A couple of days ago, someone alerted me to an older article (2011) about the job skills that one learns from the “Liberal Arts.” After I read it, my first inclination was to share it. Having already completed two degrees in the liberal arts, I understand the importance that the liberal arts can have on teaching us how to think about the world around us. Then, I remembered that, for some people, saying “Liberal Arts” is almost like profanity.
I don’t know if it’s because of the word “Liberal” is in there and for those folks who are politically inclined (or hear that word tossed around when talking about politics) think that only “Liberal” people should go to liberal arts schools, but there certainly is a stigma out there — real or imagined. As a result, I thought I’d do some digging to find the phrase’s origin and compare it to some of the other phrases that describe higher education programs.
According to Webster, liberal arts is defined as:
college or university studies (as language, philosophy, literature, abstract science) intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills
Well, that seems simple enough: intended to provide chiefly general knowledge to develop general intellectual capacities. Although, the second half of that is a bit distressing: as opposed to professional or vocational skills. Are we meant to assume that general intellectual capacities are in opposition to professional or vocational skills?
My next search took me to Wikipedia:
The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (a citizen) to know in order to take an active part in civic life. In Ancient Greece this included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service (slaves and resident aliens were by definition excluded from the duties and responsibilities of citizenship). The aim of these studies was to produce a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate person. Grammar, rhetoric, and logic were the core liberal arts.
This explanation certainly ties in with the dictionary definition. Having general intellectual capacities would allow one to participate in public debate and to become a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate person.
At this point, it’s still not clear to me exactly why we’re parsing liberal arts from vocational or professional skills, so I thought I’d check out the entry for higher education on Wikipedia. Not surprisingly, this entry also separates vocational and professional schools from the liberal arts. It includes 4 different types of higher education:
1. General. This amounts to what we usually think of when we think of university. There’s a great deal of focus on the abstract and the theoretical.
2. Liberal Arts. This is what we’ve already been discussing. Although, there are two other types embedded within: performing arts or plastic/visual arts.
3. Vocational. There’s a focus on practical experience at these types of institutions of higher education, with a bit of theory. These are sometimes referred to as trade schools.
4. Professional. These institutions usually require that the person applying already have a bachelor’s degree. Examples here could be business school, law school, medical school, etc.
It’s still not entirely clear why the liberal arts should be separate from some of these other types of higher education. For instance, when we revisit the definition of developing general intellectual capacities, isn’t that what the majority of higher education does for its students? Would someone really argue that going to a vocational school, a professional school, or going to a “general” school would deprive someone of developing their general intellectual capacities? Certainly not.
Although, I do think that there are things you learn from some of the different disciplines in the “liberal arts” that you can’t get elsewhere. For instance, psychology is such an important subject for understanding the people around you. I really think that “General Psychology” should probably be a required course in every higher education institution, but with a background in psychology, I’m certainly biased — at least a little. That being said, it’s still hard to understand why people wouldn’t want to take this course. Knowing about what “makes people work” could be so advantageous to getting by in the world.
This quick bit of research led me to believe that the “Liberal Arts” may be in need of a rebranding strategy. Of course, I’m not the first one to suggest this. I found an article in the Journal of College Admission from 2009: “The Liberal Arts Rebranded.” In the article, there were references to a number of examples of strategies used for rebranding. For instance, there’s the example of the “Liberal Arts and Sciences,” or the “Practical Liberal Arts and Sciences.” There’s also examples like “Liberal Education” or “Liberal Learning.”
I haven’t seen any data, but I don’t think that any of these would really sway too many people from their previously held bias against the liberal arts, but I don’t know that anything would for some folks.
If I’m brainswarming ideas for a way to rebrand liberal arts, I would think that the name would need to changed completely. Both ‘liberal’ and ‘arts’ are words that, to some, are too “soft.” If it’s not math and science-y, then they want no part of it. So, I would try to find a way to incorporate that definition we first looked at: general intellectual capacities. Those three words are quite a mouthful, so it wouldn’t work just like that. There’d have to be something that succinctly conveys that message.