Data Analysis and Liberal Arts – Liberal Studies Programs with a Full Concentration in Data Analytics

Data analyst at desk viewing computer

In a sense, all of the liberal arts involves taking in and interpreting data. Whether canvases in an art museum, theatrical performances, or dusty old manuscripts, the point of an arts and sciences education is to add information to your knowledge base so that it can inform and shape your perspectives. All Pythagoras and Aristotle were doing was building scientific knowledge and data and using it to understand the world around them.

"In God we trust. All others must bring data."

~ W. Edwards Deming, management consultant and statistician

But since the ancient origins of the liberal arts, the nature of information has changed. There’s a lot more of it, for one thing. IDC, a market intelligence company, estimates that the world will have around 175 zettabytes of stored data by 2025. A single zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes. Let that sink in for a minute. The growth rate is so fast that some data scientist will probably have to invent a new -byte term by then.

All that data has also become more interconnected. While the humanities have always been about drawing comparisons and connections between different fields and disciplines, the world of Big Data takes that to some very personal places. The somewhat eerie stories of marketing algorithms knowing shoppers are pregnant before they know it themselves based on innocuous product selections gives us a sense of how AI knows us better than we know ourselves in some cases.

Finally, that information isn’t stored in ways that are immediately accessible to the human senses or intellect. Digital storage, seas of ones and zeros locked into the microscopic magnetic fields of microchips, is the only container for that data. And data analysts are the experts responsible for drawing it out and making sense of it.

But learning the right lessons from data, and using it responsibly, requires more than just technical knowledge. That’s why a liberal arts degree with a data analysis concentration may be the best choice.

What is Data Science, and Why Does it Matter to a Liberal Arts Education?

Data analysis is the process of inspecting, cleaning, and modeling data with the goal of discovering useful information to draw well-informed conclusions and support strategic decision-making.

The emerging field of data science is an ideal case study in how liberal arts graduates are a critical part of the information economy.

Databases and data collection have become so easy and so ubiquitous in today’s interconnected economy that both governments and corporations are practically drowning in the stuff. Those zettabytes pile up in massive data stores and files, automatically gleaned from laptops, tablets, cell phones, security cameras, and network routers. And there is so much of it that it’s actually entirely useless… that is, unless there is an analyst with the critical-thinking skills to come up with a plan for reviewing and interpreting it.

Data analysts are the critical-thinkers capable of doing that job.

Only perspective offers a path to pulling out the critical pieces from the mountains of data. Only a mind that has been trained to assess things from all angles and consider all the possibilities will succeed in data science. And that’s the kind of mind that emerges from a course of study in the liberal arts.

The Data Analytics Toolkit Offers Specialized Methods Tailored to Different Kinds of Inquiries

The world is turning to data. Liberal arts colleges are not only participating in this trend, but they are also leading the way in data science. The field of data science needs inquisitive people who know how to ask the right questions, communicate their findings and address ethical concerns related to privacy and the application of data-based findings along the way. 

A liberal arts degree with a data analysis concentration does more than just hone your critical thinking skills, though. It also offers you the technical training to put those skills to use in complex data modeling and programming tasks.

Communications Skills Turn Data Analysis Into Actual Intelligence

Regardless of the type of analytical approach you take, a liberal arts degree also equips you for a key task where many dedicated data engineers fail: communicating your results.

Classes in writing and rhetoric will polish your ability to present findings in ways that connect with your audience. A background in the arts and art appreciation will inspire new ideas for data visualizations.

A chart or infograph that can instantly convey meaning with accuracy is as much a thing of beauty as a Rembrandt.

Liberal Arts Graduates in Data Science Put a Critical Brake on Privacy Abuses

As an analyst, you will often be dealing with numbers. But as an analyst with a liberal arts degree behind you, you will understand that those numbers are a reflection, in many cases, of individuals or of nature. The financial decisions of millions summed in their credit card records; the movement of glaciers, reckoned against decades of geological measurements.

