What’s in a Name? The Puzzle of the Liberal Arts

by Sophie Blumert

At the end of every interview in our national study of higher education, we ask the same question: “What does the phrase ‘liberal arts’ mean to you?” We find that many answers left much to be desired—students across diverse campuses have only the vaguest ideas about what the liberal arts are, or cannot define the term all at all. More striking, sometimes students who are in non-liberal arts tracks, such as undergraduate business or engineering programs, display a better understanding of the term than those in self-described programs in the liberal arts.

There is well over a century’s worth of literature about the nature and parameters of the liberal arts. In our study, we don’t search for a particular definition. Rather, in judging students’ understanding of the term, we look for ideas such as these as positive indicators of understanding:

  • Working within and across scholarly disciplines;
  • Spanning the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural/physical sciences;
  • Engendering communication skills in various media;
  • Inculcating critical, discriminatory, and analytical abilities;
  • Acknowledging the importance of different perspectives;
  • Tackling big questions, with an eye toward continuing to pursue them; and
  • Reflecting on ways to contribute to society as a citizen.

In contrast these indicators point to an insufficient understanding or a lack of understanding altogether:

  • Politically liberal (on the left);
  • Forms of art;
  • Lots of choices with little overarching structure (one can have a highly structured program in the liberal arts, or considerable choices in vocationally oriented programs);
  • English or other humanities courses;
  • Anything unrelated to science;
  • Courses with little utility; and
  • Stereotypes about the kinds of schools and people who attend them.

In coding students for their understanding of the concept of liberal arts, we began on occasion to notice a disconnect between two factors: what people associate with the concept of liberal arts, or their definition of the term, on the one hand; and what they actually hope to get out of college, on the other.

In categorizing the definitions that students offer, as well as determining whether or not they value the role of liberal arts in higher education, we found that students can be categorized in four broad groups. Within these groups, there is a wide range, or spectrum, of definitions and values that participants articulate.

Ability to Define LA Values LA Result
Yes (+) Yes (+) +/+
No (-) No (-) -/-
Yes (+) No (-) +/-
No (-) Yes (+) -/+

In what follows we present examples of each of these profiles, with a focus on those that feature a disconnection between definition and valuation.

Double Positive vs. Double Negative

These two types of students represent the extreme ends of the spectrum—those who are able to give the most complete definitions of liberal arts with a strong endorsement; and those who understand the term minimally and show little or no interest in it being a part of their education.

+/+ “Liberal arts institutions, or a liberal arts education, in my opinion, is one that seeks to sort of give students an interdisciplinary perspective. It seeks to draw connections between different areas of study and coursework. It wants to expose its students [to] different sorts of modes of learning but also topics of study… [A] liberal arts education really champion[s] being able to think critically and just sort of have a really open-minded and inquisitive approach to things. And one that values drawing connections between disciplines, and peoples, and environments.”

In the case of such students, who are scored as positive on both fronts, they often have chosen a school that can provide them with a liberal arts education. They do not need convincing—they are clear advocates.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are students who do not understand the liberal arts; this may well be why they do not value that form of education.

-/- “I don’t know. That’s kind of a blanket term at this point. It’s just for anything that isn’t math or science. It doesn’t really mean much… I’ve never really even considered it… But philosophy is that, and English is something different. I never cared, I’m sorry.”

Aside from not knowing the definition of liberal arts and admitting that he does not want to think much about it, this student assumes an indifferent tone—he seems apathetic toward any education that might stretch him academically or personally.

“I get the idea, but that’s not my thing.”

The above pairings are easily illustrated. More complex are those students who exist in between—they present a mixed picture.

The first example demonstrates an understanding of the term liberal arts (+), without an endorsement of its value (-).

