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What are the Liberal Arts?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 05 December 2016
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In the middle ages, the liberal arts were synonymous with introductory courses in branches of the sciences, mathematics, and in the study of writing, and there were specifically seven fields. The trivium referred to studies in grammar, dialectic (Socratic discussion), and rhetoric, the art of writing and delivering speeches. The quadrivium was composed of studies in astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music. More intensive studies in fields like history or in foreign languages were not considered part of these courses.

Today, we might call some of these fields general education or general ed. Only a few of the initial liberal arts in medieval times are still included under this name. Anything related to science or math is not a part of liberal arts studies. Further, music and the study of drama are often viewed as separate.

When people get a four year bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, they have generally studied one of the following disciplines: history, literature, foreign languages, or philosophy. Related fields like journalism, political science, or women’s studies may comprise some of these studies but are not considered degrees in liberal arts. A person who does complete a bachelor’s degree in this area will also have some acquaintance with general education studies. Usually, the first two years of college are composed primarily of general education requirements. However, liberal arts majors will spend their junior and senior years mostly studying the field in which they hold the greatest interest.

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Taking these courses is also required for most people who would graduate college. A science major still must pass English, may be required to take a foreign language, and will probably study philosophy. The liberal arts major, on the other hand, goes beyond introductory courses to more intensive study.

Many wonder what can be done with such a degree and how it serves students who choose a liberal art as a major. Actually, many students with degrees in this area are in high demand in entry-level positions in businesses because they usually have excellent communication skills. Many pursue teaching. A degree in English or history can also serve a person well who wishes to pursue studies in law.

It is true, however, that liberal arts studies do not always address the practical. For example, it may be interesting to know all about Socrates, but this rarely comes up as a job requirement. However, continued interest in these fields and the value of understanding human thought still is taught, written about, and needed. Liberal arts specialists may not become the best-paid employees in the world, but they do enjoy the every day process of engaging in inquiry about the way in which we live, write, and think.

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anon234607
Post 3

This explanation is dead wrong. Science and math are very much part of a liberal arts education. Whether one is talking about the modern usage of the word (prescriptivist or descriptivist) or the origins of the term, it doesn't matter.

helene55
Post 2

@vogueknit17, I have read that as well. As a theatre major graduate of a college of liberal arts, I have to say it makes me feel better about not pursuing a large university or some sort of art conservatory for my craft; the fact that I had to study science, math, and history as well as the literature and theatre I loved has, I hope, made me more capable of jobs other than acting, something I will need until I can support myself solely with my art.

vogueknit17
Post 1

While a "liberal arts degree" might not be the most lucrative option, studies have begun showing in recent years that graduates of liberal arts colleges, whatever their degrees, have a tendency towards more open-minded and scholarly thought, something which can be helpful in many different fields, including high paying jobs.

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