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College of Arts and Sciences

Dean's Blog

Why major in the liberal arts?

March 8, 2013

By: Mary Anne Fitzpatrick

As dean of the largest college of arts and sciences in the state of South Carolina, I am often asked what major undergraduate students should select.  Some say that undergraduate majors in fields like marketing or journalism,  which focus on a specific occupation, may be more likely to lead to a job at graduation.  Therefore, isn’t an undergraduate professional degree preferable to a degree in the liberal arts --- such as, art or biochemistry or political science or philosophy or Spanish?

It is not the mission of the liberal arts to train students for that first job.  A liberal arts education is designed to:

1.     To develop an understanding of the human condition, the social and political world we have constructed, and the natural world we inhabit.    

A great liberal arts education allows students to learn about people—their history, culture, values and perspectives.  In the classrooms, seminars, and laboratories, as well as the informal interactions in the college, students are exposed to a variety of viewpoints, approaches, and methods.  In our evermore global and multicultural world, these lessons prepare students with the skills for lifelong learning and career success.   

 A liberal arts education gives students a broad foundation for making judgments and a more nuanced world view about causes and consequences.  It provides insights into a variety of ‘‘ways of knowing” : that is, the thoughts and commentaries of the major philosophers, novelists and poets on the meaning and purpose of life;  insights on the organization and design of societies and governments; and an appreciation of  the scientific and mathematical work that leads to human progress and innovation.   

As dean, I have had the opportunity to meet hundreds of successful alumni of the college. One graduate and donor to the College now works for an international foundation addressing world hunger. Recently he remarked to me that although he had an outstanding education here as a biologist,   the courses he had taken in the humanities and social sciences are now more relevant to his current work.  

The problems of the world not only in food production but also in energy and the environment, democracy and human rights, bioethics and scientific advances, cannot be solved through science and technology alone.  A liberal arts education prepares students to develop broad based approaches to problems and to propose feasible solutions anchored in an understanding of people and their social, political and cultural milieu.   

2.     To be productive citizens  in  a strong democracy and a free society  

A liberal arts education is the bedrock of democracy as it fosters the critical and analytical thinking that citizens need to make informed decisions.  Students in the liberal arts learn how to engage in civil discourse, evaluate public policies and issues, and articulate their values and ethical positions.  Students learn how to participate actively in civic life at all levels.

The very meaning of the phrase liberal arts comes from the Latin, liber or free. The liberal arts, thus, serve the purpose of developing individuals who can live and function in a free society.

3.     To engage in productive work 

In many ways, colleges of arts and sciences prepare students for their third job.  Our mission is to develop students’ core competencies and skills in analytical reasoning, problem solving and creativity.  We teach students how to communicate effectively and how to use language with clarity and precision.  We teach students to create, collect, organize, analyze and present data of all sorts from many different sources.  We foster their abilities to make informed decisions in an ambiguous and complex world.   We require them to pursue and master a subject in depth and to recognize excellence in all forms.   

To develop personally and professionally, we provide real world experiences for students to experiment and test themselves and apply what they have learned in different settings.  Students have the opportunity through internships, community service projects, research work, and study abroad programs to work independently to hone their skills and to receive feedback on their performance and progress.

Regardless of which of the 80 majors students choose, the knowledge, skills and experiences acquired in the College of Arts and Sciences prepare students for success in their work and in their personal lives.