Psychology and philosophy are but two different branches sprouting off the massive, gnarled tree trunk of the history of liberal arts. Not only do they share the same roots, but many of the same arborists pruned and propped up each of those branches along the way. Names like William James, the father of American psychology, and Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of the psychological profession, are as likely to be found in philosophy texts as psychology studies.
So, it’s only natural to think about exploring liberal arts programs that include a concentration in psychology. It’s right up the same historical alley.
Psychology is already a popular field of study for American college students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, psychology is the sixth most popular college major in the country. That’s because it’s not just a path to conventional psychological practice and therapy.
Instead, the field’s importance in the liberal arts overall and its ties to a vast array of other disciplines have made it the ideal springboard for graduate study or for stepping right into a wide array of other careers. A liberal arts degree with a concentration in psychology can get a solid start in fields like:
Psychology is the classic thinking person’s discipline, seeking to answer fundamental questions like ‘who are we?’ and ‘why do we do what we do?’ Psychology approaches these questions from a scientific perspective rather than a philosophical one, which is where those big branches split from the tree. This makes psychology inseparable from any real exploration of the human condition, and inseparable from any well-rounded college liberal arts curriculum.
When taught from a broad, liberal studies perspective, and integrated with other classic liberal arts disciplines, psychological studies become an incredibly important tool for understanding ourselves and the world around us. And it just so happens that’s exactly the same reason the liberal arts themselves are important.
The Major Schools of Psychological Thought Have Roots in the Liberal Arts
Since the early days of psychology, the most influential minds in the field –Wilhelm Wundt, Sigmund Freud, Carol Rogers, Erik Erikson, Carl Jung, and B.F. Skinner, to name just a few – have sought not just to understand the human mind and behavior, but to teach and articulate their findings in a way that would move humanity forward.
In that sense, you can think of psychology as a kind of observationally-validated branch of philosophy. As a science, predictions can be made about human behavior, and they can be tested.
Psychological experimentation may drive understanding in the humanities, but the humanities are also critical in psychological experimentation. There’s no clearer example of that than the 1971 Stanford prison experiment.
The research goals for the experiment were laudable: Professor Philip Zimbardo wanted to gain an understanding of the effects of incarceration on both prisoners and prison guards. Starting with a tabula rasa of individuals who were not already in the prison system, and putting them in a controlled and closely observed environment for two weeks, was seen as the best way to look at the power of roles, rules, and symbols outside of the actual justice system.
On August 15, 12 men were arrested and put into a mock jail. Another 12 men, randomly selected from the same group of volunteers, were designated as their wardens.
Five days later, the experiment was prematurely halted. Frictions between guards and prisoners had quickly escalated to humiliation and abuse by the guards. Two of the prisoners had already been removed from the experiment due to mental and medical issues.
Interestingly, the key person in halting the experiment as it spiraled out of control was Christina Maslach. Her undergraduate degree was earned at Radcliffe College, a noted liberal arts school in Massachusetts.
Today, the study of psychology is a compilation of close to 200 years of research and practice. Over the course of those 10 generations, a general consensus has emerged on how to conduct valid psychological inquiry.
These methods represent the major schools of thought in psychology:
A Closer Look at the Study of Psychology in the Context of a Liberal Arts Education
As a quintessential liberal arts discipline and degree-plan staple for most liberal arts majors, psychology classes are probably in your future no matter what. But additional psychology courses can also be stacked on the curriculum to provide a full concentration in psychology in many bachelor’s and master’s level liberal studies programs.
Of course, psychology in and of itself is a classic liberal studies discipline. But the uses of psychology also intersect with some other liberal studies fundamentals to provide insights into those fields too:
Psychology offers analytical perspectives that help explain the motivations and thought processes of individuals throughout history. Was Hitler a sociopath? Did Napoleon have Little Man Syndrome? Psychological research develops new theories and tests evidence on the human condition all the time, giving historical research a flavor that changes even though the events may be set in stone.
Social psychology is pretty much the key discipline when it comes to social science research. Developing theories and understanding of everything from poverty to politics takes keen psychological insight into both individual and group behavior.
Psychology is both useful in explaining and in being explained by other natural sciences. Neuropsychologists examine biochemical brain processes and logical processes of the mind through the lens of psychology, and use their understanding of neurology to help decipher human behaviors and thoughts that would otherwise remain mysterious.
The study of psychology is focused on the examination of both basic and advanced psychological theories in the areas of human development, social interaction, psychopathology, cognition, and even the biological roots of behavior. As part of a liberal arts program, psychology allows students to:
Choosing a Psychology Concentration with Your BLS or MLS Degree
Many roles that psychology is useful for don’t require a degree in the subject. Instead, you can use your psychology concentration and broad interdisciplinary skills from a liberal arts degree to boost your abilities in many different fields at both bachelor’s and master’s degree levels.
Studying Psychology within a Bachelor of Liberal Studies Program
The study of psychology within a Bachelor of Liberal Studies (BLS) provides students with a comprehensive look at the principles, history, and the schools of thought in psychology. It also includes research methods and encourages students to sharpen their skills in scientific inquiry, critical thinking, and communication.
The APA reports that about 25% of students who study psychology at the bachelor’s level go on to a graduate program in the field, a comparable proportion, some 18%, choose graduate programs in other fields.
Even more telling is the fact that some 57% of psychology undergrads transition directly into the workforce primarily in fields other than psychology, bringing their unique perspective to careers in healthcare, science, education, public service, business, human services and a whole lot more.
Studying Psychology within a Master of Liberal Studies Program
Master’s programs in liberal studies give you unprecedented freedom in developing your thesis topic, research focus, and individual coursework. That gives them a reach that goes far beyond the typical psychology master’s program.
The study of psychology within a Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) can offer you coursework in advanced psychological theory, providing an in-depth exploration of the primary psychological sub-fields:
The study of psychology within an MLS produces well-rounded, competent professionals who can take their career in almost any direction. That could include traditional psychological fields like therapy and human services. But it also offers value in business and human resources, and public policy, as well as a unique set of skills relevant to careers in sales, advertising and marketing, public relations and much more.
A liberal studies degree with a concentration in psychology is one of the broadest and most useful that you can earn. And with new ways of understanding your own mind and motivations, it may give you more satisfaction than any particular career.