What the heck are the liberal arts?


The liberal arts are important, people say. I agree. Some of us scientists will point out that science is a part of the liberal arts. Okay, sure. But what do people mean when they say “the liberal arts?”

I’ve heard the phrase, “the value of a liberal arts education” so often, that the only thing it really means to me anymore is “the price tag of a small liberal arts college.” I think when the phrase is invoked by administrators of liberal arts colleges, it’s easy to imagine that it’s not about the actual education you receive at a liberal arts college, but instead the opportunities that are opened to you as a result of attending such an institution. Because small liberal arts colleges have no monopoly on the liberal arts.

Whenever someone says “the liberal arts,” I think it that means whatever they want it to mean, I guess? This seems to be the case to some extent according to the wikipedia page, which is by its nature a consensus document:
n modern times, liberal arts education is a term that can be interpreted in different ways. It can refer to academic subjects such as literature, philosophy, mathematics, and social and physical sciences,[3] or it can also refer to overall studies in a liberal arts degree program. For example, Harvard University offers a Bachelor of Arts degree, which covers the social and natural sciences as well as the humanities. For both interpretations, the term generally refers to matters not relating to the professional, vocational, or technical curriculum.

In contemporary parlance, maybe, when people say a “liberal arts education,” that merely means it’s not vocational training? Liberal arts seems to be about fundamental ideas and skills: writing, problem-solving, history, arts, scientific investigation, rhetoric, and stuff like that. For example, economics would be liberal arts, but a business degree would not be. A neuroscience degree would be liberal arts, but not a speech pathology degree.

The way I hear liberal arts colleges talk about the liberal arts sometimes, it’s as if other kinds of institutions aren’t in the liberal arts business. That’s either self-delusional or intentional obfuscation for the purposes of marketing. It just doesn’t add up. Other kinds of colleges teach “the liberal arts” darn plenty.

I went to a liberal arts college. I’ve taught at a couple liberal arts colleges. Most recently, I’ve been teaching at a regional state university, and have taught students in a couple other non-“liberal arts colleges” too. If you look at the curriculum of biology majors in universities like my own, or R1 institutions, it’s just not that different than biology majors at liberal arts colleges. Pretty much everybody has a core curriculum, or general education requirements, or whatever you want to call it. And those are in the liberal arts. Do “liberal arts colleges” have more required courses in what we’d call the liberal arts? I don’t think so, but of course, I’d be tickled if I was shown to be wrong.

Perhaps the conceit about the unique value of a “liberal arts education” delivered by small liberal arts colleges is not the curriculum, but how the curriculum is taught? With smaller class sizes, for sure, and there is definitely more institutional rhetoric about an integrative education. The marketing of a liberal arts education involves the high quality of the professors, close professional interactions with students, access to opportunities to do original scholarship, and an educational emphasis on fundamental skills and ideas. But you know what? My university isn’t a small liberal arts college, and those are priorities for us too. And I think that’s true for undergraduate programs in most US universities.

If it’s not the curriculum, then what makes small liberal art colleges different? Well, lectures don’t have several hundred students, and on residential campuses, students in dorms have an immersive experience. There probably is better instrumentation in teaching labs, and graduation within four years is more likely. Students seeking opportunities to do research might have more support and mentorship from faculty, and it might not be as hard to find a spot in a lab where the students are treated well. There probably are more upscale dining facilities, and more support for students when applying for fellowships, study abroad, grad school, and such. Some faculty might say there are higher “quality” students.

I think small liberal arts colleges offer a lot of benefits that are less accessible to students at other institutions. There’s a reason people are willing to pay so much money on tuition, after all. But I wouldn’t put “liberal arts education” as one of those unique benefits. Aside from technical campuses, a liberal arts education — whatever the heck that is — is the predominant emphasis of all kinds of universities in the US. At least, that’s what I think for the moment, unless I learn things that change my mind.

8 thoughts on “What the heck are the liberal arts?

  1. Like you, I have attended and taught at a variety of private, small liberal arts colleges (SLACs), regional comprehensives, and large state universities.

