My Turn: What are liberal arts anyway?

My Turn: What are liberal arts anyway?

By Dr. Robert A. Scott

In recent years, governors and other elected officials have criticized colleges and universities for advocating the liberal arts and sciences as basic to undergraduate education.

Instead, they have promoted job preparation, questioning the value of study in the humanities and social sciences. It is striking that some of these same politicians graduated from prestigious institutions known for their liberal arts orientation.

Many futurists argue that a liberal arts education is the best preparation for work, citizenship and family life.  They assert that training is about answers——how to——and that liberal education is about questions and imagination.  In ancient times, the liberal arts were known as the seven useful arts, including rhetoric, logic and quantitative reasoning, i.e., the arts of a free person.

So, what is a “liberal” education?  Is it a political leaning?  Or is it an approach to life’s questions and professional challenges that continuously leads to new questions and understanding?  I think of the liberal arts (and sciences) as liberating——freeing us from the provincial origins of time, place and culture.

The goal of liberal education is to teach the ordinary student to become a cultured person and to appreciate other cultures; to develop in students the capacity to assess assumptions and understand the value-laden choices that await them as citizens, consumers, decision-makers and arbiters of ethical alternatives; to inspire students to contemplate the meaning of life and the role of religion, politics, and economics; to help students develop in their capacity to build a civilization compatible with the aspirations of human beings and the limitations of the natural environment; to ask “What if?” and consider unintended consequences.

Liberal education helps students gain the confidence to formulate ideas, take initiative, and solve problems; develop skills in language, learning, and leadership; and increase their abilities for reasoning in different modes.  It helps students appreciate the pursuits of pure science and the difference between science and technology.  It helps them fulfill their responsibilities as a citizen in a nation of immigrants.  More than any other form, the liberal arts help us understand nature, the world we meet; culture, the world we make; and ethics, the systems of thought by which we mediate between the two.

With liberal learning, students can advance in clear and graceful expression in written, oral, and visual communication; organizational ability; tolerance and flexibility; creativity; sensitivity to the concerns of others; and aesthetic values.  Liberal learning prepares students to weigh competing arguments and distinguish between and among fact, faith, and fear as ways of knowing; it frees them and us from ignorance and apathy.  Liberal education fosters imagination, which Albert Einstein said, is even more important than knowledge.

To fulfill its potential, a liberal education must also involve experience in internships, voluntarism and study abroad.  Only then can the useful elements of the liberal arts be realized to their fullest, by using what is learned in one setting to define and solve problems in another.

This emphasis on liberal education should not suggest a lessening of importance for professional education.  Indeed, many liberal arts colleges began by preparing teachers— by building professional preparation on a firm foundation of liberal study.  That same philosophy continued in colleges and universities with the addition of engineering, nursing, social work, psychology, and business, and the expansion of graduate education. Many universities call themselves “liberal arts” at the core.

The connections between liberal learning and professional preparation are underscored by the four key elements defining a profession: “an accepted body of knowledge, a system for certifying that individuals have mastered that body of knowledge before they are allowed to practice, commitment to the public good, and an enforceable code of ethics.”  These elements are formed through liberal learning and the knowledge, skills, abilities, and values we gain from it.

It is common for college and university mission statements, i.e., their statements of purpose, to express a commitment to preparing students for both careers and citizenship. The vision statements cite the benefits of learning stories from literature and biographies from history, and the advancement of the imagination through the arts. It is up to university leaders, including the board of trustees, to monitor the effective alignment of mission and vision statements with goals, curricula requirements, uses of resources, and results in terms of student learning and graduation rates.

Liberal education is fostered in institutions that serve as curator of the past, creator of the new, and critic of the status quo.  Therefore, it is both liberating and conservative.  It is about freedom, but not necessarily about politics.  It is the most useful foundation for continued growth as an individual and as a member of a community.

Dr. Robert A. Scott is president emeritus of Adelphi University

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