On numerous occasions I’ve encountered confusion about the meaning of the B.A. degree. This is, of course, an abbreviation of ‘Bachelor of Arts’. Why do students studying psychology or other social sciences earn an art degree? Do universities not recognize them as science? Why not a Bachelor of Science? The confusion is understandable. And no, psychology is not a fine art, like painting or music. Let me explain.

The ‘Arts’ in ‘Bachelor of Arts’ refers to the Liberal Arts, and is tied up in the history of the university. In recent years I’ve heard the term ‘liberal arts’ used in a derogatory sense, particularly on the internet in ‘science fan’ (read: not scientific) communities, like “lol you shouldn’t have got a liberal arts degree if you wanted a job!” In that context, I think ‘liberal arts’ is referring to the humanities, but one can never be too sure with these people.

What does the term ‘liberal arts’ actually mean? To answer this question, I’m going to draw upon my good friend historical context. The term itself comes from Latin and originates in the Roman Empire: as far as we know, the term artes liberalis was coined by Cicero. In essence they were subjects that all free men should learn in order to be well-rounded citizens; liberal as in liberty, art as in a skill obtained through study. Originally, the liberal arts consisted of the subjects of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Later, the subjects of grammar, logic, and rhetoric were added. So, historically, the liberal arts referred to one fine art, two math fields, a natural science, and a bit of humanities. As universities developed, more sciences were born, and these too came under the purview of the liberal arts. That is, all of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences are liberal arts.

This should clear up another misconception about the term: the ‘liberal’ in liberal arts is not meant to associate these fields of study with liberalism (as in, the political philosophy borne out of the Enlightenment). In fact, the term predates liberalism by hundreds (maybe thousands) of years. Rather, the continued use of the term ‘liberal arts’ distinguishes them from the other three traditional university curricula, namely theology, law, and medicine.

Each of these departments typically has its own degree or credential. People studying medicine earn an M.D. (medicinae doctor), lawyers earn a LL.B. (legum baccalaureus, or bachelor of laws) or J.D. (juris doctor), and theologians earn a B.Th. (bachelor of theology). Students of the liberal arts typically earn a B.A. (bachelor of arts), M.A. (master of arts), and finally a Ph.D. (philosophiae doctor) if they continue that far. Traditionally, even if your degree was in theoretical physics, biochemistry, or microbiology you earned a B.A. degree.

Science degrees like the B.Sc. (bachelor of science) and M.Sc. (master of science) are a fairly recent invention. The first ever B.Sc degree was awarded in 1860, which is not all that long ago if we recall that Oxford University was founded in 1096 and isn’t even the oldest European university. Since the B.Sc. does not have much history behind it, awarding this degree is up to the university or department in question. Some universities, even top tier universities, continue to grant only B.A. degrees. This group of universities includes Oxford, a global top-3 university. Yes, the top natural scientists out of Oxford are awarded arts degrees.

Ultimately, the distinction between a B.A. and a B.Sc. is not a meaningful one. If a top school like Oxford remains entrenched in the tradition of ‘liberal arts’, the B.A./B.Sc. distinction cannot be a measure of quality. It’s arbitrary! That said, some departments do have differing requirements for a B.A. or a B.Sc. if they reward both, and the different degree denotes an educational track or focus. My neighbouring psychology department awards B.Sc. to students who take the quantitative track, which focuses on statistical courses and methods, and B.A. to students who take the qualitative track. My own department only grants arts degrees, even if you have a quantitative focus, so my own degrees say ‘arts’. In many schools, however, it’s just up to the student to decide which one they want, and the university awards them accordingly without any requirements. In sum, the notation of a degree can only be relevant if we have more detailed information about how the department which granted it functions.