When you hear the word “arts,” you probably think of things like painting or singing. So why can you get a liberal arts degree in biology? And why does a School of Arts and Science offer courses in history? It’s pretty confusing, which makes it a great submission for the Glossary of Confusing Words!
(Thanks to the anonymous person who suggested it. I hope you know who you are)
As a description of university programs, “arts” can cover a pretty broad range of courses. So, from most to least obvious, here are the university courses described by the word “arts.”
Fine Arts/Performing Arts
Some universities have programs in “Fine Arts” or “Performing Arts.” In either case, “arts” has a meaning closest to what you’re probably used to – the practice of creative expression. Fine Arts can include only the visual arts (painting, sculpture, photography, etc.), or both the visual arts and performing arts (music, dance, theatre).
Arts and Sciences
At many universities, the general education program is housed in the “School of Arts and Sciences,” in which case “arts” also cover studies of human thought and culture, called “humanities.” This would include things like languages, philosophy, and religion.
The humanities also encompass more empirical studies of human society, like sociology and anthropology, which fall under the “Sciences” heading of a “School of Arts and Sciences.”
While “sciences” typically refers to subjects like biology, chemistry, and physics, in this context it also includes the “social sciences” – subjects like political science, history, communications, and the previously mentioned sociology and anthropology.
The courses housed in a university’s School of Arts and Sciences will vary based on which specialized schools the university offers. For example, Boston University has a College of Communication and a College of Fine Arts, so those subjects are not part of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Someone pursuing a liberal arts education could be studying anything from creative arts to history to biology. A liberal arts program is one that gives students a well-rounded education, intended to develop their critical thinking abilities. While students pick one area of focus (their major), they are usually required to take some courses in other disciplines.
In case you’re wondering, “arts” here refers to areas of skill (as in, “the art of war”) and comes from the classic idea that a well-rounded person should be schooled in certain sets of knowledge.
The opposite of a liberal arts education is a technical or vocational education.
Liberal Arts College
While we’re on the subject, you should also know that a “liberal arts college” in the U.S. is more specific than just a college that offers a liberal arts education (although one defining feature of a liberal arts college is its liberal arts program).
Many colleges and universities base their undergraduate program on a liberal arts model. A “liberal arts college” refers specifically to a small school that only teaches undergraduates, and which usually emphasizes discussion-based courses rather than lectures.
Do you have a word to contribute to our Glossary of Confusing Words? Share words that have confused you or that might confuse others about studying in the U.S. Leave your suggestions in the comments, or use the form below.