What is a Liberal Arts Education?
A cousin likes to blame my liberal beliefs on my liberal arts education. She’s wrong on two accounts: one, I went to a University and did not receive a liberal arts degree and two, I was a liberal before l even left high school.
So what exactly is a liberal arts education and why is it feared by some and revered by others? Why has a liberal arts education become something of a punching bag on the far right of American politics?
A liberal arts education tries to teach kids how to think, not what to think. This seems pretty straight forward to most, but it can be disturbing to people who believe that values must be taught, and society may be corrupted by “free thinkers” who question authority and disrespect traditional norms.
But that is not really a defining characteristic of liberal arts colleges in the United States, since most higher education institutions would also claim to teach kids to think for themselves. No, the differences are more in the way kids are taught, with liberal arts colleges being smaller and more focused on a general education emphasizing a wide range of subjects and skills, while large universities offer classes more focused on specific subject matter and solid preparation for professional work and specific graduate studies.
One major difference seems to be size. The big research universities have larger lecture classes, often taught by graduate students. Also because of their size, they offer a wider range of subjects and more facilities. For a student willing to research and seek out special teachers and sub-topics, a university can be a cornucopia of opportunity.
A liberal arts college will be more personal, often more able to guide students and nurture their general education through small classes with projects and discussion.
On a recent tour of an east coast liberal arts college this past Spring, our tour guide was proud to tell us she was the president of the Republican club and that she was planning to study tax law. That same college has it’s strong feminist history. So there is a wide range of politics in that one school.
My cousin is of the “Lord of the Flies” way of thinking, expecting that kids left without strict adult supervision are bound to fall into intellectual chaos and moral confusion. For some reason, that sounds “liberal” to her. But the fact is that liberal arts has become little more than a loose term for the humanities generally and for smaller colleges that focus on undergraduate studies, including the hard sciences.
My kids will be happy if they go to a university or a liberal arts college. They might even turn out to love tax law. Okay, that’s unlikely… but possible.