Misunderstanding Liberal Arts
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By Tobias Joel

The biggest misunderstanding about the “Liberal Arts”—topics like history, language, and philosophy—is that they are outdated. When compared to STEM, liberal arts subjects are viewed as lacking both rigor and any relevance for today’s jobs. But in fact, neither could be further from the truth. Forgotten is the liberal arts’ core contribution to STEM: computational thinking.

Computational thinking means approaching complex systems on different levels of detail. In computer science, this is referred to as “abstraction,” which helps “defining patterns, generalizing from instances” and discovering “essential properties common to a set of objects” (Wing, 2010, p. 1). But long before any electronics, Aristotle identified the same process at the heart of thinking. In Metaphysics, Aristotle details that “a definition is an account, and every account has parts, and part of the account stands to part of the thing in just the same way that the whole account stands to the whole thing” (Aristotle’s Metaphysics, 1034b20–22 as translated by Ross, 1924). Both descriptions show: every idea is a cross-section of other ideas.

The liberal arts grew out of this assertion and blossomed into an ecosystem of disciplines. Later, STEM subjects launched from that same kernel. The backbone of STEM, therefore, is the liberal arts. STEM and the liberal arts are not competing approaches; they represent the same activity, but using different tools.

Still, our concern is: how can the liberals arts help students in today’s economy? Are liberal arts majors useful to study? Are liberal arts colleges good options for higher education?

The core thinking that occurs in the liberal arts will benefit students in any career. But unfortunately, in practice many liberal arts programs have become overly fragmented. Whereas scholars of the liberal arts once studied broad disciplines, today’s programs are relatively inward-facing. A student studying literature, for example, may not have the chance to study soil science, even though soil is a factor in local food, culture and, ultimately, literature.

TTL Consultants therefore specialize in identifying interdisciplinary options for students. Whenever possible, Consultants discover ways that students can combine subjects from STEM along with the liberal arts. This may include options for minors, dual-degrees, and joint majors. The goal is to help students get the absolute most out of college.

Combining STEM topics with the liberal arts is important for any student. Influential voices in higher education such as Joseph Aoun, President of Northeastern University, reiterate that “knowledge alone is not sufficient for the work of tomorrow.” Besides technical skills, success will rely on an ability to “operate deftly in varied global environments and to see situations through different, even conflicting, cultural lenses” (Aoun, 2017). When students ignore liberal arts topics, they are restricting their success to purely technical work. But with balanced exposure to STEM and liberal arts subjects, students are preparing themselves as both leaders and change-makers.


Aoun, J., 2017, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Ross, W. D., 1924, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Wing, J.M., Computational Thinking: What and Why?, The LINK: The Magazine of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, <https://www.cs.cmu.edu/link/research-notebook-computational-thinking-what-and-why>