What Exactly Is Meant by Liberal Arts and Humanities?

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What is liberal arts and humanities? Liberal arts and humanities are the study of general and classical subjects that offer insight into the human condition. These studies develop skills in logic, reasoning, and communication. Although the terms “liberal arts” and “humanities” have different specific meanings, the phrase is often used as a catch-all to describe the same style and type of education. Generally, the crux of the question has to do with a lack of clarity on exactly what subjects are covered in the humanities part of a liberal arts education. It’s a long list, but it generally includes everything from history and anthropology to the arts and philosophy and language and everything in between. Anything that can’t be classified as a science would be included in the list of humanities topics.

Rest assured, you are not the only one asking the question “What is liberal arts and humanities?” It’s one of those phrases that gets thrown around a lot, but that rarely gets pinned down to a precise definition.

For starters, is it just one term? If it is, are they talking about the subject of study, or the way of studying it? Or is it referring to two different, but related, areas of study? Or is it two terms that mean the same thing?

You’ll find people who subscribe to all of those definitions. Some may even use the term “liberal arts and humanities” differently depending on context. Even if they aren’t exactly the same, it might not always matter!

If you’re starting with the basics and you’re looking for an answer to the question, ‘What is liberal arts?’, the explanation we’re providing here might not be on-target for you. But if you’re looking for a clear explanation of what the humanities are and how they factor in to a broader liberal arts education, then you’ve come to the right place.  

Liberal Arts and Humanities Are in The Same Ballpark, But They Aren’t The Same Game

Being a bunch of well-informed, independent thinkers, folks in the liberal arts are sometimes inclined to come up with their own definitions for things. That’s definitely happened with the phrase “liberal arts and humanities.”

Liberal arts and humanities are both their own individual disciplines. But humanities is a subset of the liberal arts. So it’s a bit like saying “sports and football.”

Almost no one actually uses the term to refer to both subjects as separate disciplines, however. Instead, they are using it to refer to the larger spectrum of studies that is already included by just saying “liberal arts.”

Maybe liberal arts just sounds more intense with humanities thrown into the mix.

For example, many people basically equate the terms “humanities education” and “liberal arts education.” They’re talking about a humanistic, analytical, interdisciplinary style of learning, the approach that most Western school systems are rooted in. There is definitely an emphasis on humanities in that kind of education, revolving around art, literature, and history.

But while the two terms share a lot of historical background and a similar general flavor, the fact is that they don’t mean exactly the same thing.

What Are The Differences Between Liberal Arts and Humanities?

Liberal Arts - The term liberal arts itself is often misunderstood. The term comes from the Latin term artes liberales… that is Artes: Art or principled practice, and Liberalis: Free.

Art, in the sense the Romans were using it, didn’t mean the fine arts exclusively.Instead, it embraces the less-commonly used English definition of art as a skill, or craft. The original seven liberal arts also included a healthy helping of subjects that we would clearly identify as sciences. And a better translation, which is also often used today, is the term liberal arts and sciences.

Humanities– Humanities is defined as learning or literature concerned with human culture, especially literature, history, art, music, and philosophy.

Within the broad spectrum of liberal arts, humanities is just one family of subjects. It represents all fields that engage in a study of human beings and their forms of thought and expression. That’s still a pretty broad definition, and it overlaps with how people understand an education in liberal arts and sciences to work. So, it’s pretty likely you’ll continue to see people using liberal arts and humanities more or less interchangeably, or even redundantly.

What Is A Liberal Arts and Humanities Degree?

Because the terms are both redundant and not entirely synonymous, you won’t usually find these degrees literally called a major in liberal arts and humanities. Instead, the most common program titles are:

While we just got done telling you that liberal arts and humanities are not exactly the same things, the key thing to take away when talking about degrees is that those differences rarely matter. That’s because colleges offering these programs give considerable freedom to explore your own interests and customize your curriculum in line with your own goals. So, the reality is that you will find that a bachelor of arts in liberal studies at one university could be very similar to a bachelor of arts in humanities at another based on your course selection.

In each of those cases, you will likely have the opportunity to shape your experience so that it would be more or less similar no matter which of those three degrees you picked. And you can decide if you want to call it a liberal arts and humanities degree or just a liberal arts degree, or a liberal arts and sciences degree. No one is going to stop you! But in the tradition of the liberal arts, they may very well decide to start a debate and ask you to explain your reasoning… so be ready!