Liberal Arts

I. Nature and Aims of Catholic Liberal Arts Education: The classic statement of Catholic liberal arts education, John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, articulates its guiding premise: “I have said that all branches of knowledge are connected together, because the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and the work of the Creator” (Newman 1893, 99). Historically we can trace the idea of liberal arts to the religious conception of the ancient Pythagoreans, who took geometrical theorems of a kind already used by previous civilizations for practical purposes (land surveying, temple building, and so forth) and developed rational methods of proof that added no utilitarian value to those theorems but aimed rather at discovering why they were the case: such demonstrations were not merely correct and therefore useful for practical purposes, but true and beautiful, revealing a divinely ordained intelligibility and wisdom to the cosmos.

The liberal arts are defined first and foremost by their manner of approach to the subject matter, not by any particularities of the subject matter itself: Liberal study is the way of study that does not subordinate itself to a utilitarian end. Therefore, the liberal arts in the original sense comprise not just the humanities and fine arts but also the natural sciences and mathematics; and contemporary colleges and universities thus have “schools of arts and sciences” today, as does Providence College itself. As a result of historical developments since around the seventeenth-century, however, the natural sciences and mathematics are, generally speaking, technical disciplines no longer classifiable as liberal arts in their methodology. This situation will not change in the foreseeable future. Thus, our summary of research has in view principally the humanities and fine arts (and in some respects the social sciences as well).

The intrinsic ends of liberal education have perennially been recognized as twofold: truth and moral formation. Liberal study may also serve utilitarian ends, as discussed below (Section II), but these ends are ancillary and do not define liberal study per se. On this point the Catholic tradition is articulated with utmost clarity by Josef Pieper in his classic Leisure the Basis of Culture:

The liberal arts, then, include all forms of human activity which are an end in themselves; the servile arts are those which have an end beyond themselves, and more precisely an end which consists in a utilitarian result attainable in practice, a practicable result. . . .

“It is necessary for the perfection of human society,” Aquinas writes, that there should be [those] who devote their life to contemplation—note well, necessary not only for the good of the individual who so devotes himself, but for the perfection of human society.” (Pieper 1952, 44, 47)

This twofold end has been recognized since the inception of the liberal arts tradition among the ancient Greeks. Socrates gently rebukes his interlocutor Meno for suggesting that the search for truth is impossible (since unless we already know the truth we will not be able to recognize it when we find it), responding that such reasoning would make us skeptics and turn us into cowards, while believing that we can find the truth will make us brave. Indeed, the search for truth without dogmatism is what endows human beings with the cardinal virtue of wisdom which informs all the moral virtues including justice.

Yet as John Roche (former dean at the University of Notre Dame) observes, college faculty today are often reticent about these two essential goals of liberal arts education—the pursuit of wisdom and the development of moral character—even though research shows that both students themselves and their parents highly value both:

The UCLA/HERI study the Spiritual Life of College Students gives strong support to the claim that students are looking for more than material gain: 76 percent of students report that they are searching for meaning and purpose in life, and 74 percent state that they discuss the meaning of life with friends, but in a related HERI pilot study of third- year undergraduate students, 56 percent indicate that their professors never provide opportunities to discuss the meaning and purpose of life. A recent national study of students and faculty in introductory religious studies and theology classes showed that whereas faculty consider critical thinking the highest goal, elevating much more highly than do students, students prioritize the development of their moral and ethical values far more highly than do faculty. (Roche 2010, 104)

Similarly for parents,

This amoral vision of education is . . . hardly in the spirit of what parents expect. As much as parents express concerns about job prospects, they genuinely want their children to become good persons, and they expect that college will help their sons and daughters to develop further, such that they become truly moral men and women. (Roche 2010, 109).

