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.
In an essay posted to Inside Higher Education this morning, Peter Burian effectively turned a traditionalist argument into a refreshing voice of reason amidst current debates on the value of humanities fields. Many champions of the liberal arts, including myself, have emphasized the “transferable skills” argument of liberal arts study for career-oriented discourse of higher education. This approach has breathed new life into the content course and pushed students to grow beyond their comfort zone for a competitive edge in today’s global economy. And while this curriculum crashing is a necessity, Burian reminds us that professor crashing is indeed required.
Assessment, course evaluations, accreditation, retention, and graduation rates are all important to the best teachers. But in our quest to be good teachers, do we forget to show students why we’re inspired to be good teachers? Burian hit the nail on the head in shifting the conversation from relevance back to essence. Rather than defending the value of the humanities to external demands, professors ought to emphasize and explore the depths of what makes us human. One cannot face the complexities of a culturally diverse and complicated world fully without seeking what lies beneath the shallow commerce of information in the digital age. And this fulfillment is a privilege of humanistic study, not a goal.
While I applaud Burian for reiterating the timeless benefits of the humanities, I predict an uphill battle in trying to “reassert more passionately and more effectively the principles and practices that distinguish humanistic teaching and learning.” Perhaps the first step is to model these principles. Students should not perceive humanists as task masters for student performance, facilitators of “great works” surveys, and preachers of the liberal arts gospel. Rather, students should admire professors for their individual quests for knowledge, truth, and understanding and should awe at their deep and unique perspective on current realities. One cannot and should not teach what one is not passionate about. Passion will inspire more than words.
Six weeks ago my colleagues circulated a Newsweek article titled “The 13 Most Useless Majors, From Philosophy to Journalism.” While responses (mostly from faculty in humanities fields) jokingly sized up the respective disciplines, the timing could not have been more serious. Public scrutiny of higher education has escalated significantly the past few years due to rising tuition costs, high student debt, and dim job prospects. Students and their parents find the promises of a liberal arts education elusive and have shifted their focus to “useful” (i.e. job specific) degree programs.
Faculty of traditional liberal arts fields face many challenges as institutions of higher education adapt to this mindset. Idealism will not trump practicality in this climate as more tangible results for the financial transaction of college are expected. Campus initiatives to sell meaningful educational experiences rooted in the liberal arts will leave fields that operate in the silo behind. The same month Newsweek published its rankings, educational faculty, staff, and administrators convened at Lafayette College for a conference on the “Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and its Leadership Role in Education around the World” to discuss interdisciplinary strategies. Ignoring the reality of this reorganization of the curriculum may have significant consequences if one does not participate in the discussion.
These challenges also present tremendous opportunities. Faculty cannot sell the relevance of liberal arts fields because of any traditional ties to Europe’s earliest universities; therefore, we need to assume leadership in defining what liberal arts majors offer to twenty-first century concerns. Faculty in English, Philosophy, Music, and other fields called into question, should be the movers and shakers and model what we teach. Statements like “students will appreciate my course later in life,” “this is how I was taught,” and “this is the content set by the department chair” are the sign of complacency. The fact that students do not buy into these comments is a good thing.
I am guilty of designing and teaching my courses in the manner I was taught not too long ago, a survey of discipline content. Indeed I learned a lot from my professors and developed a lasting interest in the fields of music history and music theory. These experiences positively impacted my development. But I didn’t have Google, YouTube, Facebook, a cell phone, and wireless internet service. Receiving new information from my classes and the campus library was something special. Hyper-connectivity has killed the content-focused course–perhaps for the better–and proponents of “engaged learning” and new educational technology recognize this. I’ve explored these new approaches and am convinced that they offer an impactful experience when guided by the goals of a liberal arts education–the development of morals, character, and skills in critical thinking, communication, and persuasion. Discipline content should serve these goals rather than the other way around.
It’s time to crash the curriculum! The student question I used to dread, “why do we need to know this?”, is now my inspiration. There are a few considerations before barging in. For one, graduate schools, accreditation committees, and certification boards will expect students in my courses to cover the content and demonstrate competencies in several areas. Second, some of my courses meet college-wide degree requirements with clearly defined outcomes. Third, my excitement over new technology and engaged learning activities sometimes outpaces the time I have to troubleshoot and develop a successful delivery. Heeding these standards will keep me honest so that the quest for innovation does not distract from the goal of actual learning.
My hope is that active blogging will encourage me to undo old habits and take meaningful risks as higher education continues to evolve. I invite others to crash the curriculum with me. Let’s breathe new life into our immensely useful fields!