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Value of Liberal Arts

The rising costs of higher education and contemporary economic conditions have recently provoked a sometimes heated public debate about the value of liberal arts majors in particular and liberal arts colleges in general. For example, North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory recently proposed the elimination of state funding for university programs that do not help graduates find jobs ( On the other end of the debate are the findings of a study by the Annapolis Group, a consortium of liberal arts colleges, revealing that graduates from liberal arts institutions rank their degrees significantly higher than other private or public flagship universities in a number of key areas: shorter time required for graduation, better preparation for their first job, finding a mentor, better preparation for life, more positive interactions with high quality teaching faculty, and a greater sense of community ( Given that studies continue to show that a college degree — regardless of major — still cuts the risk of future unemployment by half and triples lifetime career earnings (Farer, 2012), the conversation is worth entering.


In the ancient world, the Liberal Arts were those fields of study judged to be important so that free human beings could engage successfully in public life. In other words, they were a foundational education and/or training focused less on the daily tasks of home and livelihood and more on the knowledge and interpersonal skills that would enable free human beings to assume their responsibilities in the public sphere. The expected outcomes, therefore, of a liberal arts education, were intellectual development and mastery of thinking and communication skills — all in the service of civic society and the common good.

The original liberal arts were linguistic: grammar, rhetoric, and logic, which when combined and mastered enabled a person to write/speak in an intelligible way (that is, to use the agreed-upon structures and rules of language—grammar), speak effectively and persuasively (that is, to demonstrate “the art of discourse” by which a person conveys information and attempts to convince or motivate an audience—rhetoric), and think well (that is, to reason out an issue by presenting evidence and drawing legitimate conclusions—logic). Based on the content of these three subjects, it is apparent that their goal was interpersonal communication and civic/social engagement.

To these original three subjects, the fields of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy were added. For centuries these retained their “civic” function as knowledge helpful for free persons (as opposed to slaves with no social obligations beyond fulfilling their owner’s wishes): arithmetic was needed for many economic and other interactions between individuals and among various civic entities, geometry helped individuals and societies understand and negotiate issues of space, music was the aesthetic language that linked individuals and groups, and astronomy was thought to help people understand the created order and make appropriate plans for the future.

The Renaissance focused on the Humanities, adding history, language (Greek), literature (especially poetry), and philosophy. Even in this expanded understanding, the original “definition” still rang true: knowledge and skills that make human interaction possible and more beneficial. In the modern era, the liberal arts generally include languages, science, literature, philosophy, mathematics, psychology, and history — again, all of which help deepen and promote human thinking, human understanding, human communication, and human interpersonal relationships. By definition, the liberal arts exclude vocational/technical and professional studies.

Current Definition:

Various definitions — interwoven with stated purposes — currently circulate about what “liberal arts” means. Among those that resonate with the mission and philosophy of Brescia University are the following:

  • The “core mission” of liberal arts colleges: “to teach what is known, to discover what is not and to shape global citizens.” (Glassner)
  • The liberal arts include the humanities — history, literature, philosophy, politics, classics, languages — and the social sciences — economics, anthropology, psychology, and sociology —“that relate directly to the exploration and understanding of human nature and the human condition…[and which] introduce perspectives, experiences, distillations of wisdom and observation, challenges, thought-provoking questions, new opinions, assumptions and outlooks, that must healthily influence any mind that contemplates them.” (Grayling, 2012)
  • In liberal arts courses students “see the connections from the past [and] understand that there are multiple viewpoints or cultural lenses through which to view the world.” (Lewis, 2012)
  • Liberal arts “free the student to think beyond the confines of background or economic constraints,” providing access to “the world’s storehouse of knowledge,” inviting the student to think about “what it means to be human, how we express our meaning, how we create ideas, actions, and art that never existed before.” The liberal arts enable “students to understand the world deeply and to contribute to the common good.” (Lovell, 2013)
  • A liberal arts education “encourages individual capacity for awareness and circumspection — because it helps us to learn how to think…Serious graduates …have the ability to put together a full body of knowledge and realize the links between all that they study; to understand historical, trends and truths; to evaluate what is accurate and what is not — and why; and in this way to better understand their own complexities, as well as those of all humankind.” (Smullens, 2012)

Enduring Value:

With the extraordinary pace of new knowledge available and the previously unthinkable rate of change, students today need above all else to learn how to keep learning. It has become a truism that tomorrow’s jobs haven’t even been created yet, and today’s “hot jobs” may well turn to cold prospects during the four years of pursuing a college major in those fields. These situations point to the need for creativity, innovation, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Employers want to hire people who are curious, good with technology, and know both how to ask good questions and do good research. This is evident in recent studies that show that college graduates who can think, reason, and write — typical liberal arts skills — are better off financially than students who score low on these skills. (Marklein)

Both scholars and businesspeople in the 21st century are increasingly convinced that a quality liberal arts education is not only valuable for personal development, cultural enrichment, and civic engagement, but also for long-term employment enhancement. A 2013 survey commissioned by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) supports this conclusion. The following points are among the survey findings.