A great analyst, one with a liberal studies background, will be able to understand the relationship between those numbers and the lives of people and communities and the world of nature we all inhabit.

In Liberal Arts Courses, Cold, Hard Analysis is Given a Soul

Circuit board with heart at centerAs a liberal arts student, you will learn to appreciate the history of mankind. You will experience the grit and determination, the fragility and the power, and the simplicity and complexity of the human condition. You will be able to understand – more than most – who we are, and where we have been.

Combined with an analytical mind and training, you will then be able to predict where we are going, and how best to get there. You will be able to break down the simple habits of mankind without canceling out the complexity of it. Combining data analysis methods with a liberal arts degree provides you a holistic understanding about humanity that allows you to make mathematically precise decisions about people without forgetting about the human experience.

Data Analysis Offers New Perspectives on Traditional Liberal Studies

It’s not just data science that benefits from liberal arts graduates, however. The liberal arts themselves are being transformed by new methods and tools in data analytics.

Social scientists have better perspectives than ever on human behavior and lifestyle patterns thanks to cellphone tracking data and browsing records. Analytics are offering up new frontiers in liberal arts from economics to psychology.

And even some of the most traditional liberal studies have turned over new leaves with the help of data-mining and statistical analysis. The Folger Shakespeare Library used data analysis on the Bard’s First Folio to uncover new and thought-provoking writing patterns in traditional plays that will fuel debates among Shakespare scholars for decades.

The Courses You’re Likely to Find in a Liberal Arts Program with a Concentration in Data Analytics

Understanding the various methodological approaches to analyzing data gives you a tool kit to select from for finding answers to different kinds of questions. And having some specialized options gives you greater confidence in the results and the decisions made based on those findings:

Descriptive Analysis asks, “What happened?” It describes or summarizes quantitative data through statistics. It looks at the numbers and tells us what happened as a result of a given action.

Diagnostic Analysis asks, “Why did it happen?” It looks at that data and tries to determine what caused the event. It looks at an event and then moves backward, searching for a why rather than a what.

Predictive Analysis answers the question, “What might happen in the future?” Instead of looking to the past, it takes data from past events and tries to predict the future, based upon previous norms.

Prescriptive Analysis answers the question, “What should we do about it?” This type of analysis uses the insights and understandings of the previous three types of analysis to inform future actions by predicting new norms.

But methodologies are just the start. You also need the technical tools to sieve answers out of massive, disparate datasets. That means taking courses that are more often associated with computer science and engineering:

But Big Data and computational techniques are only part of the program. You’ll also get the same full range of liberal studies courses that any humanities major dives into. Art history, literature, and social studies all give you the kind of generalist background you will need to develop intelligent questions and gather the appropriate information to light a path forward in any industry or organization.

The kind of critical thinking skills you’ll develop through a liberal arts program will prepare you for the deepest kind of analysis. Data science is an ongoing process that requires adaptability, a spirit of enquiry, and an ability to develop clarity from chaos.

Some Careers in Data Science Are Perfect for Liberal Arts Grads

Team working on digital diagram

The job landscape for data scientists is incredibly diverse and the demand seems bottomless, with all the biggest players in tech, finance, e-commerce, marketing and healthcare all constantly putting out the call for new talent.

If you enjoy problem solving and brainstorming solutions, and if you want to help companies and governments improve the world and the lives of those within it, there is no better field in which to do all that than data analytics.

Data analysts are expected to be comfortable working with SQL (structured query language), data visualization, and modeling. Because success in this field is dependent upon communicating your findings and predictions to others (bosses, board members, etc.), all of these roles will require the kind of strong communication and people skills you develop in a liberal arts program.

Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and the rest are all building out their ranks, creating veritable armies of data scientists capable of turning data into dollars. And it’s clear what every one of these companies have in common – the very foundation of their businesses requires an understanding of human behavior and humanity itself.