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What Are Liberal Arts?

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What Are Liberal Arts?

From the MCG 2011 edition

By Julie Bogart

IT'S INEVITABLE. When you tell someone that you're planning to major in a subject like history or English, you get asked the dreaded question: "What are you going to do with that?"

You don't really need to have an answer. If you want to major in a liberal arts subject, go for it. The practical stuff, like getting a job, will work itself out. In fact, liberal arts graduates are well suited for today's job market.

Why? Because the state of the economy, technology and a broader global perspective have made liberal arts majors—and the wide range of skills that they impart—more essential than ever before.

"A liberal arts education is more important than ever because with the recent economic downturn, we witnessed the decline (and, in some cases, the elimination) of several important industries, leaving highly skilled employees out of work in careers where job growth is not expected," says Karen Abigail Williams, director of admission at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts in New York.

Employers are recognizing that while employees can be taught the technical skills of a job, the "people" and communication skills that liberal arts majors possess aren't as easy to find or teach.

What do colleges mean by "liberal arts"?

In its broadest of terms, it's an education that provides an overview of the arts, humanities (the study of the human condition), social sciences, mathematics and natural sciences. "Artes liberals are rooted in classical antiquity and refer to the general skills (=artes) a free person (=liberals) needed to contribute meaningfully to society," shared Concordia University associate professor, Dr. Michael Thomas. "Today, we intend for this to translate into life-long, self-motivated learners who can flourish in——even transform ——the world."

Some of the more common majors include: anthropology, communication, English, history, language and linguistics, philosophy, political science, math, psychology and sociology. Unlike the colleges and universities that offer these majors, other Some schools are strictly liberal arts colleges—meaning that all of their majors are considered liberal arts.

Michael Kerchner, associate professor of psychology at Washington College in Maryland, explains that his school is a college of the liberal arts. "What this means to the faculty—and the students as well — is that no matter what course or what department or discipline a course may reside [in], the focus is cross- or interdisciplinary. This requires that our students have an appreciation for how multiple disciplines may contribute to fuller understanding of many complex problems, such as. . . international conflicts."

"A liberal arts education gives students an opportunity to explore a variety of academic disciplines rather than following a specific rubric of courses that train them for a career," says Cindy Peterson, director of admissions at Piedmont College in Georgia. "Employers today are seeking qualified graduates who have a broad base of knowledge, whose undergraduate experience has granted them the critical thinking skills, and an understanding and appreciation of diversity, ethical issues and service to others."

What do liberal arts majors learn?

A better question would be: What won't you learn? One of the benefits of a liberal arts education is the chance to explore multiple areas of interest. You'll also acquire the skills you'll need for lifelong learning—like research, writing and communication.

Says Victoria McGillin, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Linfield College in Oregon, "Our [liberal arts majors] learn to read materials closely, meaningfully analyze problems, apply systematic approaches to the resolution of those problems and communicate solutions to others."

David Kogler, associate director of admission at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, gives the following example of this: "Instead of learning only about business at a business school, a liberal arts degree will teach you about business as well as the history, politics and other areas that influence and shape the world of business."

Bob Murray, dean of enrollment management at Illinois Wesleyan University, believes that a liberal arts education is more critical today than ever before. "A liberal arts education develops both the left and right side of the brain. Effective problem solving requires strong analytical and creative processes. Developing critical thinking skills and being able to comprehend various subjects and perspectives adds to the ability of liberal arts graduates to successfully connect the dots between multiple disciplines. Students benefit from being in small, interactive classes with highly qualified faculty who teach them to discriminate and constructively challenge what they read, see and hear. Learning and experiencing global perspectives enhances their ability to communicate with the highly diverse communities we live in."

So, it's not only what you learn that's valuable, but also the higher order thinking and communication skills you develop, like learning how to adapt to different situations, that will ultimately lead to your success.

What kinds of jobs do liberal arts majors get?

Because the liberal arts cover such a broad spectrum of subjects, there's no one set career path.

"Our majors find themselves attracted to a wide range of professional careers, such as public service, military service, medicine, national security or law," says Kerchner.

If you're worried about competing against those with more "practical" or narrowly defined degrees, such as business or engineering, don't be. "Liberal arts majors are as competitive as any other student entering the job market," assures Williams.