II. Liberal Arts and the Workplace: If the value of the liberal arts cannot be reduced to economic usefulness, students and parents are legitimately concerned about employment prospects after college. The research suggests that liberal arts graduates are competitive in today’s job market and should become increasingly competitive in the future. Employers seek job candidates equipped with both field-specific skills and broader skills associated with liberal arts study (Hart Research Associates 2013, 2), but three closely related trends in the job market will increasingly advantage liberal arts graduates in the future. First, increasing automation will place a premium on skills that cannot be better performed by machines and liberal graduates excel in just those skills—the ability to speak and write clearly, to think creatively, to interact with different kinds of people, and to integrate different forms of knowledge:

So which skills cannot be replaced by technology? According to the McKinsey report, two types in particular stand out — work that involves managing and developing people, and work that emphasizes applying expertise to decision making. In other words, jobs that rely on human interaction, creativity, and judgment will continue to be done by actual human beings. . . . The hallmarks of a liberal education—building an ethical foundation that values the well-being of others, strengthening the mental muscles that allow you to acquire new knowledge quickly, and developing the skills to apply it effectively in rapidly shifting contexts—are not luxuries but necessities for preparing professionals for the coming transformation of knowledge work to relationship work. (Patel 2017).

While we do not yet know the course automation will take, nor its precise effect on the job market, the present trend seems to point to an advantage for liberal arts graduates.

Second, the complexity and rapid pace of change in the contemporary workplace tends to render particular skills obsolete, requiring highly adaptable employees who can teach themselves and assimilate new kinds of knowledge. Liberal arts graduates have a significant advantage in this respect. In 2010, for instance, only 27 percent of college graduates were employed in the area of their college major (Plumer 2013). A report by Hart Research Associates finds that

to achieve success at their companies in today’s more complex environment, employers are in broad agreement that a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex programs is more important than his or her undergraduate field of study (93% total agree; 59% strongly agree). . . . Consensus among employers is that innovation, critical thinking, and a broad skill set are important for taking on complex challenges in the workplace. (Hart Research Associates 2013, 4).

Finally, in addition to field-specific expertise, employers are increasingly emphasizing the so-called “soft” skills particularly associated with liberal arts graduates. The so-called and sought after “T-shaped professional” possesses this desired combination of “hard” and “soft” skills:

Large employers like IBM, IDEO, and Cisco are spearheading initiatives to hire “T-shaped professionals.” This concept contends that the ideal employee possesses a number of soft skills that allow him or her to collaborate (the “T-top”) as well as unmatched knowledge of a skill, process, product, or body of work (the “T-stem”). Employers like IBM are experimenting with ways to scan and code an applicant’s resume to assess her “T-score.” (Hickman 2014).

These soft skills, at which liberal arts graduates typically excel, are “universal competencies valuable across all roles and workplaces: Management, ability to empathize with clients and colleagues, experience with people from other cultures.” One striking example cited by Roche of the increasing advantages enjoyed in this respect by liberal arts graduates comes from data on admission to medical schools:

The most recent disciplinary figures reveal that at least six humanities or social science majors–philosophy, history, economics, anthropology, English and foreign languages and literatures–have higher rates of acceptance to medical school than any of the diverse majors within the biological sciences. . . . From 1992 to 2006 the rate of acceptance was highest for humanities majors. . . . Andrew G. Wallace, at the time dean of Dartmouth Medical School, wrote that “a liberal education is the best foundation for sustaining the values of our profession and for cultivating the kind of doctors our country needs most.” (Roche 2010, 91).

III. Assessment and the Liberal Arts

As part of the effort to reinvigorate and demonstrate the value of a liberal arts education, there have been a number of efforts to define and assess learning outcomes associated with a liberal arts education. The extent of such efforts can be seen in a recent survey on assessment conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) (Hart Research Associates 2016). The vast majority of surveyed institutions have learning goals/outcomes for all their students, and there is a significant amount of agreement on what these goals/outcomes should be (pp. 3-4). The six most common learning outcomes were in the following areas:
· Writing skills (99% of institutions with common set of outcomes for all students)
· Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills (98%)
· Quantitative reasoning skills (94%)
· Knowledge of science (92%)
· Knowledge of mathematics (92%)
· Knowledge of the humanities (92%) (p. 4).

