign systems. They aid the Natural and Social sciences by providing information about the structures they use to describe the world. If you want to go deep into formal logical systems with its content targeted at real things, then the Formal sciences are a wonderful choice for you.
Liberal Arts degrees in the Formal sciences are important because all of quantitative science depends on the knowledge gained in subjects such as Mathematics and Computer Science. At the base level, Mathematics is the science of patterns, including pattern recognition, description, and explanation. This kind of analysis is essential in most analytical work and mathematical skills are widely applicable. Students who choose to focus on Computer Science learn the fundamental principles that underlie evolving representations that convey information, and the methods and algorithms that control their evolution. This prepares them with knowledge of and the ability to understanding advances in science and technology, such as the Internet, genetic engineering, and digital media.
Liberal Arts colleges and schools are known for focusing on academic excellence and an experience that is fully engaging. These kinds of institutions are known for advocating for a sense of community – students and professors alike look out for each other on campus and strive to build one another up. Many students also choose Liberal Arts courses, whether at the college or graduate level, because a smaller student body allows for a general feeling that professors take a more personal interest in a student’s education.
Students are given the opportunity to take charge of discussion, citing passages in texts and asking questions that move the class forward. Classes are typically smaller, emphasising the intimate environment and exploration of different subjects each individual may be interested in. Many colleges also offer a list of opportunities to incorporate outside work and volunteer opportunities, which mean students may enrich their experience outside of campus as well.
Any company hoping to succeed in a fast-changing digital world needs people who are quick thinking and adaptable, and who have developed a broad base of knowledge. If you’ve completed a Liberal Arts degree, you’ll have an important and valuable skill set to succeed in the working world, and developed the ability to learn for life.
The digital world is a world that needs people with problem-solving and pattern intelligence skills, effective written and oral communication, analytical, evaluative, critical and creative thinking skills, and the ability to learn and synthesize new ideas.
Studying a Liberal Arts degree develops this list of vital soft skills that are valuable to any employer. You’ll have worked on a strong foundation that is incomparable, and developed ethical decision-making skills and effective research skills, which means you’ll be able to understand the innovations of today and maintain a firm grasp on the importance of posing meaningful questions and working well in teams.
Considering the wide range of topics covered within the Liberal Arts curriculum it becomes clear that studying a Liberal Arts will prepare you for a fast changing world, like no other degree. Or as Steve Jobs said it in his famous speach: 'technology needs be me marriaged with Liberal Arts:
Despite its ancient roots, the Liberal Arts is an adaptive and very modern field of study. It is an interdisciplinary field that prepares graduates with an important and valuable skill set to use, whether that be for them to pursue their Masters or to work efficiently and professionally at the workspace. And contrary to popular belief, salaries of humanities majors have some of the biggest growth over time; they may start lower than those of engineering graduates but increase within a decade of work.
According to PayScale, humanities majors for some schools earn a higher median salary than the median salary of all the school's graduates overall. Students who have a degree in Liberal Arts report median mid-career salaries over USD 100,000. Not enough to make it on the Forbes billionaire list, but still way more than the average income.
At first glance, the Liberal Arts may seem an outdated field of study, but the invaluable skills and capabilities students develop with the range of subjects offered prepares them to challenge innovations in technology and digitisation. As a Liberal Arts student you’ll have a world of knowledge at your fingertips and you’ll learn to be incredibly adaptable when facing all kinds of challenges, perfect for a fast-changing digital world. A recent Harvard Business Review Article supports that view and even states that Liberal Arts Majors are the future of the tech industry.
The Roman Empire has long-passed – liberalia studia persists and its students are ready to face the fast-changing world head-on.