Right out of the gate, this conversation runs the risk of conflating liberal arts education with liberal education. The latter is the more general term and the former might better be finished off with "curriculum" or "subjects" or "college" to indicate that what we mean is a particular portfolio of courses, or a list of disciplines, or an institution whose offerings are limited to these.

But what of "liberal education"? Attempts at definition abound — the suggested readings for this meeting contain a few. I think it's most on point, though, to define liberal education or liberal learning negatively: what do we not include under this banner?

Is there a consensus, for example, that the following would fall outside?

Narrow practical training as for pharmacy, occupational therapy, civil engineering, webpage design?

In the past it has often been assumed that a liberal arts education would necessarily be a liberal education.

False opposition: practical and career oriented vs. liberal arts and liberal learning

Anecdotal evidence that employers prefer to higher liberal arts graduates — those of us who sell liberal arts degrees have a moral obligation to verify that evidence both in particular and in the aggregate

We need to pay attention to the long term costs and benefits. To what degree do we necessitate graduate and professional training beyond the BA? At what cost? If we are already selling a more expensive product and if in most cases students will require more education, even if the long term expected return is positive, are the people in our market capable of that long term vision?

AAC&U LEAP: "disputes the idea that liberal education is achieved only through studies in the arts and sciences disciplines." and "challenges the conventional view that liberal education is, by definition, 'nonvocational'"1

So, there are two movements here: one is to take a "value" previously "owned" by LACs and expand it (imperiously, one might say). The other is to go in the opposite direction and chide LACs for defining their bailiwick in anti-practical terms.

But note that old bugaboo about employers preferring LA graduates.

Majoring in the 21st Century

We should not fall prey to capture by ideologies either right or left. We should define our mission anew — educating students for the century they will shape, live in, and grow old in. We will soon begin to educate students born in the 21st century.

We need to innovate beyond an educational system designed for the 20th century based on 19th century sensibilities.

What characteristics do people predict will mark this new era?

broader expectations of skill and knowledge than heretofore?
science/technology gap? like wealth gap,
world-wide interdependence — markets, politics, economics, resources,

changing jobs > generic skills?

All the literature I've seen suffers from constraint of expressing things in terms of "learning outcomes" before the thinking through is finished.

In fall 2006 ~925 Mills undergraduates signed up for approximately 4000 academic course units; five years later, 940 students signed up for about 4350 course units2. These numbers slightly overstate the average (4.3 and 4.6) because the course enrollments may include some graduate students.

The distribution among these courses in terms of broadly defined areas
Social/Cultural Sciences/Studies 41% 38%
Languages 4% 3%
Humanities 23% 18%
Science and Math 15% 23%
Creative Arts 17% 18%
100% 100%

In 2005 AAC&U published a report "Liberal Education Outcomes"3

This is part of a national agenda associated with the phrase "excellence for everyone" and "kinds of knowledge, skills, and values that are needed to prepare today’s students for an era of greater expectations in every sphere of life" (1).

This is a conversation that is situated in the middle of a number of concrete political/value/policy tugs-of-war.

Strange bedfellows: captains of industry, political leaders, higher education types.

The authors manage to group "educational outcomes" into three general categories: knowledge, skills, and character/values. In fact, they do not use the words character and values but they describe the category using the words "Individual and social responsibility, Civic responsibility and engagement, Ethical reasoning, Intercultural knowledge and actions, Propensity for lifelong learning."

The ACT National Curriculum Survey found, among other things, lots of misalignment between what post-secondary instructors (college professors) thought was important and should be being taught and what high school teachers felt was important to teach.4

Ehrlich et al. advocate for a similar breakdown: capacity for analytic and critical thinking, reading, and reasoning; capacity for seeking and developing multiple perspectives; disposition to deploy these for personal meaning and social commitments.

What do we do at Mills?

A classic text in the sociology of organizations5 the uniformity of the raw material and the rational analyzability of the procedures to which the raw materials are subject.

Current numbers — 8% of the schools and 4% of the students?

There are three potentially persuasive rationales for having liberal arts colleges as a part of the higher education mix.

Employers put a premium on liberal arts graduates

Employers do not put a premium on liberal arts graduates but the world is a better place if there are more of them.

General argument: best preparation for work, citizenship, and satisfying personal life. DJR: very dependent on a certain supply of work. It also assumes in many cases further education (and for most that means that it's more expensive).

Too often, conversations about liberal arts are backward looking. Some even say that liberal arts "offers students the past"6. We remember the education we received (!) at Columbia or the University of Chicago (perhaps of our dreams) and attribute our own goodness to that cause. By logical extension, we think, if more people had the same thing, the world would be a better place and those people would have better lives.

There are a number of fallacies embedded in that logic, but let me focus on just one misreading. IF the liberal arts education we think about was an excellent education, it was an excellent education for its time. The post-war great books curriculum, the pre-war classical curriculum, the 19th century British university that trained colonial administrators, or even the medieval arts liberalis, the virtue of each was that it fit with its times, more particular it fit with the times that followed — it well-prepared students for the world they moved into.

That's what we need today.

And, frankly, trying to come up with general categories that will please everyone is probably a bad approach.

Frequent conflation of "liberal arts" and "liberal education"7. Shoenberg notes "“Liberal education” may be pursued through any subject matter, but the term implies distinct purposes: breadth of awareness and appreciation, clarity and precision of thought and communication, critical analysis, honing of moral and ethical sensibilities."

Classic definition of liberal arts suggests it is the type of learning pursued by "free" individuals — but this has been turned around in terms of cause-effect to suggest that by studying these things you can become a "free" individual (djr)

Another definition: a set of fields — nonpractical?

DJR: Suggestion: Following : "Since 1961, there is a tradition at the University of Chicago to give an annual address to the incoming undergraduates on the Aims of Education." http://www.ditext.com/chrucky/aim.html
"The aim of liberal education is to create persons who have the ability and the disposition to try to reach agreements on matters of fact, theory, and actions through rational discussions."

DJR: Recognize the difference between empirical questions, theoretical questions, and moral/ethical questions and have the tools to deal with them.8

References and Resources



Nationally, about three quarters of students say most important factor in going to college is to get a good job9