Your education in the liberal arts
When students apply to American universities, one of the phrases that get tossed around most often is “liberal arts.” So it is worth pondering exactly what we mean with this – is it a political idea, and what is artsy about it? What does it say about the kind of courses I will be doing at college? Will I get a job with it, or have to return home with a fine degree and no job prospects?
No one these days can easily specify exactly what “liberal arts” are, even as it has come to define much about American education. But the idea itself is a pretty old one and grew out of a classical notion that being educated meant more than being narrowly trained for one career. Instead, a liberal arts education lies in the difference between learning how to cut out one jigsaw piece, and learning how all those many pieces actually fit together – studying economics rather than how to manage a business, sociology and anthropology about how societies work rather than training to be a social worker, mathematics rather than how to be an accountant. But the value of liberal arts is not even primarily in teaching you to see the big picture. Instead, your sense of your world is transformed because once you understand how your set of questions fits into that big picture, you also begin to understand the other ways that those same questions can be asked and answered – historically or mathematically or philosophically, for example. So liberal arts also expose you to different ways of asking those questions. Understanding that there are different ways to approach a set of questions also mean developing different tools with which to solve those questions.
But then college ends and you have to go off into the big world where you are expected to get a job and pay the mortgage. Studying liberal arts is not “time out” from the real world in which you get to play around with some interesting ideas which you then pack away to get on with the job of real life, however. By teaching you how to ask questions and approach solutions from different angles, the liberal arts actually give you a great foundation for any career. After all, we live in a world where a global economy calls for workers that can innovate, that can communicate well, that are flexible and adaptive enough to survive technical fields where fixed skills become rapidly obsolete, and who have the broad knowledge to apply synergy towards solutions. In short, employers increasingly call on workers with the learning skills, creativity and broad mindset that the liberal arts teach students.