What Is a Liberal Arts Degree?

what-is-a-liberal-arts-degreeIn its origins, a liberal arts degree is a degree in a field meant to prepare the mind to conduct the affairs necessary to a free person (per Merriam-Webster, evoking the Latin liber, “free”). A pun in Latin and historical usage have likened the liberal arts to those focusing on the book (as liber also means “book” in Latin), as traditional understanding likens practices of literacy to those necessary to the just and proper exercises of freedom. While more recent usage has tended to decry study of the liberal arts as not worth undertaking, the habits of mind thoroughgoing liberal education cultivates in those who pursue it remain vital as the world increasingly becomes information-driven and people more publicly and consistently become producers and consumers of knowledge.


The Association of American Colleges & Universities calls liberal education “an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change.” Typically, study of the liberal arts is not tied to a specific vocation, focusing instead on promoting general habits of mind such as critical skepticism of received knowledge and interrogation of underlying assumptions that help people to sift through massive amounts of information and find what is of value within it instead of blindly accepting what is presented as fact. Most frequently, this is found in fields that constitute the “general education” sequences of college degrees: rhetoric and composition, literary study, language and linguistics, history, philosophy, theology, pure mathematics and other fields whose content is more on the page than in direct practice.

Objection, Voiced and Addressed

The old joke, “I have a liberal arts degree; would you like fries with that?” encapsulates the major objection to continued widespread offerings of such degrees. It is, namely, that they do not specifically and explicitly prepare students for the workforce; that is, liberal education does not focus on equipping students with discrete, specific professional skill-sets that they may then use in the service of businesses. Prevailing cultural tendencies vitiate against the extended, formal study of the liberal arts fields, deeming them useless because they appear not to be amenable to immediate deployment in the workplace.

It is worth noting, though, that at the same time such complaints are voiced, that liberal arts students spend much money to earn degrees that do not lead to jobs that pay, others are voiced that students increasingly come out of school narrowly informed and incapable of negotiating the world as a whole. One has to wonder if the two are in some senses related, if perhaps the animus against liberal education is informing if not outright causing the perceived decline of students’ abilities; an increase in liberal studies suggests itself as a corrective. It is also worth noting that people are not their jobs; they have lives outside the workplace, and they exist in societies that ideally work toward increasing personal freedoms. Liberal education remains a primary means to equip people to sort through and interrogate data, parsing it to find what is best so that they can move within the world, making the kinds of decisions that help them enjoy the increasing freedoms available.

Liberal education is among the oldest components of formal teaching. It shows its age, certainly, working with figures and ideas from centuries past. But it also suits its adherents to understanding the massive amounts of information with which they are increasingly presented. Even in the twenty-first century, therefore, there is value in the liberal arts degree.

Related Resource: What is a Humanities Degree?