Why Study a Liberal Arts & Science Degree?

In my previous article I have done my best trying to explain what a Liberal Arts and Science degree is all about. It was a long article. It was a long journey. But maybe it has still left the most important question unanswered: why would you do it?

To a lot of people, “creating your own adventure,” does not seem like the best approach to education. Especially in the Netherlands, higher forms of education (Masters, PhD) are rather cookie-cutter approach. “To enter this Master/PhD program you need to have previous experience in this… and previous degrees in this…” It is very rigid. The UK seems to be more relaxed about these criteria, yet it is in the Netherlands that these programs are gaining popularity very quickly. Not just popularity; they are the highest scoring programs on a multitude of dimensions, ranging from grade averages to student satisfaction.

One size does not fit all So what is the appeal? The appeal could very easily be that it was the least bad option. Doesn’t sound very promising as an argument, but let me explain. Not everyone who is able to get into higher education, fits the stereotype of a good student. Some are proper anarchists. They don’t like the rules, the structure, the hierarchy etc. Now lucky for them, there is a serious lack of that in Liberal Arts. Seminars are discussion based, all topics and interpretations of them are on the table. When it comes to economics, you won’t just be taught Keynes and Smith. When it comes to psychology, there is more than just the cognitive side up for discussion. There is no cookie-cutter shape here. Sure, you still need to answer the actual questions at the exam, but most assessments were written and you could pick your own topic and your own angle on it. So, for an anarchist, there is a lot to gain. My Liberal Arts experience was most definitely not rehashing useless information to spit it out on an exam sheet and forget it for the rest of my life.

It might not even be a personality trait that is complicating the process of following a pre-planned education; it might just be highly developed interests for a particular field, and no interests beyond that field or topic. This makes it quite hard to have to study an entire undergraduate degree for 3 or 4 years, that might only teach two modules that are of actual interest, if that. Let’s be honest, a lot of people have an end-goal in mind, but the way to it is through an undergraduate they do not want to do. It is unsurprising that this causes people to drop out. You cannot even imagine the level of motivation that is needed to complete such a feat. I’m not arguing that any Liberal Arts program or University College will give you free reign. I have described the process of course selection before. But what it does do is give you the option to actual do your interests. If you only want to do microeconomics, no one will force you to take macro. You don’t have to do statistics if your only interests are econometric- or datamining-based. Liberal Arts allows for a lot of people to design a degree that caters to their needs. Both psychologically and academically.

The world does NOT need Sheep Within my last year at UCM I was in a group that had to prepare a conference on one of the critical values of Liberal Arts. We chose to do critical thinking. As such, the opening speech of our conference focused on how Liberal Arts came to be, what its goal was, whether UCM specifically fitted that goal, and what the future of both UCM and Liberal Arts was.

I was the one presenting on how UCM fulfilled the criteria of Liberal Arts. I have always been known for my sarcasm and criticism, so it made sense. And I went in. I’m glad to say the response was very positive, both from students and staff. Even if the response had not been positive. I belief in always questioning what you are learning, why you are learning it and who is teaching it to you with what motivation. This might be a learning institution, but there is more to it than that.

When it comes to critical thinking, Liberal Arts just does not disappoint. Yes, you will learn Keynes and Smith (econ.) but you will also learn other theories and models, and question the validity of all of them equally. You will learn about psychology without immediately rejecting Freud and Adler and properly read what they have done. If you have a negative opinion on any of it, it will be an informed opinion, and not a 5-second laugh without a punchline. Why? Because those around you don’t support your opinion unequivocally, due to a potential lack of similarity in your respective training and backgrounds.

I have been in education quite a while now. I know universities are a massive bubble, especially if you don’t leave your own field. To me it makes perfect sense to know, understand and manage your biases, especially when it comes to finance. But when I hang out with my friends who aren’t studying BE, I have to start at the basics. And it is important to know that “your crowd” isn’t the only crowd out there. You have massive insider information on your own field, but that is because you are an insider. And there is so many more people on the outside. That is something policy-makers and other experts really need to learn.

What Liberal Arts does, better than any other higher education program, is mix all backgrounds together. I have sat in seminars as a behavioural economist with physicists, neuroscientists and political philosophers. You won’t agree on anything, but you will learn. You will learn different perspectives, different approaches and different ways of arguing and defending your statements. Most importantly, you will learn that your opinion can be questioned, and that it won’t just be accepted for what it is. Because not everyone thinks like you.

I emphasize this point a lot. And I have reason to do so. The world as it is now doesn’t need more followers. It doesn’t need more people not asking questions. It doesn’t need more sheep. Nor does it need more wolves. It needs sheepdogs with applied critical thinking.

The world DOES need Interdisciplinarity On a more positive note, let’s focus on what the world does need. We have become global, interconnected and just damn complex. Every aspect of our live is interwoven. Our lives are on- and offline. Technology is everywhere. Money can be made and lost through more mediums than ever seen before. Mental disorder prevalence is through the roof. So is our consumption. We are exploiting ourselves, others and the world. We need quick solutions that aren’t quick-fixes. And honestly, single-mindedness is not going to get us there.

Do you honestly think having studied a business undergraduate and an MBA is going to prepare you for making a serious impact in such a diverse world? Nah. (no hate on business studies though). You need deeper understanding and much more scope in knowledge to maker an impact.

An ability to switch between disciplines and methodologies will open up new areas of research, will allow us to find new approaches old problems, and hopefully solve them. When fields morph into each other, there is progress. Interdisciplinary thinking will foster progress. So why not properly teach it?

You do not learn (well) passively Last but not least, not everyone does lecture-based learning well. Best part of UCM? Problem-based learning. It means you discuss a problem, set up what you need to learn about it as a (small) group, read on your own, and then collectively discuss your findings and solve the problem or case study. If you cannot stay awake throughout a lecture, this might be for you.

There is one point of caution here. Not all Liberal Arts programs follow this structure. PBL, although becoming increasingly popular, is quite specific to Maastricht University (UM), to which UCM belongs. Always make sure you check out the teaching style of the program you are applying for, to see if the style and you are a good fit!

So overall, you might say that I am a massive Liberal Arts fan. I enjoyed my time in the little bubble called UCM. That pressure-cooker of learning, discussion and development will be forever in my heart (and my mind!).

If you have any more questions about UCM or Liberal Arts & Science programs, feel free to contact me 😊