Why Is Liberal Arts Important?

Artist working in studio

Why is liberal arts important? The liberal arts help provide a fuller, more global perspective on just about everything, including socio-political ideas that are part of modern discourse. A background in liberal arts also improves critical-thinking, reasoning, enquiry and communication skills. The liberal arts offer context for understanding modern society, which helps us both appreciate and improve the world we live in.

We don’t use broad strokes to paint the picture of why liberal arts is important because it makes it easier to cover everything. It’s actually the best way to discuss an area of study that is broad by its very nature. We talk about big ideas like ethics, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication because that’s what the liberal arts are all about.

Narrow perspectives and rigid thinking, in the broad span of human history, have almost always led to bad things. Adaptation, on the other hand, the flexibility to adjust and to succeed through creativity and innovation, is the hallmark of humankind.

You Appreciate the Importance of Liberal Arts When You Imagine the World Without It

It’s sometimes useful to look at why liberal arts is important by looking at situations where a lack of liberal arts training has led to massive failure.

Understanding Cultural Nuance is About More than Just Being Cultured

Munich, Germany skyline with mountains in the backgroundIn 1997, American retail giant Walmart decided to expand into Germany. Through the acquisition of two local chains, the company bought a quick foothold and proceeded to import their proven formula for expanding market share and maximizing corporate profits. But not much went according to plan.

The company failed to account for any cultural differences between German and American markets. The ubiquitous Walmart greeter, stationed at the door to welcome every customer, made Germans uncomfortable right at the outset. Unlike Americans, who browse stores, many German customers preferred to get in and get out, and were not susceptible to the stocking strategy that spread preferred products out in hopes of striking impulse buys.

The company also blew cultural connections with their own workforce, requiring public expressions of corporate morale that were seen as rude and inappropriate. Worse, the company imported a mandatory policy requiring employees to report coworkers who violate company rules. With the specter of Gestapo informants and neighborhood spies still hanging over the country from the Second World War, local employees had little stomach for it.

In less than ten years, the company abandoned their German experiment, leaving behind a whole lot of money and fodder for business school case studies that will last for decades. The whole German effort collapsed both inside and out.

A professional education focused on economics, business organization, and markets by itself didn’t prevent Walmart executives from making such an expensive blunder. But a liberal arts education would have told them they needed to expect some cultural conflict.

What Does it Mean to Have a Liberal Arts Education?

How could those Walmart executives have gotten that cultural perspective they so badly needed? Maybe less time in MBA programs and more time studying history and culture, for starters.

A liberal arts education hands you the knowledge to compare situations to analogous events from a wide range of fields and trains you in the analytical skills you need to assess and decide on a response. Rather than cramming facts and figures into your head, liberal studies teach you the tools for finding the facts on your own through research, logic, and observation.

There’s a strong element of experiential learning in liberal studies programs that also gives you real-world experience and enough confidence in your own skills to make those decisions.

Maybe above all, liberal arts teach you that there are always options. You have a toolbox with more equipment in it than people who have only had a specialized education. Your ability to look at the world through more than one lens will let you see things that other people won’t.

Why Liberal Arts Is Important For Individuals and For Society

Successful woman with arms in the airMaking multi-billion dollar companies even more billions of dollars isn’t necessarily the purpose of liberal arts. When you look at reasons why liberal arts is important, there are almost too many to list… but a list helps get the basic benefits across.

Liberal arts is important for creativity. Creativity is a mysterious subject but it’s thought to involve making obscure connections between different fields of knowledge. It goes without saying that you have to have access to those different fields of knowledge before those connections can be made. Liberal arts, by spreading itself across disciplines ranging from physics to politics, is an excellent way to equip yourself for creativity and discovery.

Liberal arts is important for context. Like Walmart, many failures in modern society result from a lack of context. An education in liberal arts is a constant reminder that our individual experiences are grains of sand in the bigger picture. Learning to place our own perspectives in the broader context is invaluable for understanding others.

Liberal arts is important for self-confidence. Liberal studies also force you to think through your own ideas and reasoning. You’re constantly confronted with other examples, with challenges to facile thinking, with new information that can change your mind. Far from discouraging most students, this constant loop of taking in new information and dealing with the implications helps build confidence in your ability to apply logic and cope with any new situation the world throws at them.

Liberal arts is important for learning. Learning, the act and ability to take in and apply new information, is innate in human beings. But at the same time, it is a skill that can be practiced, improved, and honed. Liberal studies do all those things, pushing your brain to absorb and reflect on new inputs all the time. That makes it easier for the next batch of new data to come in and incorporate itself into your knowledge base.

Liberal arts is important for humanity. Understanding and empathy are key pieces in determining how people treat other people. A course of study in liberal arts forces you to put yourself in the shoes of others, to consider their lives and actions in light of your own perspectives and culture, to reflect on both differences and similarities. Exposure to art, writing, and history offers an appreciation of others in a way that a professional or vocational education never even attempt.

Liberal arts is important for communication. An ability to express yourself accurately and concisely is an act of empowerment. Communications skills are not something we are born with, however. By exposing you to great literature, rhetorical devices, and methods of elocution, liberal studies help you share your own humanity, your own ideas, in ways that strengthen your place in the human community.

Those are all valuable traits not just for individuals, but for civilization as we know it. The humanities brought the Enlightment, an end to slavery, and an awakening to environmental catastrophe. When you need big picture thinking, you need liberal arts. And there’s always a need for big picture thinking.

The Importance of Staying Flexible and Nimble in the Marketplace

Streaming apps on tvOn the other side of the coin from Walmart’s failures overseas, you have Netflix. Netflix, though a high-tech company, didn’t emerge from a technology breakthrough. Instead, it was born of classic liberal arts creativity in action: founders Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph had a chocolate and peanut butter moment when they realized that Blockbuster, king of video rentals, could be combined with the Amazon online business model to do away with the bane of the movie renter—late fees!

Each Blockbuster could store only a limited number of videos. They had to pressure customers to return them. Even then, popular films were often unavailable.

With a centralized, online model, combined with a new, cheaply-mailed video technology (the DVD), Hastings and Randolph realized they could stock and ship enough films that customers could be allowed to basically return them on their own schedule. It was a killer application of two unrelated trends.

During a rough patch in the early 2000s, Netflix offered to sell to Blockbuster. The CEO, with a technical background in business administration, saw only the numbers and not the human elements of the model. He declined to buy.

Today, Netflix is a $200 billion business and Blockbuster no longer exists.

It’s ultimately up to every student to ask themselves – what is the purpose of liberal arts in my own education? It’s an enormous field, and an evolving one too, so the answer to that question can change over time.

It’s easy to see why liberal arts is important in the context of human history, and not too difficult to understand how it can serve society well into the future.