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Why Choose a Liberal Arts Education?

Why Choose a Liberal Arts Education?

There are countless jobs that exist today that could not have been envisioned just 20 years ago – jobs in social media, mobile app development, artificial intelligence, data analysis, Cloud architecture, telemedicine, and hosts of others. With the rapid change in technology, global markets, business models, consumer demographics, health care, and cultural constructs, the hard skills you learn today may well be obsolete tomorrow, or, at a minimum, need to be re-learned for new work paradigms.

A report put out by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2016 noted that the knowledge gained in the first year of a technical degree was outdated by the student’s fourth year of the program; likewise, it outlined that a third of the core skills of most current occupations would not be considered crucial in four years’ time1.

How, then, is one to prepare for a career in such rapid and wildly changing markets? What, if anything, will remain constant and transferable to careers through the rest of the 21st century?

Not to worry. It’s liberal arts, to the rescue.

What Does “Liberal Arts” Mean?

“Liberal arts” is a widely-used term that may not be fully understood. Specifically, it involves college or university studies that focus on a broad-based knowledge of the wider world, including diverse literature, history, languages, philosophy, mathematics, and general sciences. These studies are designed to develop general intellectual knowledge, such as reason, research, and communication, in contrast to the more focused skills required for professional and technical careers such as medicine or IT.

But why call these studies “liberal?” In today’s culture, “liberal” is often associated with political connotations. However, its original meaning is quite different. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word’s root comes from the Latin word “liber,” which means “free, unrestricted.” The training of the mind through a liberal arts education was originally available only to the “free” class of society. It focused on two topics: the “trivium,” or three arts of the word (grammar, logic, rhetoric); and the “quadrivium,” or the four arts of numbers (arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry). The lower classes, on the other hand, were trained in servile or mechanical skills that were more occupational in nature.

Today’s Liberal Arts Studies

Today, degrees offered at liberal arts universities and colleges are usually grounded in the trivium and the quadrivium tradition, regardless of the major being pursued. For example, there are general education requirements that all graduates must complete in order to graduate, even if they are earning a computer science, human resources or finance degree. These courses almost always involve science, literature, history, art, and math options that students choose as electives, ensuring that all graduates have a broad-based education in communication, arts, and sciences.

On the other hand, there are also full degrees that are based in the liberal arts, such as English, history, communication, biology, mathematics, literature, and music. Beyond those, many universities offer an actual liberal arts degree under various names, such as General Studies, Humanities, Liberal Arts, or Individualized Studies. In most cases, students may add concentrations to their general studies to include training in a specific area.

What are the Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education?

With today’s short shelf-life of professional skill sets, we asked earlier what will remain constant and transferable to careers through the rest of the 21st century. In short, the broad knowledge and skills gained through a rigorous liberal arts education will prepare students for successfully navigating the complexity, diversity and fast-paced change in the job market that is coming, and indeed is already here. The benefits of a liberal arts education are invaluable in such a career climate. 

The liberal arts hold the key to strong, transferable skills of the intellect that employers will demand2 in our advancing global economy because they produce:

  • analytical thinkers
  • creative problem solvers
  • team-minded collaborators
  • quick-on-their-feet adapters
  • leaders with emotional intelligence
  • researchers
  • innovators
  • teachers
  • ethical decision makers, and
  • well-spoken communicators.

In fact, seven consecutive surveys commissioned by AAC&U found that employers overwhelmingly advocate for broad learning and “cross-cutting” skills as the best way to prepare for long-term career success. They were also adamant about the ability to translate knowledge and skills into achieving real-world goals, which is why the majority (93%) placed a high value on graduates with internships, apprenticeships, and service learning3

What Skills Do Liberal Arts Give You?

Through the course of a liberal arts education, students can become skilled in a number of areas that employers need and that will ensure career success, even if they are not trained in a particular vocation. According to the World Economic Forum’s report on the Future of Jobs4, these skills are broken down into several areas.

First, the WEF identifies cognitive abilities like creativity, cognitive flexibility, logical reasoning, visualization, problem sensitivity, and mathematical reasoning as important for career success far into the future. It also stresses content skills, such as active learning, oral expression, reading comprehension, written expression, and ICT literacy (the ability to use digital technology, communication tools and/or networks appropriately to solve information problems). On the other hand, process skills that employers will continue to require involve active listening, critical thinking, and monitoring of self and others.

Cross-functional skills outlined by the WEF are particularly eye-opening in regard to their long-term transferability. For example, social skills such as coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, negotiation, persuasion, service orientation, and training others are vital. Systems skills like good judgment and decision making, complex systems analysis, and problem solving will also be irreplaceable, as will the ability to manage financial and material resources, people and time.

The Impact of Liberal Arts Skills Across Professions

What’s interesting about all of these skills is that they are not relegated to a specific profession – or era. Instead, they are universal in nature and can (must) be applied in extremely variant real-world settings. Through a student’s broad liberal arts training, s/he gains experience in in-depth research; exposure to and analysis of varying ideas, cultures and world views; training in speech and presentations; and experience in backing up their ideas. They learn not to accept things at face value but to ask good (and sometimes hard) questions; go to the source for truth; listen to, weigh and respect others’ ideas; glean the most important and useful information from reports and documents; analyze things from many angles to make informed decisions; and many other transferable skills.   

How Do We Use Liberal Arts in Everyday Life?

While those in the technical and professional vocations are the “doers” of our society, it’s most often the thinkers, the planners, and the visionaries who analyze where we’ve been, why we did the things the way we did, what the consequences were, what we need to change, and how. In society, it’s often the liberal arts trained historians, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, and anthropologists that lead us forward. In the workplace, it’s the business equivalent – the liberal arts trained finance, biology, math, business, English, education, computer science, and nurse majors who bring the analytical and creative skills to bear on the professions that run our lives.

The liberal arts in real life also connect us to our humanity and our creativity, in our everyday lives and in the workplace. Whether it be writing a poem, designing a marketing piece, choreographing a dance, launching a non-profit, developing a new scientific hypothesis, concocting a new recipe, or designing a new video game, the liberal arts promote the joining of mind and heart for the betterment of ourselves and society.

Where Can You Get a Liberal Arts Education?

Look no further than Ottawa University for degrees that are fully grounded in the liberal arts. With a rich 150+ year tradition of liberal arts education, OU has a commitment to “transform individuals who transform the world through liberated inquiry, expression, reflection, and action.” Contact us today to enroll in the online program that will prepare you for career success long into the future!


Posted: 03/14/2023
Updated: 03/14/2023 by OU Online
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