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:
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.