Liberal education and the study of liberal arts, for that matter, is a way of life and not simply a form of education adapted by institutions. It involves passion and girth of knowledge. It accounts for a broad understanding of various kinds of knowledge that is needed for the holistic development of an individual. In today’s society, however, is the study of liberal arts truly needed? What is the importance of studying liberal arts?
One of the most important aspects of liberal arts is in the fact that it encompasses the humanities. The study of liberal arts then encourages the study of the humanities. Why is this important? What makes the humanities essential in the progress of humanity, in the continuation of an individual’s daily life?
There are many skeptics, especially in this age of unending quests for money and luxury, who believe that the study of the liberal arts, in general, and of the humanities, in particular, is only for those who have time on their hands; only for those who have no plans in contributing to the fast-paced development occurring all over the world today. However, this thinking is wrong and misled in many ways. Before one can understand this, however, one must first be able to understand what the humanities are.
According to A.S.P. Woodhouse in his article The Nature of Humanities, humanities is a field of study that reverts the attention or the quest for knowledge on man. It puts the focus of attention on the life of man. Other definitions of humanities state that “The essence of the humanities is a spirit or an attitude toward humanity.” (The Humanities in American Life, 3) The humanities, then, is exactly what its name implies, the study of humans, of human life, of human way of life.
However, this is very broad. If the scope of the humanities is humanity, this would indicate a near impossibility in studying it in its totality. This is why the development of the study of humanities has involved the sorting of the discipline into different interrelated fields. These include, but are not limited to, literature, art history, music history, cultural history, philosophy, dance, theater, arts, and film. All the disciplines related to humanities and through which it is studied are all centered on human values, beliefs, emotions and also the way these aspects are portrayed through the creativity of humans. (Witt, Brown, Dunbar, Tirro, and Witt, xxvi)
It is clear from this description that the humanities are different on many levels from fields of knowledge such as the natural sciences. The sciences include the observation of the world we exist in. It entails creating assumptions, collecting data, and trying to create theories and laws to explain the behavior of the data collected. The humanities, the arts, on the other hand, begin with the very things that are considered irrelevant in science. It starts with the intangible things that are formulated by the creativity and imagination of a human being. The humanities begins with the world man created for himself and only then progresses to the world that is seen with the physical eye.(Frye, 23)
Even from this basic explanation of the difference between humanities and science, one can see that there is no point of comparison. Both fields of knowledge are concerned with different aspects of reality. Even with this basic truth, the importance of studying the liberal arts, of studying humanities is seen. As much as there is a need to study science and to explore the world in the way that scientists wish to approach it, there is also a need to study the liberal arts and humanities and the opposite way by which humanists approach the world. It is, quite possibly, through the intersection of the approaches of both bodies of knowledge that true reality can be understood.
However, there is another reason for studying the liberal arts and the humanities. It has been studied by scientists that the human brain is cleft into two. These two hemispheres are in charge of two different aspects of human behavior. The left hemisphere is said to be important for sequences, literalness, and analysis. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, deals with context, emotional expression and synthesis. The left brain has been commonly related to the sciences while the right brain has been related to the humanities.
Daniel Pink in his article Revenge of the Right Brain stresses the importance of developing the right brain. He indicates that the world is in overdrive to stick to the sciences, to emphasize the development of the left brain. Computer savvy individuals are held at high esteem. Mathematicians are considered to be of top caliber in the human race. However, he points out that the future is not geared towards a simple understanding of numbers and figures. He emphasizes the need to go right, to develop the capabilities of the right brain. Individuals with the ability to create, to synthesize technology with the development of humanity, and to innovate new ways of thinking are needed.
There is, therefore, a need to stretch out further than we have dared to go. The success and the development of mankind is not just in understanding the world he or she lives in but also in being able to interact with it creatively. Being a liberally educated person, says William Cronon in Only Connect, means being able to connect with the world and to interact with it in new and creative ways.
This brings one to understand that, indeed, the humanities and the sciences are not separate or battling fields. In fact, the two are interrelated and should be used together for the betterment of society. In fact, without the general knowledge of all, both are indeed already converging in areas such as biomedical research, application of microprocessing and computer technologies, conduct of government, arms control, and utilization of natural resources.
These are only a few of the many fields where both humanities and science are needed because of their very nature as fields with social and ethical aspects. (The Humanities in American Life, 6) It is thus clear that as much as society today emphasizes the need to develop the study of the natural sciences, it should also encourage the continuation and the development of the study of the different liberal arts and humanities.
Although it is clear that there is a need to interrelate the two bodies of knowledge, the need to study the liberal arts and humanities is not simply based on the fact that it contributes to the developments of science. Science is said to be a study engaged in the constant gathering of information. It involves the steady accumulation of data about the world in which man moves and grows.
The liberal arts and humanities on the other hand are unorthodox with regards to the view of education as an addition of knowledge one on top of the other. This is because the liberal arts and humanities are concerned with creation. They involve processes of visualizing the future, of imagining the ideal, of creating in the mind the concept of a society and world to be hoped for. The humanities involve the study and the understanding of the culture and the cultural contexts of mankind. (Witt, Brown, Dunbar, Tirro, and Witt, xxvi) It puts things in perspective because, as the initial definition stated, it focuses on the human life.
The humanities, then, involves the aspects of life and reality that are not covered by science. These are just as important, and perhaps at times more important, than the fields science handles. This is evidenced by the fact that both fields of knowledge are interrelated. This is evidence by the fact that both approach the study of life from opposite sides. This is what renders the study of humanities and liberal arts important.
A.S.P. Woodhouse in his The Nature of Humanities stated,
If the humanities are indeed normative, if they mold the mind and sensibility of the student and bring an accession of wisdom, it is by virtue of their subject matter, of the ideas which they present or evoke and the experiences to which they give him entry; and these ideas and experiences achieve their full effect only as they are examined critically, evaluate, and by the student made his own.
This shows that the study of the liberal arts and the humanities is essential not only in the fact that its main subject of study is important. An education in the liberal arts teaches an individual to think outside the box. It teaches him or her to become a critical thinker. The world is no longer simply a place of dates, names, theories, and laws. It becomes a place of endless questions and unlimited answers; answers that can be wrong, right, or somewhere in between. The human being becomes someone with the capacity to reject or accept the validity of everything occurring around him. More importantly, man becomes someone with the capacity to create, change, and redefine the world in which he or she lives. The liberal arts and humanities empowers man and makes him the center of his world. It also humbles man, placing him in a world that continues to provoke thought, emotion, and exploration.
Commission on the Humanities. The Humanities in American Life: Report of the Commission on Humanities. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1980.
Cronon, William. Only connect…the goals of liberal education. The American Scholar, 67(1998)
Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imaginaion. Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press. 1974
Pink, Daniel H. Revenge of the right brain. Wired Magazine, 13(2005) Retrieved 29 March 2008 from
Witt, Brown, Dunbar, Tirro, and Witt. The Humanities. 7th ed. Jean Woy. Berkeley, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2005.
Woodhouse, A.S.P. The nature of humanities. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1989.