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Definition: liberal arts from The Macquarie Dictionary

the course of instruction at a university, comprising the arts, natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Etymology: anglicisation of Latin art\xc4\x93s l\xc4\xabber\xc4\x81l\xc4\x93s arts of free men

Summary Article: Liberal Arts Education
From Sociology of Education: An A-to-Z Guide

Liberal arts education is an approach to education that focuses on providing a broad educational experience, as well as the opportunity to conduct in-depth study on specific, student-generated topics of interest. Although the goals of liberal arts education vary, they generally revolve around students fostering and developing a strong sense of social responsibility, as well as critical thinking, and analytical and social skills that can be applied to real-world settings. Liberal arts education has a history of placing particular emphasis on knowledge as a process, rather than a product. Liberal arts education continues to ponder and redefine its academic identity to meet the needs of modern-day contexts.

Liberal arts education has its roots in the classical period, which consisted of the trivium of deductive reasoning and the quadrivium of quantitative reasoning. The original seven liberal arts included: music, geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Medieval European universities added three philosophies to these original seven liberal arts, including: natural philosophy (empirical science), moral philosophy (human thought and behavior), and metaphysics (ontology). There are various definitions of what constitutes a liberal arts education, and this mere fact has caused discussion and controversy. Today, the primary commitments of liberal arts education seem to coalesce around an efficacious education, which is founded on an institutional ethos of coherence and integrity, strong student-student and faculty-student relationships, and an emphasis on a well-rounded education, rather than the acquisition of professional or vocational skills. In this way, advocates of liberal arts education suggest that it is the most appropriate and meaningful approach to learning for an ever-changing world. However, there is a surprising range of differences among liberal arts colleges.

Beginning in the 19th century, liberal arts colleges had a dual mission of disseminating culture and preparing for professional work. In 1828, Yale College developed the rationale for the importance of the liberal arts college. The goal of the college was to produce well-rounded intellectuals who were independent thinkers and self-starters with a clear life purpose. During this time, youth could learn occupations in noncollege environments. In fact, the earlier one began this training, the better. Until the end of the 19th century, the proportion of young people seeking a college education in the United States remained at about 2 percent. However, as the 20th century approached, so did the growth of industrial activity, and with that, a growing urban and cosmopolitan middle class. This marked a turn in the purpose and utility of a college education—the university became a location for training in a way that had not previously been the case. The university drew on German approaches, incorporating aspects such as seminars, lectures, experimentation, and research—with a particular emphasis and value on the doctoral degree as the ultimate production of knowledge. As newer professional fields arose, so did the need for credentials. The university also became a site for accessing social and cultural capital by way of personal connections and academic/intellectual assets.

Holistic Approach

Alongside the rise of the traditional university, liberal arts colleges also began to take hold of their missions by asserting that, while traditional universities prepared students for a profession, liberal arts colleges prepared students for life. Liberal arts colleges embraced the notion of a close student-teacher relationship and the importance of small size with regard to the campus and individual classrooms as sites for engaging discussions, assignments, and assessment in meaningful ways. Their holistic emphasis on the student gave liberal arts college a unique niche, valuing the intersection of academic, cocurricular, fellowship, and leadership experiences. Liberal arts in the 21rst century also mirrors the 20th century focus on intellectual and personal development, however, it has become increasingly inclusive and arguably necessary for all students to succeed in the global marketplace and as active, participatory citizens in the United States. The hope is that liberal arts is taught, engaged in, and practiced throughout all levels of education and across all fields.

In 1981, David Winter, David McClelland, and Abigail Stewart, three psychologists interest in understanding the impact of liberal arts education, listed the goals of liberal arts education: thinking critically or possessing broad analytical skill including differentiation and discrimination within a broad range of particular phenomena (especially within the history of Western culture), formation of abstract concepts, integration of abstract concepts with particular phenomena or concrete instances and making relevant judgments, evaluation of evidence and revision of abstract concepts and hypotheses, articulation and communication of abstract concepts, differentiation and discrimination of abstractions and identification of abstract concepts, and comprehension of the logics governing the relationships among abstract concepts. Other goals are learning how to learn; thinking independently; empathizing, recognizing one's own assumptions, and seeing all sides of an issue; exercising self-control for the sake of broader loyalties; showing self-assurance in leadership ability; demonstrating mature social and emotional judgment, and personal integration; holding equalitarian, liberal, pro-science, and antiauthoritarian values and beliefs; and participating in and enjoying cultural experience.

