Why Study Liberal Arts?


Why Study the Liberal Arts?

By Richard Sigurdson
former Acting Dean of Arts
The University College of the Cariboo
900 McGill Road, P.O. Box 3010
Kamloops, B.C. Canada, V2C 5N3

What is a Liberal Arts Education?

Working towards a baccalaureate degree in the Arts or Sciences involves taking courses in what are traditionally referred to as the "liberal" arts. This means that your courses will be in general areas of study--philosophy, mathematics, literature, art history, economics, languages, and so on--rather than in applied or specialized fields. A liberal arts education is not intended to train you for a specific job, though it does prepare you for the world of work by providing you with an invaluable set of employability skills, including the ability to think for yourself, the skills to communicate effectively, and the capacity for lifelong learning.


What Will I Study as Part of an Arts Education?

You will study a variety of subjects, looking at the world and its people from various points of view. You will learn about ideas and beliefs that have guided human beings and shaped civilizations for thousands of years. What does it mean to be human? What have humans done, thought about, and felt? What is truth and beauty, and what are their value to life? How have we been shaped by, and how have we shaped, our physical and natural environment? What skills, methods or techniques can be used to examine the world and its people? These are some of the key questions examined by the Arts disciplines.

A liberal arts education is by nature broad and diverse, rather than narrow and specialized. Choosing courses from many disciplines gives you a wide and useful education. In the first year, an Arts student normally takes a variety of introductory courses. This not only gives you a wide knowledge of subjects but helps you to choose certain areas for further study. In most cases, you will be encouraged to take courses in at least some of the major categories within the liberal arts: Humanities (English Literature, Modern Languages, History, Philosophy), Social Sciences (Anthropology, Economics, Geography, Political Science, Sociology), Creative Arts (Fine Art, Theatre, Speech, Creative Writing), and the Sciences. At the same time, Arts programs usually allow for some degree of specialization in a Major discipline or in a group of thematically-linked courses. By concentrating on a given subject, whatever it may be, you will go beyond the mere surface of things and gain a solid grasp of the core material in a given area.


Why Should I Pursue an Arts Education?

This is the big question: Why Arts? Why not Engineering? Or Nursing? Or Heavy Duty Mechanics? Or Computing Science? There are numerous ways to answer this question, and ultimately the utility of any answer will depend upon your own circumstances. For you, studies in the Arts may provide the necessary practical skills that you will apply on the job; or they may prepare you to move on to a graduate or professional school. For others, the key value of a liberal arts education may be the personal satisfaction and fulfillment that studying philosophy or art makes possible. Still others will be able to excel in todayís global business world because the foreign language skills developed in their Arts education gave them an important edge. Indeed, the reasons for pursuing a liberal arts education are as many as the number of potential students. What you need to ask is what you want to get out of a postsecondary education. If you want to get a solid, broadly-based, general education which will improve your analytical, communication and learning abilities, then the liberal arts may be for you.


What About Skills Training?

You have probably heard a lot of talk lately about how important it is to get the proper "skills set" so that you can be immediately attractive to an employer. Some think that the goal of a postsecondary education should be to provide you with as much specific training as possible before you arrive on the job, thus relieving potential employers of the costs and risks associated with hiring untrained workers. In light of this perception, many students balk at taking general liberal arts courses and choose instead to focus narrowly on a vocational or professional area of study. This can be an excellent choice. There are many rewarding and fulfilling careers that one can pursue with the help of a first-class vocational or career training program. But make sure that you are making your educational choices for the right reasonsóthose that are best for you. If you are shying away from Arts courses because you think that you need training in specific skills to get a job, you may be mistaken. First, a liberal arts education does provide you with tangible, practical skills that employers value highly. What is more, you will obtain skills and knowledge that are never obsolete. The world is changing rapidly and there may be a danger in preparing yourself too narrowly to fit a certain slot that may not even exist by the time you get into the job market. Meanwhile, the underlying skills, abilities and attributes fostered in the Arts are always relevant.


What Skills Will I Learn by Taking Arts Courses?

The list of skills, abilities, capacities and attributes normally associated with a liberal arts education includes, but is not limited to, the following:

bulletanalytical and knowledge-building skills;
bulletevaluative and critical thinking skills;
bulletcreative thinking skills;
bulleteffective oral and written communication skills;
bulletcritical and reflective reading skills;
bulletproblem solving and pattern intelligence skills;
bulletnumerical skills;
bulletsynthesis skills and the ability to express the results of analysis and evaluation;
bulletthe ability to pose meaningful questions that advance understanding and knowledge;
bulletthe ability to conduct research and organize material effectively;
bulletinformation literacy and other skills associated with learning how to learn;
bulletthe exercise of independent judgment and ethical decision-making;
bulletthe ability to meet goals, manage time, and complete a project successfully;
bulletself-confidence and self-understanding;
bulletthe ability to cooperate with others and work in teams;
bulleta sensitivity to individuals and tolerance of cultural differences;
bulletthe ability to use equipment; and
bulletan informed openness to new information technologies.


Where Can an Arts Education Take Me?

