What is the Purpose of a Liberal Education? (Part 1)

One theme in the history of education has been the arbitrary distinction drawn between the liberal arts and career and technical education. In Ancient Greece, literacy, math, and music were school subjects, mainly taught to boys of middle class status and above. Physical labor, domestic work, and the trades were left for women, slaves, and peasants. In fact, anti-literacy laws prevented slaves from learning to read. (Such laws were also common in the United States before the Civil War.)

The Greek model of separating learning from work, as it were, continued through the Middle Ages. The first universities, dedicated to languages, logic, rhetoric, and scriptures, were designed to create scholars, lawyers, and theologians, what we call today, “the professional class.” Alternatively, the apprentice model was the primary route to a merchant’s life. The Scientific Revolution eventually forced an expansion of the university model, and science was added to the curriculum.

As late as the 1850’s, trades programs and liberal arts were still seen as mutually exclusive. In Idea of a University, John Henry Newman wrote of “two methods of Education; the end of one is to be philosophical, of the other to be mechanical.” Newman argued that a liberal education fostered a “cultivation of mind…worth seeking for its own sake.” Liberal Arts for the philosopher; trades programs and apprenticeships for the mechanic.

Finally, in the 20th century, educators began to see that all people, not just the elite, should be invited to participate in liberal arts education. In particular, John Dewey advocated for a well-rounded education that would teach vocational students to be independent thinkers and active participants in democracy.

Today, most two and four-year degrees combine liberal arts courses with content from specific programs of study. Liberal arts courses exist to provide broad knowledge and skills applicable to all fields. For four-year degrees, this usually results in a series of “general education” courses during the first three or four semesters, followed by courses from a specific major. This approach is affirmed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ definition of Liberal Education: “Today, a liberal education usually includes a general education curriculum that provides broad learning in multiple disciplines and ways of knowing, along with more in-depth study in a major.”

The same philosophy applies to any two-year degree that requires credits from the liberal arts curriculum (often drawn from communications, humanities, math, and science) alongside specific content from a program or trade. The basic idea, from a functional perspective, is that employers need workers who can go beyond a basic script. No matter your profession, good communication skills and critical thinking abilities will be called for.

Often referred to as “soft skills,” these qualities have long been prized by employers. A July 2018 survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities revealed that business executives and hiring managers prioritize oral communication, critical thinking/analytical reasoning, ethics, and collaboration; these are the kinds of outcomes that liberal arts departments declare for their programs and use as justification for their continued existence. The argument goes something like this: “We might not be cranking out as many English majors as we used to, but the economy values what we provide for students. Let us keep our English major and we’ll teach your Business students to think and communicate.” A good slogan might be, “Liberal Arts: Keeping the Masses Well-Rounded since 859 AD!”

This arrangement works just fine until, as a society, we need a liberal arts education to do something more than arm the workforce with soft skills. Certainly, we need problem-solvers, independent thinkers, and workers who can string a sentence together and deliver a PowerPoint presentation, but, today’s problems are more complex and require skills that are not merely “soft.” What is needed is a change in perception, a different way of viewing the external world and one’s self, and a creative capacity that cannot be acquired by a single three-credit course checked off a list during Sophomore year.

What we really need is the transformation of liberal education. Instead of serving as a finishing school designed to provide polish and balance to students who might otherwise enter the workforce with narrow skills and poor prospects of ascending into management, liberal arts education must address the true skills of the present and the future: systems thinking, synthesis, and metacognition.



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