Liberal Arts

Should you major in the Liberal Arts?

The Liberal Arts are:

Art and Art History
A Language or Comparative Languages
History (see my site on Why History?)
Philosophy (see my Philosopby class, Independent Thinking, and What You Can Do)

Here are some reasons why you should major in one or all of the Liberal Arts.

Liberal Arts, and the Advantages of Being Useless

by Nicholaos Jones

The following are some excerpts from this wonderful essay:

"I'm going to argue that people who major or minor in a liberal arts discipline are better off than people who don't. And I'm going to argue that these people are better off precisely because Liberal Arts degrees are useless...

"In 2011, a poll by Gallup found that 50% of people want a college degree in order to earn more money. The poll also found that 30% want a degree in order to get a good job. If we, very reasonably, assume that good jobs are jobs that pay well, it seems that about 80% of people in college agree: the goal of a college education is making good money.

"Every once in a while, of course, a few students will be pursuing a major in Liberal Arts – Art & Art History, Classics, Communications, Education, English, Foreign Languages,History, Music, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology. Compared to majors in other Colleges, far more Liberal Arts degrees lack an obvious answer regarding how possessing that degree will help one make good money. I mean, what jobs are there in History, or English, or Philosophy, or Sociology?

"There are teaching jobs, sure. After all, teaching is what I did with my degree. But nobody seriously thinks that teaching is a way to earn good money...

"There's good evidence that Liberal Arts majors tend to earn higher salaries by midcareer. For example, a 2008 report from shows that people with Philosophy degrees earn about $81,000 per year mid-career, compared with $77,000 for Accounting degrees, $67,000 for Nursing degrees, and $65,000 for Biology degrees...

This, I think, is why a Liberal Arts degree is useless: it requires some creativity and unguided exploration after you get it in order for you to figure out what you want to do with it. And it requires these things because you can't read the name of a good paying job off of a Liberal Arts degree...

"There's a very good reason that a Liberal Arts degree doesn't indicate the kind of job one can do by virtue of possessing it. This reason doesn't have anything to do with marketing – it's not that the names for Liberal Arts majors are badly chosen. And it doesn't have anything to do with politics – it's not that our society doesn't make the right sorts of jobs available. Instead, the reason has everything to do with what the Liberal Arts are. I'm going to explain what the Liberal Arts are in two parts – first, I'll explain why they're arts; second, why they're liberal.

"An art is a craft which applies principles and methods toward the achievement of a goal proper to the craft. Learning an art involves learning the principles and methods and then developing skill through practice in applying these principles and methods. This is the reason why the Liberal Arts are arts: each major in the Liberal Arts is a craft which applies principles and methods toward achieving a special goal. And the Liberal Arts are liberal, because these goals are, in some sense,"liberal" goals.

"The liberal arts; they're liberal in a sense that dates back to the fourth century Algerian philosopher Augustine:

liberal: worthy of or suitable for a free person.

"An art is liberal, in this sense, when it prepares a person to be an active and responsible citizen, capable of participating articulately and reasonably in civic and political activities. In a pluralistic democracy like ours, where a multiplicity of cultures and beliefs sustains deep and persistent disagreements, active and responsible citizenship demands:

- proficiency and patience for hearing others on their own terms,

- wisdom and compassion for fairly weighing and critically evaluating competing priorities,

- clarity and gracefulness for communicating and reasoning with those who do not share one's beliefs and values, as well as

- creativity and imagination in searches for compromise

"People who study the Liberal Arts acquire these capacities. Consider, for example, the five disciplines in [a college catalog]:

Art & Art History. The goal of studying Art & Art History is the ability to understand the forms, concepts, methods, and records of human visual expression. Achieving this goal fosters creativity, confidence, self-discipline, and individuality.

Language & Literature. The goal of studying Language & Literature is the ability to underst and, contextualize, interpret, and create literature. Achieving this goal fosters intellectual curiosity, critical thinking and reading, linguistic proficiency,awareness of alternative ways of life, as well as clear, graceful, persuasive writing and speaking.

History. The goal of studying History is the ability to understand past cultures as well as social and political developments through time. Achieving this goal fosters skills for crafting narratives, weighing conflicting interpretations, explaining and identifying trends, and discerning between the important and the inconsequential.

Music. The goal of studying Music is the ability to understand, appreciate, and enact the artistic and communicative values of music. Achieving this goal fosters an integration of physical capacities (such as instrument technique), emotional expression (such as musical performance), and intellectual abstraction (such as reading the structure and notation of musical language).

Philosophy. The goal of studying Philosophy is the ability to understand and evaluate assumptions that structure the range of human experiences. Achieving this goal fosters skills for articulating assumptions, evaluating assumptions and reasoning, proposing and defending alternatives, and explaining ideas and principles to others.

"Furthermore, the skills one develops while pursuing a Liberal Arts degree are skills worthy of and appropriate to free citizens. They foster development of one's personal identity as well as development of one's identity within a political community. Exposure to people and traditions with different beliefs and value priorities enhances awareness of the assumptions, priorities, and possibilities accepted by oneself and one's culture. Such exposure also encourages a sense of wonder and amazement; it enables one to think clearly, comprehensively, and compassionately about public goods and the relation of one's political community to the wider world; and it develops capacities for succeeding in leadership roles.