Curricular and environmental structures are supposed to facilitate the development, fostering, honing, and implementation of these goals. Generally, these structures include: a focus on intellectual arts, meaningful and frequent interaction with students and faculty, and curricular coherence that culminate in a final capstone project/experience. In sum, liberal arts education promotes conditions that are optimal for the kind of intellectual and psychosocial outcomes that are recognized as critical for a successful post-university life. The attributes that lead to these conditions are influenced by factors such as: high expectations and standards, emphasis on high academic engaged time, frequent assessment and prompt feedback, active student engagement, frequency of faculty contact in and out of class, collaborative learning, residential learning, individualized learning, and emphasis on active learning and connection to the institution during the first two years of college. These attributes are considered among the best of educational practices in undergraduate education. While many American universities claim to have liberal arts programs, colleges, or foci, the first thing that comes to mind when one refers to liberal arts in the United States is liberal arts colleges. It is important to highlight the distinction between liberal arts education and liberal arts colleges. Liberal arts education, in theory, can be implemented and practiced in any educational institution. Liberal arts colleges, however, refer to a particular kind of institution of higher education, primarily colleges, which focus on undergraduate education and liberal arts fields.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal arts colleges possess distinguishing features that set them apart from other types of higher education institutions. These features include: effective practices in student efficacy, full-time residential living, small institutional size, innovative and effective teaching, learning communities, living learning centers, first year seminars, a focus on first-year impact, and an integrated commitment to academic and personal development. Highly selective liberal arts colleges pride themselves on having a particularly high impact on students' openness to diversity and challenge, reflexive and writing skills, and growth in reading comprehension and critical thinking. Liberal arts colleges are found all over the world; however, Harvard was the first American university to hold the liberal arts college title. For the most part, these institutions were relatively small and religiously affiliated. Others have abandoned their religious tenets. Liberal arts colleges are distinctly different from research institutions because of size, curricula, and mission. Oftentimes, liberal arts colleges are residential, with a strong focus on close interaction between faculty and students, coupled with a strong focus on liberal arts disciplines. The Yale Report of 1828 called for a breadth of curriculum that would lay the foundation for good citizenry, rather than prepare students for a particular vocation or profession. Centered on Latin and Greek literature, the report endorsed a prescribed classical curriculum that purported to lay a foundation for all livelihoods, as opposed to preparing undergraduates for specific professional work. While the report's conclusions left minimal room for curricular flexibility, it steadfastly made the case for preparing well-rounded and well-educated students through a rigorous training of the mind, rather than a discreet set of skills to prepare for labor. This report has become a central document in support of liberal arts education. Since then, liberal arts colleges have adopted much more versatile curricula, however, with a similar goal of laying a general academic foundation for all students.

Among the better known, highly competitive liberal arts colleges are: Williams College, Amherst College, Swarthmore College, Pomona College, Middlebury College, Bowdoin College, Carleton College, Wellesley College, Claremont McKenna College, Haverford College, Davidson College, Washington and Lee College, Wesleyan University, Vassar College, Hamilton College, Harvey Mudd College, Grinnell College, Smith College, Bates College, Colby College, Colgate University, Oberlin College, and Bryn Mawr College.

Future of Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal arts colleges continue to decrease in numbers. In 1990, there were a total of 212 liberal arts colleges; by 2009, that number had dropped to 137. Many former liberal arts colleges have reshaped their mission to meet the seeming needs of the time, evolving into more complex institutions that have retreated from a sole liberal arts focus to one that also incorporates vocational/professional training across disciplines and, more specifically, in the physical sciences. Scholars and liberal arts college presidents alike agree that this trend is likely to continue. Liberal arts colleges are simply responding to the demands of society, including a pragmatic education that results in a steady, well-paid job within a pluralistic, global marketplace. Additionally, demographic shifts show that the growth of Hispanic and black students will grow considerably, and that this growing population of students will come largely from families in which neither parent has gone to college. As first generation, low-income students continue to grow, liberal arts colleges will face the challenge of finding students that can both be drawn to a liberal arts college and its offerings and pay the full price of attendance. The relevance of a liberal arts college curriculum is often a difficult sell for students and families that simply seek a college education to get a job. This had led many liberal arts colleges to invest in and focus on the professional relevance of the liberal arts college experience.

Liberal arts colleges have been shown to produce scholars at a higher rate than other types of postsecondary institutions. Additionally, liberal arts colleges are innovative spaces which, theoretically, more freely examine alternative teaching practices, creative student programming, and academic projects. Among these are honors programs, experiential learning, unique study abroad opportunities, civic engagement projects, senior theses, internships, first- and second-year seminars, and cocurricular cultural events. Scholars such as Frederick Rudolph, Ernest Pascarela, Alexander Astin, Shouping Hu, George Kuh, and Patrick Terenzini point to the absolute dedication that liberal arts colleges exemplify and the ways in which this dedication equate to a powerful learning environment. Students report higher satisfaction with liberal arts colleges than other types of educational institutions.

There is controversy, however, regarding liberal arts colleges. Specifically, liberal arts colleges are increasingly experiencing an identity and financial crisis. Liberal arts colleges, while founded on the idea of the love of learning, are facing a climate of limited job opportunities. So, potential consumers of liberal arts education have grown leery of the practicality of a liberal arts education. The criticism of liberal arts colleges often revolves around the applicability of breadth versus depth in technical training that might better translate to a high-paying, meaningful career. The question that arises regarding liberal arts colleges is, “What are liberal arts colleges exactly?” The decline in the number of liberal arts degrees during the past century has given liberal arts college pause, as this phenomenon has raised questions about the financial sustainability of liberal arts colleges, as well as the value of their missions. The liberal arts purport to prepare students to be better people in the world; the uncertainty in this assertion lies in demonstrating that this is actually the case. Defining what higher education should be, specifically for liberal arts colleges, is paramount to their survival.

See Also: College advising, College proximity, College transferring, Higher Education, School-to-Work Transitions.

Further Readings
  • Ferrall, Victor E. Liberal Arts at the Brink. Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA, 2011.
  • Gleason, Abbott. A Liberal Education. TidePool Press Cambridge, MA, 2010.
  • Koblik, Steven; Stephen Richards, Graubard. Distinctively American: The Residential Liberal Arts College. Transaction Publishers New Brunswick, NJ, 2000.
  • Pascarella, Ernest T. Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education: New Evidence on Impacts. Jossey-Bass San Francisco, 2005.
  • Winter, David G.; David C. McClelland; Abigail J. Stewart. A New Case for the Liberal Arts: Assessing Institutional Goals and Student Development. Jossey-Bass San Francisco, 1981.
  • Aurora Chang
    University of Wyoming
    © 2013 SAGE Publications, Inc

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