The Liberal Arts By Any Other Name… American Higher Education and Ideas about the Liberal Arts and Sciences

In September 2018, we posted a blog about our impressions of the different ways in which participants understand the term “liberal arts and sciences.” Since then, we have completed a full analysis of these differences. In the following blog, we highlight our major findings.

by Christina Smiraglia

What does the term ‘liberal arts” mean to you? 

We posed this question to more than 2000 individuals involved in our five-year study of higher education in the United States.

The short answer is that disappointingly few people who are connected to the liberal arts seemed to understand the term in any kind of depth.  This finding may not be unexpected for students entering college, but we were surprised and disheartened to learn that even faculty and administrators, in addition to graduating students, young alumni, parents of college students, and trustees, also had trouble with the term.

Initially, because we wanted to understand perspectives on the liberal arts and sciences, we listened carefully for how participants would talk about the concept during our interviews, even if they did not name it specifically.  At the end of the interview, we explicitly asked participants “How do you define the term ‘liberal arts’?” After our pilot interviews, however, we found that this question made people confused or feel like they were being tested; accordingly, we softened our question to: “What does the term ‘liberal arts’ mean to you?” Furthermore, although we originally called our study Liberal Arts & Sciences in the 21st Century, we changed the name to a more general title of Higher Education in the 21st Century.

Previously, we wrote about initial impressions of participants’ conceptions of the liberal arts as well as how those ideas intersect with valuing the liberal arts.  Now that we have formally analyzed the data, we want to share two key headlines, implications for the field, and corresponding recommendations.

Our Criteria

Before delving into our findings, it is important to identify what exactly we meant by the liberal arts and sciences. We were not looking for an explicit definition, for even experts invoke a range of criteria.  In analyzing what our respondents said, we instead looked for one or more of the following indicators as evidence of understanding the liberal arts:

  • Working within and across scholarly disciplines
  • Spanning the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural/physical sciences
  • Engendering communication skills in various media
  • Inculcating critical, discriminatory, and analytical abilities
  • Acknowledging the importance of different perspectives
  • Tackling big questions, with an eye toward continuing to pursue them
  • Reflecting on ways to contribute to society as a citizen

Finding #1: Confusion about the Liberal Arts

Across the wide range of interview responses, an unfortunate but unifying theme across students, parents, and alumni—and even college administrators, faculty, and trustees—was that many participants were not quite sure about the definition of the liberals arts.  Administrators and faculty, unsurprisingly, were more clear about the concept, but even their ideas deviated from our list of indicators above almost 40% of the time.  Students seemed to gain clarity across their years in college; more than 60% of freshmen offered ideas that demonstrate confusion, but fewer than 50% of graduating students did so.  However, alumni and parents were “off” more than 60% of the time, suggesting that experience may not directly correlate with a better understanding of the liberal arts.

Beyond direct admission of not knowing what the term means, participants discussed the following concepts that demonstrated a lack of complete understanding:

  • Political liberalism: “I think liberal arts is also a nice way to say that we’re very, very liberal. Like politically” (student)
  • A specific major: “the liberal arts major here is the default position for a student who doesn’t know what to major in” (faculty)
  • A kind of school, generally of small size: “a small college focus on, focus on like the literature, art and science” (faculty)
  • Fine arts: “openness to all types of art, um, not just painting and stuff like that but allows the student to be open-minded so we, maybe you want to, you’re a painter or going for painting, but you, you know, it’s not just the s-, the single, you know, we’re all going to do Realism here. I think it allows for Cubism and, uh, Post-modern, all these different, um, types of art” (alumnus)
  • Exclusion of science: “quote unquote, not science” (parent)
  • Freedom of course selection with little overarching structure: “I would say liberal is freedom, because you’re free to pick and you’re not limited to picking one thing under one major … Liberal arts meaning freedom, you get to choose whatever courses that you would wanna take” (student)
  • Disparate disciplines: “what it means to me is, um, the, the, uh, the philosophy that you can’t intermix, um, excellent science and math with excellent humanities and, and literature” (trustee)

Finding #2: Defining the Liberal Arts as a Well-Rounded Education

So how exactly do participants define the liberal arts when they seemed to understand it (as 48% of all participants do)?

