Finding Freedom in the College of Liberal Arts

woman studying at desk

Ashford University’s College of Liberal Arts offers 17 degree programs in a wide variety of subjects ranging from history and English to environmental studies and political science. Students enrolled in any of the liberal arts degree programs will acquire the transferable skills necessary to prepare them for any number of life paths. Before you decide whether a degree in liberal arts is right for you, here’s a brief background on where the term came from, how it has evolved since the time of the Romans, and what it means today.

What Does “Liberal Arts” Mean?

The term “liberal arts” can be misleading for some. Although it sounds like it has to do with art made for democrats, it comes from the Latin phrase ars liberalis, which means “the art of freedom.” The ancient Romans studied the liberal arts to acquire the skills necessary to become a free citizen (as opposed to a slave). In other words, the liberal arts help to free your mind and help you think for yourself so you can be a leader and not just a follower.
 
In Rome, this freedom meant having the skills to participate in civic life, including the ability to read and write, to understand law and history, to speak in public, to rationally convince people to agree with your ideas, and to competently vote on how the Roman Republic should act. Those who were not educated in the liberal arts were doomed to remain in what we today would call “dead end jobs,” slaving away (literally), and working with their hands instead of with their minds. 

If you don’t learn how to think for yourself, then there may be someone else ready to think for you, whether it is an overbearing employer, tyrannical government, or those in marketing or the media who make money off manipulating how you think. Even if you don’t buy into the questionable Roman assumption that manual labor is inherently inferior to mental labor, you can still see the value in a liberal education. Even those who love building things of practical value should learn to think for themselves.

How are the Liberal Arts Flexible?

In modern times, the liberal arts include degree programs in humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences – anything other than the strictly vocational subjects that prepare students narrowly for a specific job, like engineering, business, education, and health care. As its name implies, studying the liberal arts sets you “free” to pursue many different jobs. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans of the Baby Boomer generation held an average of about 12 jobs over their lifetime. Younger Americans can expect to change jobs at least as often, and up to half of these job changes could involve changing careers as well. In fact, many of the jobs that will exist in 20 years haven’t even been invented yet. Studying the liberal arts provides the transferrable skills – for example communication and critical thinking  – that just about every employer is looking for today and in the future.

How Do the Liberal Arts Inform?

With the world changing so fast, it only makes sense to focus on innovation. The problem with innovation is that it is inherently unpredictable and hence always disruptive. Memorizing the way things work right now in your job field can be a good place to start, but you also need to understand why things are that way, how they have changed over time, and where they might be going next. That’s where the liberal arts come in. Here are some questions you might ask yourself with a suggested answer to best determine which liberal arts degree program might be ideal for you.

1.    What historical or social forces have led to your present situation? Study history to find out.

2.    How do other cultures approach the same challenges differently? Become an anthropologist.

3.    Is there any empirical evidence that can help us anticipate possible future changes in your job field and then know which responses to those changes are likely to have the best outcomes? The method of the social sciences is crucial here (including sociology, political science, criminal justice, and more).

4.    Are there fundamental moral or philosophical principles that should limit the way you should address such changes? Ashford’s bachelor’s degree program in liberal arts can teach you how to think about that.

5.    What can we learn from literature and the arts about human nature and how to cope emotionally with a changing world?  Explore these ideas in the English program.

6.    How can we effectively communicate these ideas to others? Try communication studies, journalism, or applied linguistics.

Whatever questions you have, Ashford University’s College of Liberal Arts gives you the tools to find out the answers, the flexibility to apply those answers to any number of different career fields, and the freedom to be the best human being you can be.

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Written by John McAteer, PhD, associate professor and chair, Ashford University Liberal Arts program.
 

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