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The Real Value of a Liberal Arts Education

There is a popular misconception about the Liberal Arts, namely, that they somehow constitute a “soft option”, that will gain prospective students entry into universities but do not provide a “real” education and are not taken seriously by employers. This stubborn myth, perpetuated not least by many counselors working in high schools, flies in the face of fact – for one thing, mathematics and the hard sciences form part of any Liberal Arts college's offering of courses. But perhaps the most valuable aspect of a Liberal Arts education, aside from any subject-specific training, is that it develops critical thinking, communication and problem-solving skills, both theoretically and in real-world applications that are indispensable both across the range of academic subjects and in the workplace.

For example, one highly respected Midwest college lists the following areas of study as proper to a genuine Liberal Arts education: Writing and Communication; Language Study; Natural Sciences (i.e. the hard sciences); Quantitative Reasoning; Human Behavior and Society; and Creative Expression.

Quantitative Reasoning is akin to Theory of Knowledge, which forms an important part of the International Baccalaureate programme, and entails acquiring the habit of thinking in such a way as to be able to apply data and quantitative tools to a wide range of problems in personal, public and professional contexts. Clearly, what the 21st century requires is the education of the whole person rather than, or as well as, a specialist trained (however well) in one narrow field.

As for employers, the following statistics published by Butler University throw further light on how a Liberal Arts education is valued:

  • 4 out of 5 employers express the view that students need broad education in the Liberal Arts;

  • 55% of employers express the view that students need not only specialist skills but also a broad educational foundation in order to attain long term success in their chosen careers;

  • 93% of employers state that communication skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills are more important than an undergraduate major.

In fact, serious academic institutions have always regarded the Liberal Arts in this way, ever since the classical world established the notion that a good education consisted of the trivium – Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic – and the quadrivium – Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy.

Today, the term Liberal Arts has maintained much of its original significance. The disciplines under the larger umbrella of Liberal Arts education tend to provide students with a diverse range of skills and understandings. Natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences are the main programs considered within the context of liberal arts – each of which includes a variety of disciplines. The relevance of this to our economy, and to the job market, becomes very clear when we think of some of the specific subjects that fall under the heading Social Sciences: History, Business Informatics, Law, Psychology, Geography, Economics, Statistics. And of course, the Natural Science element of Liberal Arts includes Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Earth Sciences.

The figures we saw above show that the idea liberal arts graduates have a hard time finding work is just fantasy. In reality, liberal arts graduates enter the workforce with a variety of in-demand skills employers in a wide range of industries actively look for in new employees.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers states that employers tend to emphasize abilities such as communication and critical thinking, which are extensively developed in liberal arts, instead of technical skills, when determining a candidate’s career readiness.

The value of a liberal arts education is that it provides students with a strong foundation of skills with which they can confidently bring to any position and build upon throughout their professional career. These tools ultimately make it possible for them to succeed.

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