Defining the Liberal Arts in the 21st Century

One of the challenges liberal arts institutions face is defining liberal arts for prospective students and their parents. Although the curriculum and its benefits seem obvious to faculty and administrators, it can be a tough sell from time to time. This is especially true today amidst growing skepticism about the value of higher education and a strong desire for job-specific training. The term liberal arts has complicated usage because it is defined differently, depending on the context. Over the years I’ve begun framing the concept of liberal arts from five perspectives.

1. The Traditional Subjects. The Trivium (Logic, Rhetoric, Grammar) and Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy) of the Middle Ages–which you can see displayed in the banner of this website. These seven areas defined the structure of higher education in Medieval Europe and are an important model for the general education curricula found in primary and secondary schools as well as the core requirements of most four-year, bachelor of arts degree programs.

2. General Education Requirements. Most college and university undergraduate degree programs now require a standard set of courses or subject requirements outside of the major area. Depending on the type of institution (private liberal arts college, public university, etc.) and the type of degree (bachelor of science, bachelor of arts, etc.) the number of courses and proficiencies may vary. The most common requirement areas include composition, speech, literature, natural sciences, social sciences, fine arts, foreign language, intercultural, quantitative, and physical education. This list is simplified, since the requirements could have slightly different names, definitions, or sub fields that satisfy them. Most students equate liberal arts to this framework, because it is clearly itemized for them on degree requirement checklists. The challenge is showing students that these course requirements are established to ensure the breadth of knowledge, experience, and exposure rooted in a liberal arts education.

3. High Impact Experiences. Some components of the curriculum are not defined by a particular course or field of study, but rather an experience that should dramatically impact the student and significantly further their development and preparation for life after graduation. Some of these experiences include internships, capstone projects, service learning, comprehensive exams, a thesis, and study abroad, although other types of experiences could also be added to this common list. Sometimes these components are specific requirements to be filled and other times they are unique opportunities the institution provides for students that may set the institution apart from competitors.

4. Skills for Successful Careers. In other contexts the liberal arts are defined by a set of skills a student will develop that will help them thrive in the workforce, no matter their major (i.e., transferable). The courses and experiences of the liberal arts education are designed to challenge students in these areas so they are prepared to compete in the global economy. These skills include oral and written communication, cross-cultural sensitivity and awareness, research and information literacy, analytical thinking, creativity, synthesis, problem solving, and critical thinking, among others. Often these are skills itemized on job descriptions. Showing students how courses engage in skill development and that these skills are what employers desire will help broaden the discussion of the benefits of a liberal arts education.

5. Higher Purpose. The final framework for defining the liberal arts serves the institution’s higher purpose, usually expressed in the mission statement. I like to think of this list as desirable ways of describing alumni, no matter what direction they take post graduation. This list would include moral character, leadership, civic engagement, global citizenship, life long learning, among other things. Although the curriculum cannot define attributes as an outcome of specific courses and experiences, the nature of liberal arts study should ideally cultivate these traits in students.

It’s difficult to package the nature of the liberal arts into a brief sound bite or slogan. As institutions continue to adapt to changing public attitudes toward higher education, it will be important to remember the contexts in which the term “liberal arts” appears. One can define the liberal arts from a variety of angles. When explaining the value of a liberal arts education, it will be important to be aware of how the term is used and received in conversation.

One response

  1. Thanks to Richard for sharing Carol Schneider’s “Liberal Education Takes a New Turn.” She also discusses common confusion over the terms for liberal education. Her five terms (Liberal Education, Liberal Arts, Liberal Arts Colleges, Artes Liberales, and General Education) correspond quite similarly to my five perspectives. What she refers to as liberal education correlates well with perspectives 5 and 4, which is the desired outcome of the experience. The Artes Liberales is my 1st perspective and General Education is my 2nd perspective. The main differences are the instructional methods I emphasize in perspective 3, although I would consider those paramount to liberal arts colleges which are designated by the high number of liberal arts disciplines they award degrees in.

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