two students talking in class

Liberal Studies

Global and diverse societies require that engineers have an awareness of historical patterns, an appreciation for different cultures, professional ethics, the ability to work in multi-faceted groups, and superior communication skills.  Cornell has a rich curriculum in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, enabling every engineering student to obtain a truly liberal education. 

The requirement for engineering students:

A minimum of six courses (totaling at least 18 credits) is required and should be chosen with as much care and foresight as courses from technical areas.

  • The six courses must be chosen from at least three of the following seven groups below;

  • No more than two courses may be chosen from Group 7 (CE);

  • At least two courses must be at the 2000 level or higher.

Examples of learning outcomes that characterize liberal arts include:

  • Understanding human life in cultural contexts through interpretive analysis of individual behavior, discourse, and social practice. (CA)

  • Ability to interpret continuities and changes – political, social, economic, diplomatic, religious, intellectual, artistic, and scientific – through time. (HA)

  • Appreciation of literature and the arts through critical study of art and its history, aesthetics, and theory. (LA/LAD)

  • Understanding the bases of human knowledge and decision-making, ranging from cognitive processes, to abstract reasoning, to the ability to form and justify moral decisions (e.g. cognitive psychology, linguistics, philosophy, ethics). (KCM)

  • Recognition of human life in its social context through the use of social-scientific methods, with topics ranging from attitudes of individuals to interpersonal and broad societal relationships.  This includes understanding the challenges of building a diverse society, and/or examining the various processes that marginalize people and produce unequal power relations. (SBA)

  • Understanding of diverse cultures through the study of foreign languages. (FL)

Liberal arts commonly include courses in the humanities (e.g. history, art history and criticism, literary studies and writing, classics, philosophy, religious studies), foreign languages, and the social sciences (e.g. sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, psychology), as well as interdisciplinary courses involving these disciplines (e.g. area studies, women’s studies).  Performance arts are also considered liberal arts and include theatre, dance, instruction in musical theory and/or musical performance (non-PE).

Courses generally not considered liberal arts include those in athletics, business (including accounting, finance, marketing, management, and entrepreneurship), methods of practice of education, and engineering (including project teams and research involvement).  Many of these courses belong rather to a “professional curriculum” covering specific methods and practicums, or are largely technical in nature.  However, liberal arts do include a subset of courses in business taught from a humanities or social science perspective (e.g. sociology of business, history of business, and business ethics).

Currently, liberal arts are designated by colleges with a code to describe their general area.  These codes and an explanation of the type of material included are below:


Group 1 - Cultural Analysis (CA)
Courses in this area study human life in particular cultural contexts through interpretive analysis of individual behavior, discourse, and social practice. Topics include belief systems (science, medicine, and religion); expressive arts and symbolic behavior (visual arts, performance, poetry, myth, narrative, and ritual); identity (nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality); social groups and institutions (family, market, and community); and power and politics (states, colonialism, and inequality).

Group 2 - Historical Analysis (HA)
Courses in this area interpret continuities and changes--political, social, economic, diplomatic, religious, intellectual, artistic, and scientific--through time. The focus may be on groups of people, a specific country or region, an event, a process, or a time period.

Group 3 - Literature and the Arts/Literature, the Arts and Design (LA/LAD)
Courses in this area explore literature and the arts in two different but related ways. Some courses focus on the critical study of artworks and on their history, aesthetics, and theory. These courses develop skills of reading, observing, and hearing and encourage reflection on such experiences; many investigate the interplay among individual achievement, artistic tradition, and historical context. Other courses are devoted to the production and performance of art works (in creative writing, performing arts, and media such as film and video). These courses emphasize the interaction among technical mastery, cognitive knowledge, and creative imagination.

Group 4 - Knowledge, Cognition, and Moral Reasoning (KCM)
Courses in this area investigate the bases of human knowledge in its broadest sense, ranging from cognitive faculties (such as perception) shared by humans and animals, to abstract reasoning, to the ability to form and justify moral judgments. Courses investigating the sources, structure, and limits of cognition may use the methodologies of science, cognitive psychology, linguistics, or philosophy. Courses focusing on moral reasoning explore ways of reflecting on ethical questions that concern the nature of justice, the good life, or human values in general.

Group 5 - Social and Behavioral Analysis (SBA)
Courses in this area examine human life in its social context through the use of social-scientific methods, often including hypothesis testing, scientific sampling techniques, and statistical analysis.  Topics studied range from the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes of individuals to interpersonal relations between individuals (e.g. in friendship, love, conflict), to larger social organizations (e.g. the family, society, religious or educational or civic institutions, the economy, government), to the relationships and conflicts among groups or individuals (e.g. discrimination, inequality, prejudice, stigmas, conflict resolution).

Group 6 - Foreign Languages (not literature courses) (FL)
Courses in this area teach language skills, including reading, writing, listening, and spoken non-English languages, at beginning to advanced levels.

Group 7 - Communications in Engineering (CE) (No more than two courses from this category can be used to satisfy the liberal studies requirement).  This category contains communication in engineering courses to satisfy the College of Engineering technical communication requirement.
Courses in this area explore communication as a way of acting in the world. The primary aim is to provide students with the opportunity to practice performing a range of engineering-related communication skills within specific genres (e.g. proposals, reports, and journal articles, oral presentations, etc.). Each of these genres potentially engages a wide variety of audiences and, depending on the particulars of context, each may have multiple purposes. The secondary aim is to enable students to be aware of the choices they make as communicators and to be able to articulate a rationale for those choices.

Approved Courses:

The College of Engineering recommends that students enroll in courses identified as fulfilling the Liberal Studies categories as listed in the current University Courses of Study, and as designated already by the Colleges of Arts and Science (A&S) and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).  In addition to those courses, there exists a list of petitioned liberal studies courses for engineering students.  The tabs in the gray area at the top of the page signify (1) the two colleges where liberal studies courses are primarily taught (The College of Arts and Sciences (AS) and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS)) and (2) the liberal studies groups cited above.  

As the liberal studies distribution is reviewed and updated throughout the year, new courses are added to the list and can be found by clicking on the "Other Yes" tab. Courses that have been reviewed and denied liberal studies status can be found by clicking on the "Other No" tab.