  1. A liberal arts education teaches students to think critically and communicate effectively. For example, courses in logic, English composition, and public speaking all help students develop or enhance thinking, writing, and speaking skills, as do other courses requiring research papers and class presentations.
  2. A liberal arts education presents ideas from multiple disciplines and encourages analysis of topics from divergent viewpoints. Several examples may be helpful here. The study of history presents past viewpoints, placing those in dialog with contemporary understandings. In studying the record of human achievement and failure, conflict and compromise, students are challenged to recognize the importance of context, to think beyond the limits of their own time and place by “stepping into the shoes” of historical figures to understand why things happened and what might have produced a different outcome. Similarly, courses in theology and literature open doors into spiritual, cultural, and historical worldviews that may be quite different from those students already know. The ability to understand the spiritual climate of medieval Europe or the socio-cultural environment of Nathaniel Hawthorne makes it more likely that students will be able to understand, respect, and cooperate with workplace colleagues from varied cultures and/or countries. Course in the fine arts—art, music, theatre—impel students into aesthetic points of view quite different from contemporary rap or country music, abandoned building graffiti art, or TV’s “CSI” drama and “Big Bang Theory” comedy. In addition, courses such as World Music or World Novel open cultural doors to students that not only expand their personal development but also provide useful cultural understanding for our increasingly international business world. The study of psychology and/or sociology calls students to move out of the frequently limited experience of personal consciousness (often unreflective) and small homogeneous social grouping of family and neighborhood. By inviting students to learn about points of view typical of different stages of human development, different personality types (including abnormal ones), and various social systems across geographical space and chronological time, students come to see that “my little corner of the world” is indeed quite small. While the introductory study of a modern language does not provide students with proficiency, it does plunge students into an alternative worldview, teaching not only another culture but the framework of language itself and how human language works, so taken for granted by almost everyone until speaking becomes difficult or impossible—or one studies another language. Finally, the study of math and science require that students enter into an analytical or scientific framework, where thinking must be done logically, sequentially, and within a scientific process of hypothesis, testing through data collection, judgment, conclusion, and finally revision of hypothesis. In all these varied “liberal arts” subjects, students step out of their personal experience and points of view, learn to enter the experience and point of view of others, engage in thoughtful reflection on similarities and differences, and communicate clearly and respectfully with others about what they have learned. Clearly, all these skills greatly enhance the ability of students to be much more valuable future employees as well as citizens. Having learned that multiple perspectives exist, often with legitimate claims to truth, students learn to use their freedom of speech in ways that contribute positively to public discourse and respectfully challenge the often limited points of view of a given time, place, or social grouping. Such independence of thought frees students from the tyranny of popular fads and “group think.”
  3. A liberal arts education develops both student confidence and student competence. This is not surprising in light of the examples cited above in #s 1 and 2. Providing students with a broad knowledge of multiple disciplines in addition to the deep and specialized knowledge within the chosen major allows students to feel confident about “holding their own” in various workplace and social settings even apart from their specialized job skills.
  4. A liberal arts education helps students recognize the complexity of life. This recognition can result from an analysis of complex motives for behavior in literary characters, or from analyses of ecosystems or the human body in science courses. In these or other cases, once complexity has been recognized, students are invited to search for solutions. In the give-and-take of classroom or laboratory, innovation and cooperation, critical thinking and respectful exchange of ideas facilitate learning. While it’s easier to see that such problem-solving skills are honed in science and mathematics courses, it remains true that overcoming a problem with clay in ceramics class or organizing a group presentation in psychology class deepens critical thinking and problem-solving skills. This ability to “think through” complexity was recently discussed by Washington and Lee University President, Kenneth Ruscio: “Students today can easily find information. The challenge is making sense of the whole, finding connections, evaluating the credibility of the information, taking a position, and dealing with complexity.” (Ruscio, 2012) Complexity is uncovered and understood as students and future employees probe the “Why?” question as well as the “What?” question. The “Why?” question not only requires critical thinking skills, but also an ethical perspective that understands that knowledge and actions have moral as well as financial consequences. The “Why?” question can also unlock the doors of imagination, so that previously unthought-of ideas might venture outside.

As a result of these and other factors identified by the survey, the majority of employers consider the traditional “liberal arts skills” of thinking, writing, public speaking, and problem solving to be more important in their hiring than the specific major. Many job-specific skills are relatively easily learned “on the job,” provided that prospective new employees can communicate effectively and think critically (which includes both the recognition of what one does NOT know and the ability to logically sort fact from opinion). This reality does not change even with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors, who need not only their technical expertise, but also the critical thinking skills, creativity, and awareness of social implications that liberal arts courses enhance.

