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Executive Summary: Defining Liberal Arts Education - page 2 / 14





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Operational Definition - 2

(3) Quantitative data will be a necessary component of our assessment of liberal arts education.

We raise this point here not to exclude qualitative research, which will play an essential role in our work, but because we believe that many advocates of liberal arts education will be strongly opposed to the use of quantitative methods in our studies. While it is appropriate to raise concerns about whether we can develop quantitative measures that are sufficiently rich to capture some of the claims for liberal arts education, we do not believe this concern leads to the conclusion that we should not try.

(4) It is important to differentiate between liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education.

The term “liberal arts college” is used to refer to a particular kind of institution in higher education. However, we will start by examining institutional practices, cultures, and settings, and work towards determining if these correspond with current institutional designations.

(5) We have to limit the claims for liberal arts education. It is much easier to think about, discuss, and ultimately promote the value of something that has sharp and distinguishing qualities.

Operational definition

In August 2002, we invited an elite group of educational researchers to discuss the current state of knowledge on the effectiveness of liberal arts education. Our participants argued that our understanding about the effects of liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education remains sketchy.

With that background, our first step is to develop, or at least make explicit, a theory of liberal arts education that we can use to guide our research. This provisional theory constitutes a first pass on the ends and means of liberal arts education, and 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.

In the paper, we will describe some of our initial thoughts on the theory and each of the components.

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