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Executive Summary: Defining Liberal Arts Education - page 3 / 14





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Operational Definition - 3

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. This will not be an historical review of the many different definitions and arguments about liberal arts education, the liberal arts, or liberal education. The conversation about the meaning of these terms is very long, often contentious, and marked by many thoughtful arguments — and it has generated little agreement. Moreover, it has been well documented by many thoughtful scholars, including Bruce Kimball1, W. A. Carnochan2, and George Allan3, to name just a few. We will, however, begin with a brief overview of why we believe a precise, empirically tested definition of liberal arts education is important.

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. Of course, if we review these goals individually, it turns out that there is considerable variation in what individual scholars consider to be “the best,” and at times, the claims come into conflict with one another. Glyer and Weeks4 summarize this nicely, stating:

Does liberal education foster independence or interdependence, look to the past or the future, develop national identity or global citizenship, promote unity or diversity, cultivate moral or intellectual virtue, address urgent social problems or timeless human dilemmas, help students understand the world or motivate them to change it, inculcate respect for eternal verities or nurture a spirit of skepticism, lead to personal introspection or promote social action? Is liberal education concerned with transmission of knowledge or with the advancement of knowledge? Is it elitist and aristocratic or egalitarian and democratic? Is it preparatory or an end in itself, an introduction to different disciplines or interdisciplinary, preparation for specialization or a counter balance to specialization?

The literature suggests liberal education does all of these things and more. (pg. x)

Furthermore, advocates of liberal education do not seem eager to remedy the situation. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has recently suggested in its Greater Expectations report that “…liberal education will need to change in two major ways from earlier incarnations. First, it must define itself as the best and most practical form of learning for a changing world and strive to meet that standard. Second, it needs to become available to all students ...” (emphasis added). 5

1 See Kimball, B. A. (1995). Orators & Philosophers. New York: College Entrance Examination Board, and Kimball, B. A. (1995). Toward pragmatic liberal education. In R. Orrill (Ed.), The condition of American liberal education. New York: College Entrance Examination Board. (pp. 3-122). Carnochan, W. B. (1993). The battleground of the curriculum. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Allan, G. (1997). Rethinking college education: University of Kansas. Glyer, D., & Weeks, D. L. (1998). Liberal education: Initiating the conversation. In D. Glyer & D. L. Weeks (Eds.), The liberal arts in higher education. New York: University Press of America, Inc. (pp. ix-xxix). Greater Expectations. A new vision for learning as a nation goes to college. National Panel Report. American Association of Colleges and Universities, Washington, DC. (pg. 25). 2 3 4 5

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