The most common response overall related the liberal arts to well-roundedness; this definition was one of the most common responses for each constituency group.  Here are some examples of how participants discussed the liberal arts as a well-rounded education:

  • Studying a little bit of everything: “Liberal arts means kind of getting a broad knowledge base. I think it’s about building this foundational knowledge that you take all these different kinds of classes […] I think that the core of the liberal arts is to become educated in a variety of different fields” (student)
  • Broadening one’s perspectives: “an exposure to a diverse set of perspectives and modes of thought, and uh, you know it’s a, it’s about gaining perspective on yourself and on humanity, on society” (administrator)
  • Receiving a holistic education: “I think it means getting a holistic education. […] not letting a student get totally tunnel visioned into their, um, to their specific area of interest.” (student)
  • Gaining an ability to look at issues through multiple separate lenses: “it’s basically a system that teaches you some of the fundamental notions of various other disciplines […] being part of one discipline doesn’t necessarily exclude you from understanding any other disciplines out there. So I think a liberal arts curriculum allows that flexibility for a person trained in one particular discipline to understand perspectives, ideas that come from other disciplines.” (alumnus)

Although the idea of well-roundedness does not encompass the entirety of a liberal arts education, these concepts resonate with the traditional idea of the liberal arts, and they correlate with the first two points in our definition above.


Why is the lack of name recognition a problem for the liberal arts?  Our findings indicate that a number of students are enrolling in an academic program without realizing what they are supposed to be engaging in.  Parents are similarly confused, and thus cannot always provide clarity for students.  Even once on campus, students may find themselves surrounded by faculty and administrators who may not discuss the liberals arts, nor even fully understand it.  How can we expect students to have a cohesive academic experience or be full participants in their learning in college if there is so much misunderstanding about this form of education from those directly involved?

Furthermore, although the number of participants who described the liberal arts as a well-rounded approach is heartening, this conception is incomplete.  Without a full understanding of the liberal arts, students—and other stakeholders—cannot fully understand its value and may look to narrow vocational approaches that have a more immediately clear purpose and outcome.

As higher education grapples with decreasing enrollments in liberal arts colleges and majors, as well as societal skepticism about the utility of a liberal arts education, confusion over the name ‘liberal arts’ may be partly to blame.  While having a clear understanding of the term is less important than valuing and embodying the underlying principles, students—and other stakeholders—can better value and embody the liberal arts if they are intentional about engaging in an explicitly liberal arts education.


Given the problems noted above, we suggest that colleges:

  • Focus on providing positive experiences in courses and zeroing in on practices that exemplify the liberal arts at its best. Explain what you are doing and what kinds of benefits can emerge.  Explain why a well-rounded education is important.
  • Distinguish this type of education from others, and be clear about what it is not: focusing on a single discipline, strictly vocational preparation, rote memorization, etc.
  • Connect this approach to students’ — and others’ — goals for college when onboarding students and throughout their college experience. This association, done consistently, will hopefully convince students that they are getting a quality education directed towards lifelong learning and an ability to contribute meaningfully to society, as well as transferable skills useful in professional contexts.
  • Seize the opportunity in onboarding and ongoing discussions to connect the transformative potential of the liberal arts to students’ mental models about college. An inertial or transactional approach to higher education does not take full advantage of the promise of a liberal arts education, and students need to be prompted to reflect on their own perspective on college so they can be intentional in their approach to the college experience.
  • If the term liberal arts is to be used, it must be used explicitly and clearly defined. If the term remains problematic, another might be substituted, preferably with a term that has a positive connotation (e.g. global or universal education) rather than being completely neutral (e.g. general education).  What is important is to offer a positive vision that people understand and prevent misunderstandings arising from ill-defined language.

Parents and high school staff also have a potential role to play as important adults in the lives of current and future college students:

  • Discuss different types of higher education approaches with students, clarifying the difference between a liberal arts education and other post-secondary educational experiences, like a strictly vocational education.
  • Differentiate between the liberal arts as an educational approach, type of college, and possible major.
  • Demonstrate how knowledge and skills acquired in a liberal arts education can be useful for the rest of your personal as well as professional life—from being a good parent to serving as an engaged citizen to making the best use of your retirement years.

That the value of a liberal arts education is increasingly contested in the United States may come as less of a surprise given the confusion over what a liberal arts education actually entails, even in a sample of participants who themselves have connections to the liberal arts as students, alumni, parents, faculty, administrators, or trustees.  Further clarity of the concept— and possibly a new name—is needed so that students, other college stakeholders, and society at large can make appropriately informed decisions about the future of American undergraduate education.

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One Comment on “The Liberal Arts By Any Other Name… American Higher Education and Ideas about the Liberal Arts and Sciences”

  1. Unais Muhammad October 4, 2020 at 7:10 am #

    I mohammed unais. My Country Malappuram, Kerala, India. I completed my post-graduation in 2017 from Darul Huda Islamic University. My PG thesis The theory of Howard gardner: A critical appraisal in the light of Sunnah. I have tried to compare this intelligence theory of Gardner’s with the character, actions and speech of the last prophet Muhammad (s) in Islam. Can you publish this valuable work‌ … ??? Glad to let you know this … God help …If you reply I will send you the complete copy of thesis

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