Finally, the ancient goal of a liberal education—to enable free persons to engage in civic affairs because they’ve learned how to think and understand the world with a measure of intellectual independence — coalesces with contemporary goals of civically engaged employees. For example, students who have learned something of art or music, even to attending local concerts or gallery shows, are more likely to support the arts in their communities as employees. For business owners from whom sponsorship of local events is often sought, even a minimal background should be helpful in making valuable business/civic connections. Likewise, students who have learned to write well and speak confidently and professionally in public bring additional job skills for business employment; those skills become even more important when these employees move into management or ownership positions. Limiting higher education to mere “job training” in the end limits the number and kind of employees businesses will be able to hire.

Into the Future:

Brescia University, true to the Ursuline educational tradition out of which it was founded, aspires to educate the whole person — body, mind, and spirit — and is committed to providing its students with the best possible education. For us this means providing first of all a strong liberal arts foundation that invites self-discovery, as students find interests and talents of which they were previously unaware; develop or deepen an expansive global and ethical framework for their lives; and are invited to nourish their spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic needs as well as their job aspirations. Brescia’s commitment to quality education also means providing the specialized knowledge and skills of a specific major. We believe that both elements of a Brescia education are vitally important, and that both contribute to the personal and professional development that can foster leadership skills in the community as well as in business. Because Brescia understands that the human person is more than a cog in an economic machine — that she is a homeless shelter volunteer and an amateur artist, that he is a church deacon and Boy Scout leader, that human persons are wives, husbands, parents, caretakers, members of local choruses or theater troupes, Cancer Society or Habitat for Humanity volunteers, neighbors, friends, voters, part-time elected officials of local school boards and city commissions — Brescia University provides an education that helps students create not only a professional career but also a happy and rewarding life.

In order to enhance its liberal arts foundation, Brescia University is committed to the following:

  • Increase opportunities in General Education courses for students to engage in active learning, cooperate in problem-solving activities, and apply learning to real-world situations, all of which contribute to enhancement of critical thinking and collaborative skills.
  • Consciously link academic disciplines and integrate learning from multiple perspectives, both of which also foster critical thinking skills. In addition, such cross-pollination deepens mutual respect and develops collaborative team-building skills, as students become more comfortable examining multiple points of view.
  • Intensify efforts across the entire curriculum to improve writing and speaking skills, since significant research supports the conclusion of Generation Y expert Dan Schawbel: “The No. 1 skill that employers are looking for are communication skills and liberal arts students who take classes in writing and speaking.” (Moss)
  • Encourage all students during their academic career at Brescia to undertake at least one serious research project in a discipline of their choice. These projects would then be presented publicly. Such research and presentation would enhance both critical thinking and communication skills.
  • Intensify efforts to make students aware of job opportunities, regardless of major, and to facilitate internships in a variety of fields, thus linking classroom and “real world” experience.

In a recent book, Andrew Delbanco (15) relates his discovery of an 1850 diary kept by a southern Virginia’s Emory and Henry college student. The student, disturbed by a sermon he had just heard, recorded the following in the diary: “Oh that the Lord would show me how to think and how to choose.” If Brescia University can actualize this succinct goal of a liberal arts education — to teach students how to think and how to choose, graduates will indeed have internalized “the Brescia Difference”: respect for the sacred, devotion to learning, commitment to growth in moral virtue, and promotion of servant leadership.



Delbanco, Andrew. College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Princeton University Press, 2012, p. 15.

Farer, Tom. “Scrap Liberal Arts? Think Again,” Denver Post, October 21, 2012. Cited at

Glassner, Barry. “Liberal Arts is About More than Money,” USA Today. Cited at

Grayling, A.C. “Liberal Arts Colleges — The Model for the Future,” University World News Global Edition, #239, September 16, 2012. Cited at http:///

Lewis, Amy. “Why History Matters,” Inside Higher Ed, November 5, 2012. Cited at

Lovell, Ellen McCulloch. “A Liberal Arts Degree Leads to a Career, Not Just a Job,” Huffington Post, April 12, 2013. Cited at

Marklein, Mary Beth. “Liberal Arts Education Lends an Edge in Down Economy, USA Today, January 24, 2012. Cited at

Moss, J. Jennings. “Revenge of the Liberal Arts Major,” email. Cited at

Ruscio, Kenneth P. “Why a Liberal Arts Education Is the Best Job Preparation,” Christian Science Monitor, September 19, 2012. Cited at

Smullens, SaraKay. “Why a Communal Liberal Arts Education Matters — More Now than Ever,” Huffington Post, October 25, 2012. Cited at