Terms of debate blur the value of liberal arts

October 26, 2017

The image and perception of liberal arts colleges has become blurred between the value of a liberal arts education and self-identified liberal arts institutions (“Does liberal arts education have an image problem?”, Features, 19 October). This does create an “image problem” if that type of institution is negatively perceived.

Undergraduate degrees in the US are liberal arts degrees because even science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects generally have to be taken minimally alongside a general education programme, making up about 25 per cent of overall study. So liberal arts is the foundation of the entire US undergraduate system, not the preserve of a specific type of institution.

The value of a liberal arts curriculum can be easily demonstrated by looking at numerous surveys on key graduate attributes and the skills being sought by employers. A liberal arts curriculum can anticipate and respond to flexibilities required in the workplace exceptionally well and often in a way that wholly specialised degree courses, which tend to dominate in the UK, cannot.

The article also serves to -highlight that liberal arts tends to collapse into the realm of “humanities” when someone is looking for a political football to kick around. This is somewhat like the proverbial criticisms of media or golf studies in the UK.

Liberal arts as an educational philosophy is not the humanities, which is a problem when critics take up the angle of employability. What they are actually attacking is not the liberal arts, but the choice of major, such as the 16th-century French art example mentioned in the article.

Being from the humanities myself, one can counter such misinformed arguments, but the issue is that this is another debate misapplied to the liberal arts as
an educational system, leading to further risk of distortion.

This is a particular problem when US debates translate to the rest of the world, where there is less understanding of liberal arts education.

Lawrence Phillips
Head of liberal arts programmes
Regent’s University London

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