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Operational Definition - 1

Executive Summary: Defining Liberal Arts Education

Charles Blaich, Anne Bost, Ed Chan, and Richard Lynch

In this short paper, we will outline both the rationale for and the implications of our approach to understanding liberal arts education.

Terminology: The First Hurdle

For many, the terms “liberal arts education” or “liberal education” encompass all of the very best pedagogies, goals, and accomplishments in higher education. Although striving for the “best” is certainly a laudable goal for liberal arts education, we propose that a more precise definition of liberal arts education is needed if the term is to distinguish a certain form of education, as opposed to referring to any education that is good or has good components.

As a first step towards clarifying our discussion, we will use “liberal arts education” rather than the more popular “liberal education.” We believe that “liberal education” points to so many different kinds of programs in higher education that, in our view at least, it points to nothing. We will take a different path and start with a small set of goals, and call the combined effect of these goals “liberal arts education.” This will differentiate our work from the many different, and interesting, projects that focus on a much broader set of educational objectives. This is a purely practical move apart from the histories behind both terms.

Empirical Approach

One of our aims in this project is to expand the range and quality of the methodological tools that we will apply to the question, “What is a liberal arts education?” We will use both quantitative and qualitative research to bring together ideas that now often are separated in education research by disciplinary and epistemological boundaries, in order to develop and test a definition that captures the richness of many of the philosophical claims for the liberal arts.

Implications of adopting an empirical approach We believe that adopting an empirical approach will shape our work in the following ways

  • (1)

    Our definition of liberal arts education will have to be falsifiable. We must be sure to put our cherished ideas about liberal arts education at risk.

  • (2)

    Our definition, and our theories, will develop over time as we learn from our research. This means that we will begin with a simple and necessarily imperfect definition and work

from there. We will

  • 1.

    identify goals of liberal arts education,

  • 2.

    hypothesize the means by which those goals may be attained and what outcomes

would constitute achievement of the goals,

  • 3.

    use a diverse set of empirical methodologies to test those hypotheses,

  • 4.

    consider how we should alter our definition in light of our findings, and

  • 5.

    begin the cycle of testing again.

At the same time, we also will work with more open-ended, exploratory approaches to develop our understanding of other goals that might be included in our definition of liberal arts education.

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