"These consequences of pursuing a Liberal Arts degree do not occur, except by accident, in the pursuit of more technical or vocational degrees...

Why Liberal Arts Majors/Minors Are Better Off

"Technical and vocational disciplines – Engineering, Nursing, Business – make people useful to others for specialized purposes; but they do not make people better citizens. Nor should they. When one's primary aim is to acquire a specialized knowledge-base and skill-set, abilities associated with active and responsible citizenship are at best accidental side effects, at worst irrelevant distractions.

"Liberal Arts disciplines, in contrast, make people better citizens; but they do not make people useful to others for any particular purpose. Nor should they. When one's primary aim is to think clearly, comprehensively, and compassionately about one's self and one's community...

"That said, there is a sense in which people with a Liberal Arts degree, or at least some background in Liberal Arts, are better off than people without. People with a Liberal Arts degree have extensive and focused training for reading with comprehension, reasoningproperly, communicating creatively and effectively, exploring possibilities, interpreting and assessing, incorporating and weighing different perspectives, and sustaining intellectual curiosity. They develop these skills while completing their course work. There is also good evidence that employers – especially in the business sector – find these skills to be valuable, so much so that employers often express a preference for people with these skills rather than more specialized skills – the thought being, I assume, that a short training program will suffice to impart the more specialized skills.

"In the coming decades, success will be defined by the ability to understand the complex problems that customers face, and the ability to solve these problems elegantly. Technology development is important, as is finance, manufacturing, and distribution. But these areas are not core competencies for the industry leaders. The next billion-dollar company will be run by history majors who are skilled in wading through a massive jumble of facts and who have the ability to distill these facts down to a clear set of objectives that a global team can fulfill" (Tom Gillis, writing for Forbes magazine).

"Given this attitude in the business world, it seems safe to say that people with Liberal Arts degrees are not at any kind of significant disadvantage compared to people with, say, Business degrees.

"But there's more. Because there's more to life than a job. If one works 40 hours perweek, and devotes 10 hours per day to eating and sleeping, one preserves 58 hours perweek for other, non-work-related activities. And even if this estimate is overlyambitious, most of us will have at least a significant part of one day every week duringwhich we need neither eat, work, nor sleep. Let's call this time, whatever its duration, one's leisure time...

"Vocational training … prepares the pupil not for leisure, but for work; it aims at making not a good man but a good banker, a good electrician, a good scavenger,or a good surgeon" (C.S. Lewis, in his essay "Our English Syllabus").

"...people ask the.. the conventional [question]: "What are you going to do with your degree?" The question [YOU should ask] is this: "What kind of person is your degree going to help you be?" If you're a Liberal Arts major, you have a quick and ready answer: "I am going to be a more reflective and engaged individual, and an active, responsible contributor to my community capable of succeeding in leadership positions."


""Letters are the beginning of wisdom." So one Greek maxim had it, with "letters" standing for knowledge of language, the ability to convey the complexity and subtlety of thought and sense with words. The Hellenistic age strengthened the consensus that mastery of language defined the highest reaches of cultivation. As Marrou has reminded us, when we speak of "classical education" today, we really mean "Hellenistic education." For it was during the Hellenistic age, roughly from the death of Alexander in 322 to the first century BC, that curricula throughout the Mediterranean congealed. The Word was in the ascendant. The cultivated man was, in a real sense, the literary man, the man of words. It was during this period too that the "conscious ideal of human perfection" made itself felt more widely as a culturally shaped force. One was moved, Marrou wrote, to recreate one's self from unmolded clay and "to produce from the childish material ... the man who is fully man, whose ideal proportions one can just perceive: such [became] every man's lifework, the one task worthy of a lifetime's devotion"" (Simmons, 63).


Simmons, Tracy Lee. Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. Wilmington, Delaware, ISI Books, 2012.


Ten things the arts teach: 1. The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships. 2. The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer. 3. The arts teach multiple perspectives. 4. The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem solving purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity. 5. The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor numbers exhaust what we can know. 6. The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects. 7. The arts teach children to think through and within a material. 8. The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said. 9. The arts enable us to have experiences we can have from no other source, and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling. 10. The arts' position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important. (from Advantages of an Art Education for Children).

What are some advantages and disadvantages of art?

First, art can be a powerful means to express deep truths. This can cause a society to rethink things and grow. This is one of the most important functions of public art. Think of some of the art that was created in response to 911, or even the 911 memorial and museum. All the tragic loss of life shows that we live in a broken world.

Second, art can heal, because there is a sublime character to art. To use the 911 memorial and museum once again, many family members and loved ones of victims of 911 expressed that they felt a sense of closure and a healing. Both of these are valuable benefits of art.

(from What are some advantages and disadvantages of art?).

Korais, Adamantios (27 April 1748 – 6 April 1833) was a Greek humanist scholar credited with laying the foundations of Modern Greek literature and a major figure in the Greek Enlightenment. His activities paved the way for the Greek War of Independence and the emergence of a purified form of the Greek language, known as Katharevousa. Encyclopædia Britannica asserts that "his influence on the modern Greek language and culture has been compared to that of Dante on Italian and Martin Luther on German"

Colby Glass, MLIS