Peter Osgood, director of admission at Harvey Mudd College (CA) says that one reason for this is that liberal arts disciplines require the student to think about, write about, and to understand a broad range of topics from many perspectives. "They have to come to some generalizations and realizations about the material they are studying, rather than simply learning how to do a specific task," says Osgood. "Since technology moves society along at a faster and faster pace, the more ‘practical' education is more likely to become obsolete sooner. Liberal arts disciplines better prepare the student for change."

As Osgood explains, 40 years ago few could not have anticipated a world in which the Internet existed or that one could use a portable device to call a friend, text or tweet (terms that did not exist). "The only place to watch a movie was in a cinema, not a cell phone," he says. "Now that my own children are in high school, they can't imagine what innovations will occur by the time they hit the middle of life. Rather than having my children focus their learning on something transitory, like how to use certain kinds of computer languages or communications strategies that may become obsolete, I am convinced that they will have longer, more productive careers by understanding people and adapting the technical skills to that knowledge."

"Liberal arts graduates regularly obtain positions in a multitude of settings, many of which do not seem — at first glance — to be connected to their majors," explains Maria J. de la Camara, dean of Benedictine University's College of Liberal Arts. "A number of well known CEOs majored in liberal arts fields and became leaders of major corporations."

How does a liberal arts degree fare against more specialized degrees?

According to Williams, liberal arts majors are "more likely" than their counterparts to have at least one year of professional experience through an internship, or to travel abroad at least once during theirenrollment, because the nature of the major leads students to pursue opportunities in their areas of interest while continuing their studies.

"This professional exposure and global awareness may actually make liberal arts majors more competitive than students who simply completed a series of prescribed courses without taking the opportunity to explore their interests beyond the classroom," adds Williams.

William Brown, Jr., vice president of enrollment at Lebanon Valley College, believes liberal arts majors are among the most "work-ready" graduates. "At most liberal arts colleges, students will receive a balance between professional preparation and broad intellectual growth. Students start their working career with solid pre-professional preparation in their field, as well as experience across a wide curriculum. Specific skills that most liberal arts grads ‘take to work' include critical thinking and the ability to communicate effectively verbally, as well as in writing."

Cynthia Favre, career counselor at Gustavus Adolphus College (MN), concedes that marketing a liberal arts degree is more challenging than some other educational programs. "The good news is that liberal arts candidates are well prepared to do this," she says. "The very . . . skills they develop through their college experience are those needed for successful engagement with the job search process."

"The national research advises us that while liberal arts students may be slightly slower in securing the first job, they advance and are retained at a higher rate than those more narrowly educated," says McGillin.

Kogler explains the reason for this: "Since most people change professions in their lifetime . . . it's smart to be adaptable. Studies in the liberal arts . . . give students greater flexibility, more skills, and better marketability."

Liberal arts majors may also be more creative, says Williams, which will help them in the job market. "[They] generally take creative, unconventional approaches to solving problems, and they are more likely to be employed in positions where they have a creative or intellectual connection to the work. These skills are transferable to any industry."

How do you know if a liberal arts major is right for you?

If you feel passionately about a subject, such as psychology or economics, your choice of major may be clear(as long as you don't let fears of "impracticality" get in your way). But if you're unsure or undecided, a liberal arts major is a good choice because it won't limit you to a prescribed subject or career.

"High school students don't typically have enough resources or experience to determine what their lifelong career interest will be," says Kogler. "By attending a liberal arts college, you have permission to explore, reflect and ask what your passion is. Once you've determined your passion, choosing a major and finding a career will be much easier."

"The four years you spend at college are among the most formative in your life, and in many respects, they may be the final chance that you have to both broaden your experiences and to delve deeply into a topic that excites you," says Kerchner. "Challenge yourself in as many ways as you can."

"A successful career requires that you continually develop your skills and understanding, often in areas that aren't your specialty," says Brad Andrews, vice president for enrollment and student life at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis. "Liberal arts study provides both general and career-specific knowledge, along with tools that help you learn more effectively, create new ideas, and readily adapt to change throughout your life."

"Talk to as many teachers, employers, and guidance counselors as you can," says Brown. "Then meet with some college representatives (admission staff). These conversations will help bring you to an understanding of the possibilities for you."

So the next time someone asks you what you plan to do with a major in the liberal arts, go ahead and tell them the truth: Anything and everything.

Julie Bogart is a freelance writer in Boston, Mass.

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