One challenge to any liberal arts assessment effort is the need to holistically assess the overall impact of a liberal arts undergraduate experience, or to at least assess an institution’s general education/core curriculum. This can be seen in the experience of the University of Pittsburgh (see Kurzweil 2015). In order to generate faculty support for an institution-wide assessment initiative, the responsibility for developing learning outcomes and assessment tools was devolved to the program level. While this resulted in strong program-level assessment efforts, it seems to have hindered the process of assessing the university’s general education program. The University of Pittsburgh’s experience is supported by the findings of the AAC&U’s survey which showed that colleges and universities were more likely to have department-level assessment programs than general education-focused efforts (Hart Research Associates 2016, pp. 5-6).

It is important to note that the intrinsic aim of liberal education–wisdom and the cultivation of moral character–is difficult to assess directly and that efforts to assess the liberal arts have not been without their critics. For example, Wall, Hursh, and Rodgers (2014) argue the “current culture of assessment [is] rooted in neoliberal ideology” (p. 10). Assessment, as it is generally conducted, encourages the commodification and monetization of knowledge and learning over an alternative vision of higher education that stresses the cultivation of the whole person as an important social good. However, the authors do see the possibility of “an ethical and value-based” approach to assessment if those engaged in assessment show greater awareness of the ethical and “social and political context” in which they work (p. 12).

IV. Conclusion: Liberal Arts education remains worthwhile for its own sake, as recognized in the Catholic and Dominican tradition of Providence College and in its current Mission Statement. However, in the current economic and demographic environment the liberal arts must demonstrate that they serve the ancillary aim of career development, and judicious assessment methods can contribute to this task. Fortunately, in the workplace of the future professionals combining field-specific skills with a strong liberal arts background will be most sought after by employers.


Hart Research Associates (2013).  “It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.”  

Hart Research Associates. (2016). Trends in Learning Outcomes Assessment: Key Findings from a Survey among Administrators at AAC&U Member Institutions Conducted on Behalf of the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Hickman, Carla (2014).  “Creating T-Shaped Professionals.”  Education Advisory Board, July 30, 2014, accessed May 19, 2017,

Kurzweil, Martin. (2015). Making Assessment Work: Lessons from the University of Pittsburgh. DOI:

Newman, John Henry (1893).  The Idea of a University.  London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Patel, Eboo (2017).  “How Robots Will Save Liberal Education.”  The Chronicle of Higher Educationaccessed May 19, 2017,

Pieper, Josef (1952).  Leisure the Basis of Culture.  Trans. Alexander Dru.  New York: Pantheon.

Roche, John (2010).  Why Choose the Liberal Arts?  Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press.      

Wall, A. F., Hursh, D., & Rodgers III, J. W. (2014). Assessment for Whom: Repositioning Higher Education Assessment as an Ethical and Value-Focused Social Practice. Research & Practice in Assessment 9:5-17.

1 thought on “Liberal Arts”

  1. I could not disagree more with the statement “As a result of historical developments since around the seventeenth-century, however, the natural sciences and mathematics are, generally speaking, technical disciplines no longer classifiable as liberal arts in their methodology.” What evidence is there that the methodology used in these disciplines at Providence College is not consistent with a liberal education? At a small, primarily undergraduate institution like Providence College, the purpose of the natural science and mathematics is to teach students how to think independently, how to solve problems, how to communicate effectively, and how to challenge assumptions. We use data from experimentation to dive deeply into the understanding of the natural world much like a historian uses original texts to study a time period or the way an author uses language to tell a story. While the natural sciences and mathematics do, indeed, have technical applications, our students by and large will not continue in these disciplines after graduation, but will rather use the soft skills they gain in learning how to think in order to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems. In fact, the search for evidence- and fact-based truths available in STEM are critically necessary to lead good, moral lives just as much as theological and philosophical arguments are. I fundamentally disagree that the natural sciences and mathematics are not part of a liberal education. While this statement seems to marginalize the STEM disciplines, there is plenty of room under the big campus umbrella for all of us. In fact, we are all in this together, with the ultimate goal of inspiring students to become lifelong learners. Treating STEM differently is a gross misunderstanding of what it means to be a student or faculty member in the STEM fields at Providence College.

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