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5 Myths about the Liberal Arts

When the United States began falling behind other countries in math and science, there was a big push for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education. Soon liberal arts were getting a bad rap. In this feature, we look at some misconceptions about getting a liberal arts degree and how the degree meets up with what employers are looking for in a challenging job market.

  1. Myth: The “liberal arts” is another name for the humanities.
Robert Matz [1]

Robert Matz

Since the Middle Ages, the liberal arts have referred to disciplines across the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Only recently, with the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, have some people started to think of the sciences as separate from the liberal arts.

This separation is unfortunate. It obscures the values of curiosity, analytical rigor, and creative thinking shared by humanists, social scientists, and scientists alike. And sometimes it contributes to the idea that just one area of human inquiry—the sciences—can solve pressing social problems.

Contemporary social problems are too complex to be solved without all kinds of knowledge. Likewise, advocates of the liberal arts believe that we must be well- rounded individuals, with at least basic understanding across the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. This liberal arts tradition is at the root of the Mason Core requirements, which all Mason students must fulfill, and is a source of strength for higher education in the United States.

  1. Myth: The liberal arts are too traditional.

The idea of the liberal arts is rooted in tradition, and many of the disciplines included in them have deep historical roots. But innovation is at the heart of the liberal arts!

Spirit_Summer_2016_5 myths_#4 [2]The word “liberal” in “liberal arts” comes from the Latin word for “free” (libertas). The idea is that people who study the liberal arts are free to follow inquiry wherever it goes, even if that inquiry does not serve an immediate purpose. It’s that freedom that allows students of the liberal arts to question what we know and push knowledge farther. An understanding of the liberal arts forms a foundation on which new knowledge, appropriate for understanding and solving more immediate problems, can grow.

  1. Myth: The liberal arts are not practical.

Since the liberal arts are not necessarily geared to immediate purposes, they might seem impractical. But not serving an immediate purpose is not the same thing as serving no purpose.

Think about making a budget: we allocate some money for immediate needs, save some for short-term goals, and put some aside for the long term. These allocations are all practical. Indeed, budgeting only for immediate needs is risky behavior. Likewise, a society should not only try to answer questions based on the most immediate need, or just one kind of need.

The liberal arts of math, physics, and chemistry underlie the engineer’s bridge-building. The humanities and social sciences help us to build human bridges across communities and cultures. They also help us understand where we’re trying to go, in our own lives and as a people. What could be more practical than that?

  1. Myth: We can’t afford the liberal arts.

Recently, state higher education policy in Virginia and elsewhere has favored the STEM disciplines. The argument is that STEM disciplines produce the greatest economic returns and so are most deserving of state investment. Yet a thriving economy depends on skilled workers in all of its sectors. Economies are like ecosystems, which are healthier and more resilient when they are biodiverse. At Mason, we recognize that “we thrive together.”

Spirit_Summer_2016_5 myths_#1 [3]The liberal arts are affordable in a second sense as well. Instruction and research in the humanities and social sciences are less expensive compared to areas such as engineering and the physical sciences, even considering the higher grant money these fields typically bring in. Rather than being a drain on universities, the humanities and social sciences typically subsidize work in other areas.

  1. Myth: Liberal arts majors don’t find good jobs.

While the sciences are still seen as a good occupational bet, the social sciences and humanities fields are often thought to lead to jobs for which one is overqualified. Think: barista.

Studies show, however, that students across the liberal arts have excellent employment outcomes. Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences pays attention to our students’ employment success (you can learn more at chss.gmu.edu/careers [4]).

It is true that the median income for a student in the humanities or social sciences is somewhat lower than, say, the median for an engineering major. But most people don’t make “the median income.” If you love your major and are good at it, you’re likely to be more successful than if you reluctantly undertake a major you’re not passionate about because you think it will lead to a higher-paying job.

Second, as a “well-being” university, Mason recognizes that success is not measured by annual income alone. The link between income rise and the experience of happiness or life satisfaction remains a matter of controversy. But we all know that no amount of material wealth will make us happy if it leads to work we do not love. Earning a living and creating a life well-lived are both important.

Robert Matz is a professor of English and senior associate dean in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.