The liberal arts provide a foundation of knowledge from learning about different topics, thinking critically about ideas, formulating arguments, communicating, and solving problems. It is a traditional form of higher learning and prepares students for various professions. It is not a political affiliation.
More subjects than expected fall under the umbrella of liberal arts. They are divided into four main areas: humanities, natural/physical sciences and mathematics, social sciences, and creative arts. Some subjects may overlap with another category.
The purpose, uses, and outcomes of a liberal arts education are under scrutiny, given the high monetary costs of higher education, the competitive job market, and overall economic conditions. Understanding why and how a liberal arts education benefits and works should lay to rest those concerns and questions.
Division of Subjects
When thinking of a liberal arts education, the humanities may initially come to mind: English, philosophy, religion or religious studies, languages, and history. Culture and social conditions are the focus of the humanities.
Natural/Physical Sciences and Mathematics
Because STEM subjects are, in fact, part of the liberal arts, these areas may be overlooked. This area includes subjects like astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, and archeology. Many subjects here support further education toward professional programs like medical school or graduate school.
A popular division of the liberal arts is social science, which includes subject areas like economics, political science, sociology, history, and psychology. Graduates of these subjects are also prepared for professional programs like business school or graduate school, or entry into the professional world.
The creative arts include music, fine arts, performing/theater arts, design, and literature. Using imagination and implementing new or original ideas are the focus here.
Liberal Arts versus Vocational/Technical/Professional
What is most important to the liberal arts education is gaining soft skills like collaboration, critical thinking, effective communication, and creativity. Vocational/technical/professional education differs by not providing a broad range of knowledge in a subject area but instead instruction in skills needed to succeed in a particular field. These are more career-oriented and exist for a specific purpose. These different experiences also differ in the long run; the long-run mindset is needed to determine which program is most advantageous. While pre-professional programs like nursing or business may not be offered at a liberal arts institution, this does not equate to a lack of preparedness for graduate programs in these fields or meeting industry standards.
Graduates of a liberal arts education are armed with the tools needed to succeed in various professions by learning in a diverse and analytical environment and style. Thinking critically about a broad subject area and navigating complex issues is one avenue of higher education, while learning specific skills for a predetermined trade in vocational/technical/professional education is another.
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)
Liberal Arts and STEM Complement
Contrary to a common understanding of the liberal arts, many STEM subjects are offered, as noted above. The major missing subject is engineering, which more prominent universities are likely to have in addition to the liberal arts. Other STEM pre-professional majors like business or pre-med are supported by a liberal arts education designed to prepare students for graduate programs or direct entry into a field.
Benefits and Careers
A liberal arts education aims to prepare graduates to succeed in their lives, professional and otherwise, by multifaceted skill building. The subjects are foundational and support critical thinking skills and communication, written and verbal.
The careers applicable to a liberal arts education are vast and varied; marketing, design, editing/writing, medicine, business, entrepreneurship, and more. Job markets fluctuate, but the skills demanded for many fields remain steady, which is why the liberal arts and liberal arts educational institutions continue to thrive.