    One of the largest differences in practice that I’ve observed between SLACs and larger public universities is that the SLACs offer much more intensive writing instruction. Substantial writing assignments are given to students in a variety of classes, including upper-level undergrad STEM courses. At the public regional comprehensive I worked at, I was on the WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) committee and we stressed teaching writing across fields. But it just wasn’t possible to do as much in large classes of 100’s of students.

    I’ve observed that graduate students in EEB that attended SLACs come in with much stronger writing skills, and can generally produce high quality proposals and manuscripts much more readily than students that attended larger universities.

    The ideal situation for an undergraduate is likely a small liberal arts college that focuses on undergrad instruction, but that is nested within a much larger research university (e.g. your elite privates like Yale, Stanford, U. Chicago; also the most expensive and elitist!). A lot of public research universities have attempted to create this type of experience with residential honors colleges; taught a seminar many years for one of these associated with the regional comprehensive and it generally worked well for the students.

  2. I, too, attended a SLAC as an undergraduate. While science courses are of course an integral part of a liberal arts education (I studied science!), there are core curriculum requirements that each university requires that students take: typically, these consist of 5-10 courses in literature, art, philosophy/religion, history, science/deductive reasoning, sociology, languages, and world cultures, in addition to fulfilling requirements for the major/minor.

    I agree with JM’s comment above: writing-intensive courses are emphasized (and required), and students may earn “writing intensive” credit through upper-level science courses (classification of writing intensive is the professor’s discretion).

  3. “Liberal arts” got their name from the Latin artes liberales – the subjects that a free person should study (kind of an elitist and upsetting name for the concept). So, of course the sciences are just as important as the humanities. The definition today is fuzzy & I think the emphasis on the humanities in the liberal arts is a counterbalance to the weight generally given to math and science in many modern cultures. I have always understood the idea to be that you can’t study just one of the “liberal arts” and consider it a liberal arts degree – you should be learning something from as many of them as possible (at least in a general way). The primary difference that I’ve noted between the SLACs & large research universities I’m acquainted with is that while large research universities have some “gen ed” requirements they aren’t as extensive as those at a SLAC.

  4. To your point regarding the size of the core, I’ve been an instructor at a small regional public 4-year which required about 30 gen ed credits, and at a 2-year college arm of a mid-size Jesuit university, where the core is about 45 credits. N=2, for whatever that’s worth!

  5. I teach at an SLAC and have an undergrad degree in humanities from a big R1.

    This seems to be your key issue:
    “The way I hear liberal arts colleges talk about the liberal arts sometimes, it’s as if other kinds of institutions aren’t in the liberal arts business. That’s either self-delusional or intentional obfuscation for the purposes of marketing. It just doesn’t add up. Other kinds of colleges teach “the liberal arts” darn plenty.”

    So what gives SLACs the right to say they provide a “liberal arts education” when that is something that other institutions do too?

    Certainly to some extent it is an issue of branding – so “liberal arts education” is sort of shorthand for all the stuff that goes into making liberal arts colleges different from other sorts of institutions. But of course, since it is public domain, other institutions are free to market the liberal arts aspects of their programs as well – and some do, especially for “Honors College” type programs within larger universities mentioned above.

    But I think one of the main keys is a matter of institutional scale and focus. The S in SLAC is nearly unnecessary because most of them are small. And as someone who studies scaling, to me, size matters. But it is not just because of small class sizes and low student:faculty ratios (though those are important). It is also a matter of institutional focus. It is not that no other sorts of institutions provide a liberal arts education, it is that that is the focus of the institution as a whole. I can genuinely say that “liberal arts education” however vaguely that term is defined, is pretty much all my institution does. And in my experience, the smaller size of the institution gives the faculty a bit more of a sense of shared purpose in supporting that narrower goal.

    As you point out, faculty at lots of other institutions share many of these same priorities, but at the institutional level, for larger institutions these are a handful among many other priorities, especially if the institution has programs in nursing, education, business, continuing education, graduate programs, law and/or medical school, etc. At larger universities, a “liberal arts education” is certainly a priority; one among many. SLACs market the way they do because for them, it is the priority. That seems neither self-delusional nor obfuscating.

