Liberalising Learning: The Case for a Liberal Arts Education

Global Ed

“Medicine, Engineering, Chartered Accountancy are great career options. Guaranteed success.” This is a fairly common statement you hear from the previous generation when it comes to advice on careers. The freedom to choose Liberal Arts or other (so-called) offbeat disciplines is a privilege not everyone enjoys.

But here is why you should consider them …

Changing education trends

The idea of education and the kind of opportunities available are changing rapidly with the rest of the world. And, even though the future is shaped by technology, technical education is no longer the only thing that matters. Interdisciplinarity (it’s a word) is the order of the day.

The core idea of learning has transformed and the boundaries that defined different disciplines have become more fluid. The younger generation of learners are expected to push those boundaries even further. Mathematics and Philosophy, Psychology and Engineering, subjects that were once considered disparate are now studied together.

Why, you might wonder.

The world is a complex, interconnected, and dynamic organism. Having watertight compartments restricts our understanding of the world. And what is education, if it does not help us perceive the world we live in? Moreover, the choices you make in your school or at university about what to study are not just a route map to a job that you are going to have. They contribute to your role as a human being as a part of your community and your profession. This is not simple armchair philosophizing, but what job markets expect. How attuned are you to the society you live in? Are you conscious of privilege? Can you perceive the impact of your work on the marginalised? What about its impacts on the environment? Liberal Arts will train you to think beyond yourself in an inclusive, creative and sustainable manner.

What exactly is Liberal Arts?

The debate on defining liberal arts has a history that spans centuries. In modern usage, the general consensus is that it involves three areas: social sciences, humanities, and the arts. It covers the core of human behaviour and our interactions in society including governance, language, and creative arts. The essence of any liberal arts education is to enable you to participate effectively in public life as a conscientious, empathetic individual who does not lose sight of the greater good. It prepares you to address human problems, strengthen human potential, and creatively think of human solutions that do not oppress other people. Critical thinking, creative problem solving, self-expression, and lifelong learning are skills that a liberal arts program will instill in you.

Busting the myths …

First things first, Liberal Arts must not be seen as an option for those who “could not do science and maths”.

Here are some myths that need to be busted.

Myth 1: Graduates of Liberal Arts degrees don’t find jobs.

This is a misconception. According to a study conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 93% of employers agree that an individual’s ability to think critically, communicate effectively and solve problems is more important than their undergraduate major. They also have an upper hand when applying to social services professions, whether affiliated to the government or otherwise.

It is, however, true that it does not prepare you for a specific career like a degree in engineering or medicine. But it opens up a world of opportunities to you, giving you the freedom to work in disciplines you did not major in. Also, let us not forget that in today’s competitive world, no major guarantees you a job. It is a question of how you stand out.

Myth 2: You can find only humanities jobs.

It is bewildering why people assume there is an impenetrable wall between liberal arts courses and the corporate job market. Not all of them become teachers or social workers. According to a report published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a third of humanities graduates in the US hold sales, services, or administrative positions.

Myth 3: They don’t make as much money as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or Management graduates.

This is a highly subjective domain that has been generalised into a stereotype. From a research standpoint, it is futile to compare the salaries of two individuals from different disciplines since income is determined by a lot of factors. That being said, it is true that some disciplines have a better starting salary than others. Although liberal arts majors have relatively lower starting salaries than those of engineers, their salaries rise more quickly in their professional lifespan.

Myth 4: It is a degree for “leftovers”.

What they intend is that students who can’t get into STEM courses are left with no options other than Liberal Arts. This is a cultural stereotype, more visible in Asian countries than anywhere else in the world. There are different kinds of intelligences, including logical, musical, existential, emotional and so on. Do not buckle under social pressure that approves one kind over the other. Solving difficult equations is not the only measure of your mental acumen. You can be drafting the next government public policy, designing inspiring posters or taking the world by storm with your perception of humankind, to name a few options. All of these are essential too!

Myth 5: It’s too political, too liberal, and not for men

The use of the term “political” in the context of Liberal Arts is often misconstrued to mean government politics. But the discipline uses this word in its largest sense to indicate power relations between people. The same is the case with liberals. It simply denotes being free. A Liberal Arts classroom is ripe with discussions where all ideological standpoints can debated and discussed.

The gendered stereotype is an offshoot of myths 1, 2, and 3. Patriarchy does exert extra pressure on men to be financial providers and therefore Liberal Arts is not a suitable option. With the earlier myths being debunked, this does not hold water either.

Balancing theory and practice

The biggest concern that many have with a Liberal Arts program is that it is too theoretical, disconnecting ideas from the real world, creating armchair intellectuals. This is not necessarily a myth. It is, however, a problem of pedagogy and not of the discipline. A good school of Liberal Arts would have addressed this issue and will enable their students to navigate the real world comfortably. Besides, studying Liberal Arts is not a luxury that people make it out to be. As a civilisation, we have always explored ourselves and our societies while building fires, governments, or factories. Why should this parallel exploration change now? Liberal Arts and technical education need to develop hand-in-hand.

The raison d’être of choosing a Liberal Arts program should be to grow as a highly functioning, socially conscious, empathetic individual who can find a job in any field without being restricted to your discipline. If the goal of education is to break barriers, it is counterproductive to adhere to fixed definitions of the arts. Technology and Arts aren’t mutually exclusive options. It would be extremely beneficial for a tech major to consider a social studies minor or the other way around.

As Steve Jobs said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices…”

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Global Ed


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