The purpose of a liberal arts education

A liberal arts education teaches you how to think critically. Its goal is to nurture the growth of human talent in order to prepare individuals for a fulfilling and meaningful life in a free society.

The majors offered by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese are designed to provide the core for a liberal arts education. Many arriving students are surprised at the general education classes (i.e. GE course) they must take in order to graduate. Students sometimes wonder why someone who is interested in majoring in a language must take courses in math and science; or, vice-versa, why someone interested in science or engineering should take classes in language and literature. Others have questions concerning the practical utility of certain majors: What kind of a job can one get with a major in English, or Spanish, or a foreign language, or history, or biology? To avoid confusion it is important that students understand from the outset what the main purpose is of an undergraduate education at UCLA, and at most universities and colleges in the United States.

Although universities in many countries focus their undergraduate B.A. programs on the preparation for a specific profession (e.g. teaching, law, medicine, social work, engineering), in most universities in the United States this kind of specialized, professional training is normally pursued later, at the graduate school level. What characterizes the system of undergraduate education in the United States is its strong focus on what is called a liberal arts education, which is designed to help students develop a range of intellectual capacities that can be transferred to solve problems in a multitude of areas, and that at the same time enable students to think on their own and to generate creative, independent thoughts, to effectively participate as a citizen in a free society, to contemplate issues of ethics and morality, to respect the rights of others in a diverse society, and to become appreciative of the many forms of artistic beauty and to enjoy a full life in all its aspects.

Among the intellectual skills that are at the core of a liberal arts education are the following: 1) ability to speak and write effectively in more than one language; 2) ability to think critically, and to form one's own opinions by critically evaluating arguments and evidence rationally, and without prejudice; 3) enhanced ability in mathematics, and in scientific reasoning ; 3) ability to analyze literature and art to appreciate beauty and artistic creativity, for both pleasure and intellectual enrichment; 4) ability to engage questions of ethics and morality and to recognize responsibility for oneself and society; 5) ability to apply acquired knowledge and analytical skills to new situations, so as to find solutions to new problems that arise in an increasingly globalized and fast-changing world. In today's economy, employers desire transferable skills – skills that employees take with them to any job, such as written and verbal communication skills, the ability to solve complex problems, to work well with others, and to adapt in a changing workplace — all hallmarks of a liberal arts education.

In short, a liberal arts education is aimed at teaching you how to think. It helps you to develop strength of mind, and an ordered intellect. To exercise the mind, any relevant discipline can be utilized – literature, sociology, or biology. The idea is that training the mind in one area will prepare it for learning in other areas as well. The following quote by educator Robert Harris makes this point well: "The mind is like a muscle; exercise makes it stronger and more able to grasp ideas and do intellectual work. Exercising the mind in one area – whether literature or sociology or accounting – will strengthen it for learning in other areas as well. What at first was difficult – the habits of attention and concentration, the ability to follow arguments, and the ability to distinguish the important from the trivial and to grasp new concepts – all these become easier as the mind is exercised and enlarged by varied study." Think of a liberal arts major as a gym for the mind.