  6. I’m going to disagree with a couple of your points here, with the caveat this is a bit stream of consciousness because of the morning rush…

    1) If it’s not the curriculum, then what makes small liberal art colleges different? Well, lectures don’t have several hundred students,

    it IS the curriculum (at least in part). “Gen Ed Requirements” are not the same thing as the breadth and depth of a true “liberal arts education”. (NB: I agree with you that the term is too loosely used). By way of example, FIRST: Gen Ed requirements allow a menu of courses, with different levels based on one’s major (e.g., non-STEM majors can take “The Meat we Eat”, “The Age of Dinosaurs”, or “Wildlife Issues in a Changing World” to count as their Biological science requirement). Contrast that with the Liberal Arts School where I studied – at the time all the students took 1 year of calculus, and my friends who were lit or psych or mass communications majors took the same class as the bio majors (ahem…except for ecology majors who followed the departmental recommendation to take the calculus courses for engineers).

    Second, a Liberal Arts Education assumes a common core of knowledge all students should take. At my school all students in all majors took a 2 year Humanities course (straddling history, literature, the arts, philosophy, etc) that started with the Greeks and Romans and ended with Simone de Beauvoir and Freud. We can (and should) argue about the content of the canon, but the idea is that we should all have some common cultural knowledge. All our students, regardless of major, were also required to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language equivalent (by exam or through four quarters of courses) a fine arts class, social sciences, natural sciences.

    Finally, the Lib Arts emphasize deep knowledge outside of your area of study. I was required to minor in a non-contiguous area of study, so I was an Ecology,Behavior and Evolution major with a minor in Literature. It’s common to hear people say that “knowing the humanities makes you a better scientist” and vice-versa. It’s rare that people who study one actually study the other in depth (and for universities to enforce it with a requirement like this).

    This is different, and I can attest to the fact that it did make me a better scientists and (hopefully) a better citizen. But it’s also rare, even at schools that call themselves Liberal Arts Schools – on that point we agree.

    2) I’ve heard the phrase, “the value of a liberal arts education” so often, that the only thing it really means to me anymore is “the price tag of a small liberal arts college.”

    There are public schools, including larger ones, that emphasize a true liberal arts education without the price tag of an Amherst or Oberlin (to randomly pick two I think are awesome). These include places like The New College (Florida,) The Evergreen State College (WA), and my alma mater: Revelle College at UC San Diego.

    In fact, there is a Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, and you can see their list of members nationwide here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Public_Liberal_Arts_Colleges

  7. Thanks all for the comments. I don’t disagree with any of you, I don’t think, mostly. While the mission of SLACs are different, in my experience, a minority of the faculty clearly are not on board with the mission (and yes, this is a problem). And the small class sizes often mean more writing — which is perhaps what I think is the biggest operational difference. A quick literature search has come up empty with an academic comparison of the gen ed in non-SLACs vs. common core in SLACs.

    I’m thinking about this from the side of a consumer more and more now, as my kid enters high school next year, we’re thinking more tangibly about college. (And, in part, which institutions integrate well with the IB curriculum). And to me, the notion that SLACs provide a broader foundation for basic knowledge and such — that they do the liberal arts better — isn’t a big sell. Because I’m convinced that a lot of other universities have this emphasis too (as Emilio pointed out, one of the colleges at UCSD, which I almost went to myself by the way :). But what SLACs do is emphasize writing, and students get more feedback from faculty (because of student:faculty ratio) about effective work. Also, for better and for worse, they give an opportunity for students to learn how to decode communications associated with the social elite, which is a very practical skill.

  8. I certainly don’t speak from a wealth of experience. But I have attended both liberal arts and non liberal arts schools, and I did notice that there were differences in curriculum and attitude toward non-core classes. The liberal arts school had many more requirements to take classes outside of your field of study. In general (though there were exceptions), students were also more open to the value of studying topics that were outside of their area of expertise.

    That being said, the non liberal arts school still required that we take classes outside of our field of study, but the requirements were much smaller. Similarly, the students usually had less respect for other disciplines (again, with exceptions).

    The non liberal arts school most definitely did a great job training people in their discipline. Though, personally, I enjoyed the emphasis on a variety of subjects from the liberal arts school. Just my personal opinion. Interesting article!

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