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Executive Summary: Defining Liberal Arts Education - page 12 / 14





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Operational Definition - 12

emphases with a set of educational practices and environmental conditions. Hence, the fact that many small liberal arts colleges combine a host of effective and engaging teaching practices while avoiding an overemphasis on vocational education is not an accident. Rather, it stems from an underlying theory, which, for now, we will call “Liberal Arts Education.”

With that background, our first step is to develop, or at least make explicit, this theory so that we can use it to guide our research. Please keep in mind that this provisional theory constitutes a first pass on the ends and means of liberal arts education, and that it will become more sophisticated as our work proceeds.

Theory of Liberal Arts Education We’ll hypothesize three “factors” or conditions that must co-exist to support liberal arts education. They are:

  • 1.

    An institutional ethos and tradition that place a greater value on developing a set of intellectual arts than on developing professional or vocational skills.

  • 2.

    Curricular and environmental structures that work in combination to create coherence and integrity in students’ intellectual experiences.

  • 3.

    An institutional ethos and tradition that place a strong value on student-student and student-faculty interactions both in and out of the classroom.

This three-factor theory will serve as our starting point both for our discussions and our research. We will, of course, be developing our ideas on each of these components as our work proceeds. The following is a description of some of our initial thoughts on the theory and each of the components:

Connection between the first, second, and third factors

We think of the first factor as the specific end of liberal arts education, and the second and third factors as the means by which that end may be achieved. We do not believe that the second and third factors are the sole means by which the intellectual arts may be achieved. Just as an individual may learn how to be a carpenter without serving as a carpenter’s apprentice, people may gain the intellectual qualities that are identified by the first factor (and are described below) without attending a college or university which has the second and third factors, or even without any kind of formalized higher education whatsoever. However, we believe that just as the goal of being a carpenter’s apprentice is to become a skilled carpenter, the goal of pursuing a liberal arts education is to develop the intellectual arts. We also believe that the second and third components of our theory are especially suited to bringing about liberal arts education. Thus, our prediction would be that the student is more likely to develop the intellectual arts when the second and third factors are present.

Factor 1: Vocational arts versus the intellectual arts

An institutional ethos and tradition that place a greater value on developing a set of intellectual arts than on developing professional or vocational skills: The debate about the relative importance of the vocational and intellectual arts has been going on as long as the discussion about liberal arts education, so it is important to clarify our stance on this issue. First, we are not arguing that students should not have career goals nor view higher education as a means to a successful career. Furthermore, we are not arguing against the value or presence of pre-professional programs, or that the intellectual arts have no practical value. Instead, we are focusing on the orientation and goals of the institution, not the student. We are hypothesizing that students are

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