What are the Liberal Arts? (Part Two)

Liberal Arts pt 2

In Part One of this series, the history of the liberal arts was explained. In this final installment, you’ll learn the value of a liberal arts education in the current economy.

Educated in the Liberal Arts

Today the term “liberal arts” refers to the subjects of English, literature, history, philosophy, art, music, and mathematics, and also encompasses social sciences such as psychology, sociology, communications, economics, and political science. The liberal arts do not include professional, vocational, or technical fields, such as health care, education, engineering, and business. You may be surprised to learn the number of successful entrepreneurs, CEOs, and public servants who began their careers as liberal arts majors. Peter Thiel, CEO of PayPal, majored in philosophy, as did Carly Fiorina, former President and CEO of Hewlett-Packard. American Express CEO Ken Chenault majored in history. Successful English majors include: Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs; Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney; Andrea Jung, former Avon CEO; and Hank Paulson, former Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush.

The Advantage of a Liberal Arts Education

The goal of a liberal arts education is to produce well-rounded individuals who understand issues and events through the wide lens of human experience as documented in literature, history, philosophy, and the arts. But in the ever-changing, global marketplace, where social media enables human connection and the acquisition of information with one click, isn’t humanistic study a luxury? Do the liberal arts have practical value? Two well-circulated blog posts in the Huffington Post answer that question. In one, titled “Why I Hire English Majors,” small business expert and USA TODAY columnist Steve Strauss writes, “[English majors] know how to think, to think for themselves, and how to analyze a problem… English majors are used to getting a tough assignment, figuring it out, and getting it done, (usually) on time.” For Strauss, the ability to write well is key: “Whether it is a blog, an email to a client, an e-newsletter post, or an analysis of a problem, English majors win, hands down.” In his post, “What is the Public Value of Philosophy?” historian and author Keith M. Parsons addresses a common concern, “Why ask people to pay for discussions of seemingly arcane and incomprehensible topics?” His answer: “The only way to teach people how to think is to challenge them with new and often unsettling ideas and arguments…An education in philosophy gives a person the tools to reflect critically, think logically, make rational decisions, and enjoy more abundantly the riches that life has to offer. And that is its public value.” The ancient Greeks recognized the public value of a liberal arts education that enabled the individual to fully engage in the life of the republic. That tradition continues today as the liberal arts provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to participate in their local communities and in the global marketplace. It is an education worthy of a free person.

Written by Adrianne Hanson, Ph.D.

Adrianne is an Assistant Professor in the College of Liberal Arts at Ashford University.


Parsons, Keith M. (2015, April 8). What is the Public Value of Philosophy? Huffington Post.

Strauss, Steve (2013, January 13). Why I Hire English Majors. Huffington Post.

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