Redefining Liberal Arts

May 24, 2013 § 1 Comment

Artes Liberales

Artes Liberales

One of the key themes that emerged from last month’s NITLE Summit and Symposium was the need to take control of the conversation about higher education and specifically about liberal education.  In part this is a reaction,  I think, to the way MOOCs have dominated the conversation about higher education over the last year.  This morning, an article by Kevin Kiley in Inside Higher Ed, “Education in the Liberal Arts,” caught my eye because it pointed to the changing definition of liberal education, in particular a move towards a definition that will accomodate vocation while maintaining the values of liberal education. I’m happy to see this movement because liberal arts colleges risk being left out of the higher ed conversation if they don’t acknowledge and engage with the demand that higher education should  prepare students for post-college employment.

Those inside the community of liberal arts colleges won’t be surprised by this story both because many liberal arts colleges already include professional and graduate programs and definitions that accomodate those programs have long existed.  By some narrow definitions, however, that means such colleges no longer count as liberal arts colleges. Citing an article co-authored by  Vicki Baker of Albion College, Kiley explains

“In an article published in September, Baker and her co-authors revisited a 1990 study by David Breneman that found that only 212 institutions met his criteria for being considered “liberal arts colleges.” To meet the criteria, institutions had to award the majority or a significant minority of their undergraduate degrees in traditional arts and sciences disciplines and not award many graduate degrees.” (Read more in Inside Higher Ed:

Baker goes on to question whether the definition of liberal arts colleges is becoming muddied. I would argue that it already has been and hope instead that a new definition of liberal arts colleges is now emerging from the murk.

Defining Liberal Education in 2006

Back in 2006 NITLE’s then executive director, Jo Ellen Parker unpacked the varied definitions of liberal arts/liberal education in an article titled, “What’s So ‘Liberal’ About Higher Ed?” (Academic Commons (June 10, 2006). She lays out four common definitions that I have found useful to keep in mind when thinking about liberal arts colleges and what motivates their mission:

  • Small, residential, private, bachelors granting college
  • The study of the liberal arts and sciences
  • Preparation & skills for democratic citizenship
  • Pedagogical methodology & practices

Those last two definitions match with the type of liberal education advocated for by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) for which Baker wrote her article.  They have long used a more accommodating definition of liberal education, one that is not linked to institutional type or discipline. For example, their LEAP Initiative (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) launched in 2005.  In fact, their push for integrative learning and the interdisciplinary programs  it prompts seems to directly oppose a narrow definition of liberal education as a study of specific disciplines.

Traditional Liberal Arts

Yet, that definition lives on.  Even as we live in a world which requires the networking of knowledge and cross disciplinary approaches to address wicked, complex problems (what I’ve called a globally networked world), we still see an insistence on maintaining traditional disciplinary approaches. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t want to abolish the disciplines.  I value the different perspective and methodologies they bring to solving problems, but I think they are richer and more effective in dialog with each other.  I think we can have room for disciplinary approaches AND interdisciplinary approaches. (See the blog Networks and the Liberal Arts by Tom Lombardi, Assistant Professor of Computing & Information Studies at Washington & Jefferson College for one approach at combining networks and liberal education by combining computer science and the humanities.)

In the more traditional definition, along with that rigorous insistence on the value of certain disciplines comes an insistence on their purity as non-professional.  For example, as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Southwestern University, I participate every year in an examination of the transcripts of prospective members to ensure that they haven’t taken too many vocational classes–education, music, accounting. One of my colleagues joked that if it might have some practical application, then we can’t count it.  Southwestern is a liberal arts college and we do count some business courses, for example, because they are taught with a liberal arts perspective.  This is the same argument that Colorado College is making for its education major, and I applaud this trend.  Let’s bring the perspective of liberal education to vocational majors and professional training.

We can have liberal arts colleges who train teachers, lawyers, engineers, etc.  Rather than opposing such professional training, liberal arts colleges can improve it by providing a liberal arts perspective that includes the traditional arts and sciences, high-touch pedagogy, and a mission of preparing democratic citizens. As the employers’ survey from AAC&U shows year after year, employers value these liberally educated graduates.  But, if we continue to maintain that liberal education can not be vocational–effectively removing liberal arts colleges from the current conversation about higher education–prospective students and their parents won’t believe that survey.

The narrow, non-vocational definition of liberal education harkens back to the origins of scholarship in the Greek σχολή or leisure; this is the idea that liberal education is the education of one who is free (liber in Latin). In practice that meant that liberal arts colleges were for the elite, but the GI bill changed that characteristic as more and more Americans (like my father) gained access to college.

Liberal Arts for the Twenty-First Century

Of course that dwindling number of traditional liberal arts colleges (130 by the count of Baker et al.) may still continue to survive by educating only the elite who don’t have to worry about future employment, but as higher education is pushed as a pathway to a better life through economic improvement, will traditional liberal arts colleges become the education of the 1% leaving the 99% to take MOOCs? I hope not because I believe in the value of a liberal education not just for jobs, but also for life and citizenship.  That is why it is essential that liberal arts colleges take control of this conversation and unite around a definition that demonstrates their value both for economic impact and for creating life-long learners, problem-solvers, and integrative thinkers.


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