What Is Liberal Arts? Definition and Examples

Law and government are based in liberal arts.

Alexander Kirch / Getty Images

Liberal arts is a field of study based on rational thinking, and it includes the areas of humanities, social and physical sciences, and mathematics. A liberal arts education emphasizes the development of critical thinking and analytical skills, the ability to solve complex problems, and an understanding of ethics and morality, as well as a desire to continue to learn.

Liberal arts are increasingly important in the diversified job market, with employers choosing to hire liberal arts majors because of their ability to handle complex situations and solve problems with ease. 

Key Takeaways: Liberal Arts Definition

  • A liberal arts education emphasizes rational thought and aims to develop robust critical thinking and analytical skills, problem solving abilities, and a strong moral compass.
  • Fields of study include humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics.
  • The key element in defining liberal arts is the intent to combine practical, concrete information, like data and statistics, with theoretical knowledge, like ethics and philosophy.
  • Mathematics and science can also be considered liberal arts. The element that determines a liberal arts education is not necessarily the major, but rather the institution. Liberal arts colleges provide students with education in both intellectual and practical skills.

Liberal Arts Definition

Liberal arts are commonly misunderstood as “soft” subjects that lack supporting numbers or data. While the liberal arts definition does include humanities and soft sciences, it also encompasses physical sciences and mathematics. The key element in defining liberal arts is the intent to combine practical, concrete information, like data and statistics, with theoretical knowledge, like ethics and philosophy. This kind of learning produces well-rounded students with strong critical thinking and analytical skills, and the ability to adapt and work well in various fields of study.

Though the world’s greatest Greek and Roman thinkers—think Plato, Hippocrates, Aristotle—pioneered the liberal arts more than a millennium ago, contemporary universities include general education requirements that supplement subject-specific course because the purpose of the modern university is to provide a combination of practical and intellectual training.

Liberals arts can be found at a wide range of colleges and universities, though some institutions place a stronger emphasis on the discipline than others. Some institutions filter out the liberal arts completely, focusing instead on career-oriented skill acquisition. Below are the different types of institutions and how they relate to the liberal arts.

  • Public and Private Colleges feature a robust curriculum with a handful of general education requirements, including liberal arts and interdisciplinary subjects. For example, business majors may be required to complete courses on ethics, history, or language, which are intended to influence the way they understand their career-oriented courses.
  • For-Profit Colleges are privately owned institutions that facilitate career-specific training, usually in culinary arts, healthcare, and business. The focus is entirely on practical training, so liberal arts are not included in the curriculum.
  • Community Colleges offer two-year programs that lead to an associate's degree. They are frequently used as stepping stones toward a bachelor's degree, so students will complete their general education (and liberal arts) studies before going on to a larger university.
  • Vocational/Technical/Trade Colleges are institutions that give students career-specific training in one field, and they do not include liberals arts within the curriculum, similar to for-profit institutions.
  • Liberal Arts Colleges, as the name suggests, are institutions that focus heavily on providing a strong liberal arts education to all students in all fields. Usually, these are private, four-year colleges that tend to be more expensive than other institutions. Common courses include history, language, mathematics, science, and philosophy.

Liberal Arts Majors and Examples

Students learning to graph mathematical equations on a Cartesian plane.
The Cartesian Coordinate System, developed by Renaissance thinker René Descartes, is a direct product of liberal arts. Tom Werner / Getty Images

There are several branches of liberal arts majors, including humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics. While attending higher education, students can select majors that fall under any of these categories. 

  • Humanities are academic subjects that focus on human culture. These majors include English, Creative Writing, Linguistics, language acquisition (Spanish, Greek, Mandarin), History, Literature and Composition, and Geography
  • Social Sciences are focused specifically on human society and interpersonal relationships. They feature elements of hard science, including data and statistical analysis, and they use the scientific method to reach conclusions. Social science majors include Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science, and Economics.
  • Physical Science and Mathematics can be included within the definition of liberal arts if the curriculum seeks to combine practical and philosophical knowledge. This combination can be found in general education requirements in many state schools as well as at liberal arts-focused colleges. Physical science and math majors include Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Physics, Geophysics, and Mathematics (broadly, usually encompassing algebra, geometry, calculus, and so on).
  • Liberal Arts Teaching Methods are often used in classroom settings to encourage group participation and discussion, regardless of whether or not the material is considered a liberal art. For example, the Socratic Method is a type of teaching in which students present and defend arguments and teachers talk very little, acting as arbiters of the conversation. The purpose of this method is to develop critical and analytical thinking skills across disciplines.

