The Form of a Liberal Education


What does it mean to be engaged in a liberal arts education? I’ve been pondering this question much lately, primarily driven to ask by the sound bites that invade my daily life. On the one hand I hear the politicians in an election year talk about the need for jobs and more jobs in the modern day economy. Some governors even threaten to subtract tax-base subsidies directed to majors in the humanities. Those words trickle down to my own state of Arkansas where education generally is scant and poverty is obvious and the driving mantra is to get more skilled workers in our factories. Not long ago at a meeting in our state capitol I heard a story of the philosophy major turned to welding because Plato and Socrates just didn’t pay. The narrative was told with a pejorative tone and I reacted to this if only because I wondered whether it wasn’t such a good thing that someone with an arc weld and a face shield might have knowledge of aesthetics and the good life.

But the response from the other side is just as visceral. The Council for Independent Colleges has directed a significant campaign with Libby and Art, our cartoon character heroes, to tell us about the value of the liberal arts. In all honesty – and to engage in full truth-telling – I don’t need to be convinced. I am in full agreement with the pundits who fire back at our narrow minded job-focused rhetoric. The case for the liberal arts as foundational for innovation, creativity, analysis, and communication is both strong and worn out. The answer to job needs as being more grounded in flexible adaptation – “We don’t know what a job will look like in thirty years in our techno-based society! – rather than fixed technical skills is there before us in the social science research if one looks. Frankly it’s right in front of us if we have had any conversation with managers and talk to them about job skills needs. We don’t need more button-pushers in the knowledge economy; instead, we must have more thinkers generating that knowledge. 

As I’ve read through the pundits on all of this over the last few years, I’m not finding much of an original note. This is not to be critical as much as it is observant over positions that are well defined. But I would argue that my descriptions above don’t answer my original question, “What does it mean to be engaged in a liberal arts education?” Instead what is being argued are the outcomes of education and by extension the form it should take. Should it be skills-based or knowledge-based? Should it be fixed to some trade? Or should it involve the necessary development of broad skills? Again, that’s not my question as I am clearly on the side of the liberal arts.

Instead I am making the case for a new examination of liberal arts education. To be clear I am the product of that education and have managed this curriculum in my previous and current positions. But the form is tired, worn out, in need of rejuvenation. Let me explain my angst.

Most liberal arts education is filled with the a panoply of required courses often structured so that there is some general “core” of liberal arts courses coupled with the courses of the major. Those core courses are often clustered around a theme of skill (i.e., writing, analysis) or a theme of academic discipline (i.e., literature, lab science). A student might be required to take a specific course – Composition I for instance at my institution – or choose from a list of courses to fulfill a specific themed requirement (i.e., a “literature” requirement fulfilled by any number of courses across disciplines and departments that have fiction as the central text). This is familiar and comforting for administrators and faculty alike. We advise more easily and move students to graduation through a series of hurdles to be overcome. And yet we continue to use rhetoric that suggests students are being liberally educated in these courses as if the osmotic process of taking eight courses will somehow make students better citizens brimming with innovation and analytic skills. Shame on us.

And it’s no better with students. Students often see these courses as barriers and not developmental in any way no matter how we pitch it to them and their parents. Yes, try explaining to Suzie or Suzie’s parents why she needs to take a course in English literature before getting to the things she really wants to do. Moreover, there is some suggestion that the longer we delay students to major courses, the less students are likely to remain and persist to graduation. Students want that instant connection and gratification and it doesn’t happen often enough in required core courses. So how do students work within the structure? They take what is easiest, they take what their friends are taking, or they take what fits into their schedule after all the other preferences have taken up time slots. Shame on them? No, shame on us for allowing that and turning away from what really happens at course selection time.

The very truth of the matter is that we have designed these courses of study not with student development in mind but instead with a model that is easily voiced to an external world that tries to make sense of liberal arts colleges like my own. When the world asks who you are it’s a lot easier to fall back on what we do – Here are the courses you will take! – rather than the less well-defined outcomes of a liberal education.  

So what shall we mean by liberal education if we are to move beyond the traditional form? Perhaps we need first to fix the outcomes of a liberal education and then amend. I am influenced here by Michael Roth’s recent book “Beyond the University” on the meaning and value of liberal education wherein he talks about the necessity of the dual “threads” of critical inquiry and cultural citizenship. A liberal education teaches one how to learn and the crucial cultural forms upon which that learning is based. These are intertwined; we limit the great capacity of liberal education if we focus upon only one. Let me then add a bit of administration to the mix. How might we create liberal education as a series of opportunities rather than a continual set of hurdles to be jumped in the long race to graduation? 

My institution has wrestled with these questions over the last two years. Our challenges were compounded with significant issues of graduation and retention, some seemingly related to a traditional form of liberal arts core courses that obstructed student movement and in some cases pushed them away from the institution altogether. The moment arrived when we understood that what we had was no longer working. 

And so we began with the “clean slate”. We didn’t nibble around the required curriculum with minor changes to courses in the core program but instead began with no courses at all and a simple question, “How shall we educate so that graduates may live full lives?” It is crucial here to note that we didn’t talk about specific skills or job placement, nor did we land on specific knowledge in an academic discipline. Instead this notion of the “full life” encompasses both the “philosophical” and “rhetorical” disciplines of liberal education Roth mentions, to know how to learn and how to participate fully in our world. Weighty stuff indeed, but it allowed us a new lens with which to view the form of liberal education.

After months of conversation we arrived at a new general education concept as well as a four-year experience to frame a student’s education. First, we took away the notion of required first-year courses, instead allowing students to explore possibilities for study. Moreover, our first-year seminar became grounded in this concept of exploration; through that seminar, every first-year student had the opportunity to hear from almost half of our faculty about majors, minors, and how the discipline extended beyond graduation. Through a grant we are creating a second-year co-curricular experience focused on vocation and calling, not in the sense of job placement, but instead to assist students in understanding better their passions and their call from the world. The third year asks students to take those passions into the world in some “applied” experience; this could be a study abroad or away experience, an internship, a job shadowing, but the intent is for the student to connect the classroom to the world. And finally, we asked students in the final year to reflect and synthesize what has come before them both inside and outside the classroom. This pathway of Exploration-Vocation-Application-Reflection gives clarity and direction to living that full life.
Furthermore, in support of this framework we created a general education requirement that was not course or knowledge-based, but instead emphasized “ways of knowing” the world. The premise is that if we want students to know how to learn and to know some basis of critical cultural foundations, perhaps we should expose them to a deeper understanding of the typical modes of inquiry beyond the single course in English or history or biology; instead we wanted to emphasize key learning orientations. How does a scientist view the world? How does a humanist see things? How about a social scientist? In this we organized our majors and minors into three distinct areas – Humanities and Fine Arts, Social Sciences and Social Applications, Natural Sciences and Mathematics – and required students to take at least one major from the three areas; in addition, students would need to take a minor from the other two areas. In essence, the majors and minors could not be from the same area. A business major might then also have minors in art and mathematics. An English major might study sociology and biology. Might students miss out on some key date or some bit of knowledge we deem to be crucial? Perhaps. But in a world of Google where those things are at our fingertips, it is more important to know how to learn and ask questions rather than to know the answers.

Dr. Travis Feezell is Provost at the University of the Ozarks

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