The term “liberal” has become a demonized buzzword that is mostly avoided by U.S. politicians on the left and used as an epithet by their counterparts on the right. That strikes me as a bad deal for an otherwise excellent word.
For example, a liberal arts education has little to do with ideology and everything to do with living a full and meaningful life and appreciating culture, art, music, drama and creativity. Liberal arts as a term dates to the Middle Ages, but it is generally referred to as a college-level course of instruction that provides general knowledge about the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences, as opposed to professional or technical subjects. Its origin is from the Latin artes liberales, or works befitting a free man.
During my years at the University of Virginia, I was enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. Back then my fellow students, pursuing business or law degrees, railed mightily at the courses in languages, English literature and the humanities they were required to take. They thought it was a waste of time to wade through Moby Dick. They also would ask me, somewhat superciliously, what I planned to do with my liberal arts degree while their lucrative career paths in law or business were paved with dollar signs.
The answer? “Life is liberal arts. Students are headed out for life; they won’t be 100 percent sitting at a computer,” says Regan Ronayne, a consultant with Directions To College. “If they are going to go anywhere with their careers, they will have to have those people skills.”
While I must admit that the question “what good was it?” has occurred to me on occasion over the ensuing years, it is impossible to imagine my life without the foundation that a liberal arts education provided.
Colleges should include an introduction to art, music and drama; they are works that befit a free person.