Best Liberal Arts Colleges

Graduating student.
The element that determines a liberal arts education is not necessarily the major, but rather the institution.  Tom Merton / Getty Images 

Liberal arts colleges tend to be small, private institutions with low teacher-to-student ratios, and especially in the United States, much higher price tags than other four-year colleges and universities. However, they rarely teach single-minded expertise on one subject and often feature robust general education requirements. This higher education model provides students with a well-rounded education and a strong moral compass. Successful liberal arts institutions should produce students well-trained in soft and hard sciences, mathematics, and humanities, making the price worthwhile.

According to data from Forbes, the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education, and US News and World Report, the following schools are consistently ranked as the best liberal arts colleges in the United States: 

  • Williams College (Berkshires, Massachusetts): Williams College requires students to take three courses in three different fields of study: arts and humanities, social sciences, and science and mathematics. There are no required courses, but all students must demonstrate strong skills in writing, reasoning, and mathematics before earning a degree. Williams is one of the highest producers of both Fulbright and Rhodes Scholars.
  • Amherst College (Amherst, Massachusetts): Amherst College features an open course plan, which allows students to choose the courses they are most interested in. Amherst has no required core curriculum. Students can choose between 40 majors, or they can design their own major.
  • Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, Pennsylvania): Swarthmore is based on a Quaker tradition, emphasizing strong relationships between teachers, students, peers, and the environment. At 8:1, the student-to-teacher ratio is low, and Swarthmore is one of the top producers of Fulbright Scholars in the U.S. Swarthmore offers an engineering degree, unlike most liberal arts colleges.
  • Pomona College (Claremont, California): Just an hour away from Los Angeles, Claremont College offers 48 different majors and over 600 courses, with a low 8:1 student-to-teacher ratio. Claremont offers admission to all students regardless of their ability to pay tuition and offers complete financial aid to meet the demonstrated need of every admitted student.
  • Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine): Bowdoin College focuses on need-blind admissions, diversity, and social responsibility while fostering independent thought. More than half of Bowdoin students complete additional honors and summer coursework, and a majority of students produce robust independent research before graduating.
  • Wellesley College (Wellesley, Massachusetts): Widely considered to be the top women's college in the country, Wellesley College features a strong list of alumni, including former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Hillary Rodham Clinton. More than 70 percent of all students participate in internships during their studies and more than half study abroad.
  • Bates College (Lewiston, Maine): Bates College requires first-year freshman to take an orientation course together during the first semester to develop a strong foundation of scholarship and community. The low student-to-teacher ratio emphasizes this foundation, as does the strong sense of community outreach and annual volunteer efforts. In 2017, the college was ranked number one for Fulbright recipients.
  • Davidson College (Davidson, North Carolina): Located just north of Charlotte, Davidson College has produced 23 Rhodes Scholars and 86 Fulbright Scholars. More than 80 percent of the student body study or work abroad during their tenure and just under 25 percent of students also participate in athletics.
  • Wesleyan University (Middletown, Connecticut): Wesleyan provides students with the option of open curriculum, where they determine the courses they are most interested in taking, as well as pre-planned majors with emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, in true liberal arts fashion. The university also offers need-blind admission and features a low 8:1 student-to-teacher ratio.
  • Smith College (Northhampton, Massachusetts): As an all women's college, Smith stands out by consistently ranking among the best liberal arts colleges in the U.S. It offers nearly 1.000 courses in 50 different fields of study and sends half of its student to study abroad annually. It is ranked every year as one of the highest producers of Fulbright Scholars.

Sources

  • Sanders, Matthew. Becoming a Learner: Realizing the Opportunity of Education. Institution for Communication & Leadership, 2012.
  • Tachikawa, Akira. “Development of Liberal Arts Education and Colleges: Historical and Global Perspectives.” Liberal Arts Education and Colleges in East Asia. Singapore: Springer, 2016. 13–25.
  • Zakaria, Fareed. In Defense of a Liberal Education. W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.