The liberal arts math revolution: how math is more than just numbers

Whether we know it or not, math is integrated into many aspects of our daily lives. This article answers the question, “What is liberal arts math?” and explores how math concepts are incorporated into other core disciplines. Learn how liberal arts math can help you build your analytical, critical, and problem-solving skills and help you prepare for a variety of career paths.

What is liberal arts math?

Liberal arts math typically includes a comprehensive interdisciplinary approach, meaning courses are designed to align with other foundational subjects to build the mathematical know-how to solve real-world issues.

For example, liberal arts math courses can help you develop skills in quantitative reasoning, statistics, sampling bias, and exponential growth, which can be applied to disciplines including economics, political science, psychology, and social sciences.

Common topics in liberal arts math include applied statistics, linear algebra, logic and probability, geometry, game theory, philosophy of math, problem-solving, and everyday applications for mathematics.

Liberal arts math vs. traditional math

Traditional mathematics tends to focus on standard math sequences or calculations that are taught in isolation. For instance, when you were a child, you may have relied on memorization to learn your multiplication tables.

On the other hand, the goal of liberal arts math is to increase your understanding of mathematical basics and develop high-order reasoning skills that you can apply in practical contexts.

For instance, in MTHS 2000: Mathematics All Around You at Penn LPS Online, you’ll learn how math and logic provide the framework for everything—from quickly calculating a discount in your head to writing a story or presenting a persuasive argument in court.

Is math for liberal arts easy?

Easy is a relative term. If you find traditional mathematics easy, then you’ll likely feel the same way about liberal arts math. Conversely, if you struggle with traditional math, the same may be true with math designed for liberal arts students—although likely to a lesser extent.

That’s because rather than focusing strictly on numbers, concepts, equations, or calculations, liberal arts math incorporates real-world learning scenarios that draw from other disciplines. To that end, the concepts you learn in MTHS 3000: Linear Algebra are critical to the study of fields such as physics, chemistry, economics, computer science, and data science.

Liberal arts math concepts

Once you discover how frequently mathematical models are featured in other liberal arts disciplines, you’ll likely gain a greater understanding of why math is called “the language of the universe.”

Math and art

The connection between math and art can be seen throughout history. Pre-Columbian cultures demonstrated knowledge of geometric patterns in many of their aesthetic artifacts. Early and High Renaissance artists also used mathematical concepts, such as perspective and symmetry, to make their paintings and sculptures appear more realistic.

Examples of well-known art and artists that showcase mathematic principles include:

  • The Parthenon: Phidias used the golden ratio (1.618) in his designs for sculptures in this grand architectural feat of Antiquity.
  • Vitruvian Man and Mona Lisa: Leonardo Da Vinci used math to calculate the ideal proportions of the human body for the Vitruvian Man, which was drawn within geometric shapes. He also utilized the golden ratio to create proportions for the face, head, and neck of the Mona Lisa.
  • Abstract modernist artwork: Bauhaus artist Wassily Kandinsky used mathematical forms like concentric circles, triangles, and open and closed lines in his paintings. Although it may not be readily apparent, abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock used the repetition of the geometric model of fractals in his work.

Math and literature

You may be surprised to learn that the underlying structure, pattern, and uniformity of math can also be found in literature. This makes sense when you stop to think about it, given that good writing relies on the same types of arrangement and form inherent to successful math equations.

There are metaphors related to cycloids (or mathematical curves) in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Other famous authors such as James Joyce and Leo Tolstoy include references to geometry and calculus in their respective works. And, interestingly, Julio Cortazar encourages readers to traverse the maze of chapters in the novel Hopscotch by picking a linear or non-linear structure of reading, which changes the story’s perspective.

Principles of algebra (or formulas) also prescribe the number of syllables that define different forms of poetry including:

  • “Fib” poems, based on the Fibonacci sequence in math (1,1,2,3, 5, 8, 13, 21)
  • Haikus, which include three lines with a total of 17 syllables
  • Sonnets, which have 14 lines with 10 syllables per line
  • Cinquain verses of five lines that don’t rhyme 

Math and philosophy

Not only does a branch of philosophy called metaphysics rely on advanced math concepts to help us understand the universe, the philosophy of mathematics is also a distinct area of study. The philosophy of math is a branch of epistemology, which is the investigation of how humans know things.