An Arts degree prepares you for hundreds of careers. Your opportunities are limited only by your imagination, your interests and your willingness to devote time and energy to your work. Of course, an Arts degree can also take you to the top graduate and professional schools. Liberal arts courses are often required for anyone who pursues a professional degree, and a high percentage of liberal arts graduates go on to take further education. This is not surprising, since the liberal arts serve as a foundation for most vocational or professional studies at the university. For example, programs in accounting, business, education, journalism, and law are built upon the knowledge and skills that come from fields that make up the liberal arts. Accounting and business depend upon mathematics and economics; education derives from psychology and sociology; journalism requires a knowledge of English and history; and law builds upon political science and philosophy.


Will an Arts Education Make Me a Better Person?

A liberal arts education will enhance your knowledge and improve your understanding of the world and its people. Many say that knowledge leads to wise action, perhaps even to goodness. Thus, an Arts education may help you to perceive and to understand your shortcomings, allowing you to become a better citizen, friend, spouse, parent, human being. Arts courses often enable students to reach beyond their own experiences and imagine worlds far distant in time and space. By opening your eyes, ears and mind, a good Arts education can strengthen in you the virtues of tolerance, sympathy, and respect for others. A liberal arts education will equip you to participate effectively in your community. It can also help you to engage in the controversies of our time--whether about the environment, cultural diversity, social justice, ethnic strife, gender relations or foreign policy.


Can a Liberal Arts Education Make Me Happy?

It would be ridiculous to make any promises of a carefree future, but an Arts education can contribute to your happiness. Studies in the humanities or the arts offer an obvious preparation for leisure and life beyond the world of work. A good liberal arts education increases your capacity to understand and enjoy humanityís cultural and scientific achievements. It also contributes to the pleasure you can get from the world around you. Studies in your Arts program can increase your awareness and appreciation of literature, music, personality, nature, art, symbolism, wit, historical allusion or figurative language. But more than that, a good general education allows you to see things whole, to provide a context for seemingly meaningless or isolated events. This may sound an abstract benefit, but it is just this orientation for knowledge that might reduce the confusion and frustration that comes from being unable to put into context an event, decision or phenomenon that you encounter in your daily life. Perhaps this helps explain, to a certain extent, why studies consistently show that educated people have, statistically, happier relationships, lower rates of depression, less loneliness, and a higher degree of satisfaction with life.


But is an Arts Degree Worth It in Todayís High-Tech World?

An Arts degree is valuable in itself, but also teaches many of the skills and abilities that are needed in the contemporary workplace. That is why managers in business, industry and government appreciate the value of an Arts degree in potential employees. They recognize the importance of what are often called "employability skills"--reading, writing, listening, speaking effectively, knowledge of language, critical thinking, problem solving, basic numeracy, information literacy and the capacity to continue to learn for life--and know that university Arts programs have always concentrated on just these skills. Students, too, understand that Arts Faculties tend to do the best job in developing these general employability skills. That is one of the reasons that students continue to vote with their feet by enrolling in Arts programs in high numbers.

Still, there is a perception out there that technical trainees get high wage jobs in their fields while Arts graduates face high unemployment or can find only low wage jobs that do not use their university training. A common stereotype portrays the poor Arts grad stuck in a dead-end McJob. In fact, this is a gross misrepresentation of labour market reality. More than ever, an undergraduate university education is a sound investment. Recent studies in both the U.S. and Canada have demonstrated that a high level of education translates into higher income over a personís lifetime. These studies show that most university graduates, including those with Arts degrees, have lower unemployment rates and higher lifetime earnings than people with only high school diplomas or technical/vocational credentials.

But there is more to it than a simple link between education and income. A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) points to what it calls "literacy skills" as the key factor that pays off in any job. Literacy, in this sense, involves the types of skills that are fostered in liberal arts programs: the ability to understand and use prose, to analyze documents, and to work with numbers. The report, entitled Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society, contains data comparing the literacy skills of people in 12 countries. It finds that the ability to comprehend and use words and figures plays a strong role in determining wages, especially in countries like Canada and the United States. It is worth noting, however, that low literacy rates can be found even in people with higher education. The report points out that your educational credentials may get you a job in the first place, but having strong literacy skills will make you the kind of productive and useful employee who rises through the ranks. Moreover, workers with high literacy skills can adapt more easily to changing circumstances, making them less vulnerable to unemployment and more likely to be high income earners. In a rapidly changing, information-based economy, the benefits of literacy cannot be overestimated.


What Should I Do?

Only you can know what is best for you at this time in your life. Still, you should explore all of your opportunities, including a liberal arts education. Talk to counselors at your school or job centre. Speak with friends, relatives or co-workers about their educational experiences. Read up on the trends and developments that might influence your decision. Check out your local training centre, college or university. There the academic advisors can help you decide on courses or programs. Admissions officers can help you get into the areas of your choice. And financial aid or awards officers can advise you on how to access scholarships, bursaries or student loans.

Whatever you do, donít let opportunities pass you by because you have failed to get the material you need to make an informed choice. But remember, a postsecondary education can be expensive. It is a lot of work. And it represents a major investment of time and energy. So donít waste your money or your time doing something that you really donít want to do. You will be happier and more likely to succeed if you follow your heart, do whatever you do for your own reasons, and look at a postsecondary education for what it is: an opportunity for you to grow and develop as a human being.


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© Martha J. Reineke.     Please send correspondence to martha.reineke@uni.edu