+/- “…there’s more of a focus on arts and the humanities and maybe developing a perspective, on various topics. And understanding maybe how history affects [us]… [it’s a] more cultural context of what we’re doing… as opposed to an engineering school which is about… understanding the hard rules of the world as opposed to understanding sort of the human values…”

This student generally understands the liberal arts. But throughout the hour long interview, the student shows little enthusiasm for its distinctive features and values. Usually, such students are interested in a singular track to follow during college; they only want the practical skills that will help in their chosen field or profession and do not see the point of studying other disciplines. This same student describes her thought process behind choosing a major: “…as far as choices of things I could go to college for, I don’t think I had too many… [I could] do engineering, [I] could probably go into some like hard math… [I] could go into some sciences, [I] could become a doctor…. I don’t think that humanities was ever really an option…” This focus and narrowness is also reflected her attitudes towards general education requirements. At one point she suggests that, “…required classes [should] go away… I had to take bio and I really didn’t want to take bio and I don’t think I got anything out of the class.”

“I want a broad, diverse, and comprehensive education–is there a word for that?”

Conversely, a large proportion of students show a lack of understanding of the term liberal arts (-); but at the same time, in practice they endorse this form of education (+)—actively taking in and soaking up its features and opportunities.

Consider, in detail, one particular student. When asked to define the liberal arts, this student’s description is narrow and confusing, indicating a lack of understanding:

-/+ …It just kind of means English, literature…. I don’t think much of the word, except when I associate liberal arts I associate it with an English teacher or an English professor or literature.”

However, throughout the interview, this student articulates ways in which she appreciates different tenets of a liberal arts education. One way is through academic exploration: “I would recommend everyone to go to college because the education that you receive is so important that you’re not going to get anywhere else…. right now I’m taking Philosophy, and I feel like it has opened my mind into so many subjects.” Being exposed to a new area of academia also impacted her experience with classroom discussions and the importance of hearing different voices: “…when you open up the lecture to questions and you allow people to bring in their opinions or bring in their perspective on the lecture, I feel like that’s very important… that’s why I like philosophy because in philosophy, we actually have an opinion to say about each and every topic that arises in class.”

Additionally, this student explains how artistic, geographic, and historical perspectives yield a deeper understanding of her cultural identity: “…right now I’m taking tap dance… and not just tap dance itself, but African dance and how African dance became tap dance, and how they used the rhythm and their voices to actually make these beats, which were in tap dancing. So I feel like that was really important because as you begin to know yourself or know your history you begin to really develop as a person more as you know your history, and I feel like that’s very important to know where you’re coming from.”

Lastly, she articulates the value of being introduced to alternative perspectives and appreciating cultural differences. “…college is like traveling because you get to meet everyone who is around different places, who have different experiences, different backgrounds, and you get this information and you get to better yourself [with] knowledge. And next time you go, next time you speak, you don’t sound so ignorant towards a topic.”

Despite this student’s lackluster definition, the concepts and qualities of a liberal arts education are clearly embedded in her ideas—she just doesn’t have a label for them. 

Shifting the Spectrum

In an ideal world, we would hope to see more students that have two pluses (a clear definition and an endorsement), but most students seem to be uninformed or “in limbo.” Is this something we should just accept? Or is there a way to move the needle?

If we do want more students who fall in the +/+ range, and a school leader asked us for advice on how to achieve this, we have a few ideas.

  • Focus first on providing positive experiences in courses, and zeroing in on practices that exemplify the liberal arts at its best—explain what you are doing and why it’s important to make students aware of the kinds of benefits that can emerge short and long-term.
  • Next, devote a good amount of effort into distinguishing this type of education from others, and be clear about what it is not: focusing on a single discipline, vocations, little to no discussion or debate, etc.
  • Finally, actually use the term liberal arts and connect its definition to students’ goals for college. This association, done consistently, will hopefully convince students that they are getting a quality education that is directed towards lifelong learning and success beyond the first job.

A clear definition, in our minds, is less important than having the values, but if you already have one ‘+’ in either direction, we are in a good position to add another.

Sophie Blumert is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has worked as a researcher on this study of higher education for two years.

© 2018 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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