Liberal Arts and Sciences Learning

One way to think about liberal arts and sciences is that they emphasize “why” rather than “how to.” They are theoretical rather than applied or professional.

Learning that grows out of a job or community experience most often results in applied rather than theoretical knowledge.

State University of New York Definition

The State University of New York defines liberal arts and sciences courses as those “of a general or theoretical nature that are designed to develop judgment and understanding about human beings’ relationship to the social, cultural and natural facets of their total environment.”

SUNY provides the following working corollaries to determine if a study meets the liberal arts and sciences designation:

  • independent of specific application
  • theoretical understandings as opposed to practical application
  • breadth and scope in principle covered
  • not specifically directed toward particular career or professional objectives
  • not chiefly “how to” in manipulative skills or techniques
  • not “applied” aspects of a field.

Empire State College Definition

The Empire State College definition of liberal arts and sciences is similar to SUNY's definition.

“Liberal arts and sciences enhance the abilities of men and women to understand, to judge, to communicate and to take action with each other about the nature, quality and conditions of their lives. Learning that meets this definition generally tends to have strong theoretical and conceptual content. Fields of study traditionally included within the liberal arts and sciences – humanities, mathematics, natural and physical sciences, social sciences and the creative arts – fall within the present definition. Other subjects when studied with appropriate theoretical and conceptual content meet this definition” (SUNY Empire State College Policy Manual, Individualized Degree Program: Associate Degrees Policy and Individualized Degree Program: Bachelor's Degrees Policy).

Examples of Liberal Arts and Sciences Versus Applied Studies

Study Title: Theories of Personality

Designation: liberal arts and sciences

Why: answers questions about why personalities develop as they do

Study Title: World Literature

Designation: liberal arts and sciences

Why: explores and analyzes different perspectives across cultures

Study Title: Internship in Counseling

Designation: applied

Why: emphasizes how to practice counseling techniques

Study Title: Computer Applications

Designation: applied

Why: skills-based and focused on how to use specific computer applications

Liberal Arts and Sciences Thinking Points

Learning may have been acquired through a specific application, career or professional objective, but it still could be designated as liberal arts and sciences.

Think about the following points to help you decide about the designation:

  • In what ways has the student broadened his or her learning beyond the original application?
  • What are the theories and principles behind the concepts that the student has learned?
  • How does your student’s learning extend beyond the basic concepts and connect to other situations, context or theories and principles?
  • What is the breadth and depth of your student’s learning?
  • What are the interrelationships among the concepts that your student has learned?
  • Does your student’s knowledge of the topic extend to other careers or to other aspects of a profession? Is the knowledge transferable to multiple applications?

The American Association of Colleges and Universities also provides resources to help institutions define liberal arts and sciences which you may find helpful.

Note: On the degree program, liberal arts and science studies are designated with an asterisk (an asterisk represents liberal credit).