What Exactly is Meant by Liberal Arts and Sciences?

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What is liberal arts and sciences? Liberal arts and sciences is the course of study at colleges or universities that deliver general knowledge together with logical reasoning and critical-thinking skills. The term liberal arts and “sciences” is actually synonymous with the term liberal arts in most cases and the education serves as a foundation for future learning and broad professional applications.

But the crux of the question, what is liberal arts and sciences, for most people asking it has to do with the science side of the equation. It simply comes down to the fact that the classic liberal arts education is evenly split between arts and humanities, social sciences, and the natural sciences, including everything from biology and environmental science to planetary science and astronomy, and even modern scientific disciplines like neuroscience.

In fact, a liberal arts education might be heavier in the sciences than you might realize. Even the ancient Greeks who created the whole concept of a liberal arts education defined it as encompassing seven disciplines, including the hard sciences of arithmetic, astronomy, and geometry, along with another notable left-brained discipline that the sciences rely on: Logic.

Liberal arts and sciences, or just arts and sciences, form the basis for most Western educational systems. Whether you have realized it or not, you’ve been pursuing an arts and sciences curriculum for most of your educational experience, all the way from kindergarten up through high school. And you will most likely continue in that same course of studies through your college career as well.

Isn’t Arts and Sciences Basically Everything?

What isn’t an art or a science? If you just went by the dictionary definitions of those words, liberal arts and sciences would be, well, just about everything!

But the term liberal arts and sciences has taken on a more specific, though still quite broad, meaning in higher education. In fact, saying liberal arts and sciences is really just a longer way of saying liberal arts, since the liberal arts also include studies in the sciences.

When you talk about the liberal arts and sciences you are also referring to a style of education, one that involves creative thinking, exploration and discussion, regardless of the subject at hand. It’s an ancient tradition in the pursuit of knowledge, one that has formed the basis for Western education and scientific advancement for centuries.

What Is Liberal Arts and Sciences in Modern Education?

The best way to think about it is to look at how an arts and sciences education is different from vocational or professional studies. A degree in accounting or teaching, or any other field that is designed to train graduates to perform a single, specific, technical job may require some classes in the arts and sciences, but only a degree major in liberal arts specifically would be considered a true arts and sciences degree in the classic tradition.

So, one way to figure out what is liberal arts and sciences is to view it as a pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The arts are not applied arts, and the sciences are pure sciences—the studies in an arts and sciences program are not designed to train you in a profession, but instead help you achieve knowledge mastery and essential learning skills you could use in any professional or artistic effort.

Where The Liberal Arts and Sciences Come From in Western Education

A degree rooted in the liberal arts and sciences stems from the Western tradition of the trivium and quadrivium: the three Arts of the Word and four Arts of Numbers that made up the foundation of higher education since the time of the Greeks.

Those seven subjects, unsurprisingly, included both arts and sciences:

So although liberal arts has become shorthand for this style of education, you can see that it has always been a combination of liberal arts and sciences. The well-rounded style of education that the ancient philosophers prized wouldn’t be complete with just one or the other.

Liberal arts and sciences are about more than just the subjects of arts and sciences, however. The term also means a style of education and pursuit of pure knowledge that is characterized in the scientific method and in ancient ideals of dialogue and logic.

That makes the best liberal studies programs a good fit for explorations that don’t fit into restrictive boundaries. Interdisciplinary coursework allows you to see new angles and pursue different lines of enquiry from those narrow bounds of a single subject. Your studies of social science and issues of unrest or wealth inequality can be expanded through courses in economics. Your readings of the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe are enhanced through a study of the history of the Elizabethan era.

Most liberal arts degrees are offered through colleges of arts and sciences at various universities. These are sometimes also called:

They all amount to the same approach to learning and the same broad categories of subjects as with any liberal arts school.