This philosophy is focused on cognition, including determining how mathematical knowledge fits into the wider scheme of things. Mathematics philosophers also question how we can refer to or know of mathematical objects if they don’t have causes or effects.

Four schools of thought in the philosophy of math include:

  1. Logicism: Supposes that mathematical truths are logical truths
  2. Intuitionism: Argues that math is a creation of the mind
  3. Formalism: Reduces math and logic to rules for manipulating formulas without reference to meaning
  4. Predicativism: Supposes that math should be restricted to the study of objects that can be quantified predicatively

Math as a language

As the most fundamental type of logic possible, mathematics is routinely referred to as “the language of science” and “the language of the universe.” Generally, to be considered a language, there must be vocabulary, syntax, grammar, narrative, and people who use and comprehend it.

Math meets these criteria as a universal language whose symbols and organizations comprise equations that are recognized and understood worldwide. Additionally, mathematicians, scientists, educators, and others use math to communicate both real-world and abstract concepts.

The importance of liberal arts math

Without a basic understanding of math, it would be difficult to function effectively in the world. Math is involved in everything from baking and telling time to setting and keeping a budget and filing your taxes.

If you wish to attend college, not only do you need to meet the necessary math prerequisites, but math skills are also critical to doing well on standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT.

Read on to explore other ways that math can be beneficial to your ability to thrive.

Critical thinking and problem-solving skills

Did you know that reading and solving arithmetic problems has been shown to improve brain health and cognitive function? Starting with word problems in elementary school, math forms the groundwork to help students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills with real-world applications.

Later in life, a strong understanding of algorithms and other math concepts provides the basis for analytical and logical reasoning skills that are essential to finding solutions to personal, professional, and academic issues. This may include navigating an argument, preparing a work presentation, or authoring a persuasive essay.

Creativity and innovation

Flexible thinking and creativity spur innovation. Research shows that math training can enhance investigative skills, resourcefulness, and creativity. Creativity involves combining ideas that have no obvious relationship to develop new forms of expression or unique solutions to problems.
Mathematicians routinely use existing knowledge to find new connections within the mathematical world that can be used to address real-world issues. For example, statistics and probability are utilized to make predictions for scenarios involving financial markets, climate change and weather patterns, or the spread of disease and viruses (such as with COVID-19).

Preparation for a wide range of careers

Building a strong foundation in math can also help prepare students for their future career paths, whether they are related to math or not.

Math courses are typically included in the general education requirements for most bachelor’s degree programs. The ability to identify and analyze patterns and use logic, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills are valued in industries including business, healthcare, marketing, finance, psychology, social sciences, manufacturing, and more.

There are also many jobs that rely heavily on math concepts such as scientists, architects, and accountants. Examples of in-demand STEM roles and their predicted job growth rates by 2031 include:

  • Data scientists (36%)
  • Information security analysts (35%)
  • Logisticians (28%)
  • Statisticians (33%)
  • Web developers (30%)

Explore the future of liberal arts math at Penn LPS Online

Interested in combining the analytical tools of data science with a practical understanding of the social sciences? Read more about the Data Analytics and Social Sciences concentration for the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) degree at Penn LPS Online.

In this program, you’ll develop statistical and data programming skills to solve everyday issues, learn how to make and communicate data-driven decisions, and customize your credential with Ivy League courses in organizational anthropology, global and area studies, leadership, and other social sciences.

Develop the expertise to:

  • Implement and analyze surveys and basic regression models
  • Understand predictive modeling and machine learning
  • Create experiments and A/B tests to solve real-world problems
  • Obtain skills in statistical programming and data analysis in R
  • Use visualization to make complex information more accessible
  • Develop rhetorical strategies to effectively persuade audiences

If you haven’t already, apply to Penn LPS Online today, and enroll in the Data Analytics and Social Sciences concentration for the BAAS degree. You can also register for individual classes or view our course guide to see what’s available in any upcoming term.

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