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Executive Summary: Defining Liberal Arts Education - page 4 / 14

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Operational Definition - 4

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.” As we shall argue later in this paper, “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, and we understand that there is a history behind the term “liberal arts education” just as there is behind “liberal education.”

Empirical Approach

Our work to understand liberal arts education will follow the approach first taken in 1981 by three psychologists, Winter, McClelland, and Stewart, who also were interested in understanding the impact of liberal arts education.6 They, too, were aware of the “long conversation” and devoted the first chapter of their book, A new case for the liberal arts, to reviewing some of the more prominent arguments about the goals of liberal arts education. Included below are the goals they listed in their summary of that chapter: 7

  • 1)

    Thinking critically or possessing broad analytical skill

    • a)

      Differentiation and discrimination within a broad range of particular phenomena (especially within the history of Western culture)

    • b)

      Formation of abstract concepts

    • c)

      Integration of abstract concepts with particular phenomena or concrete instances; making relevant judgments

    • d)

      Evaluation of evidence and revision of abstract concepts and hypotheses, as appropriate

    • e)

      Articulation and communication of abstract concepts

    • f)

      Differentiation and discrimination of abstractions, identification of abstract concepts

    • g)

      Comprehension of the logics governing the relationships among abstract concepts

  • 2)

    Learning how to learn

  • 3)

    Thinking independently

  • 4)

    Empathizing, recognizing one’s own assumptions, and seeing all sides of an issue

  • 5)

    Exercising self-control for the sake of broader loyalties

  • 6)

    Showing self-assurance in leadership ability

  • 7)

    Demonstrating mature social and emotional judgment; personal integration

  • 8)

    Holding equalitarian, liberal, pro-science, and antiauthoritarian values and beliefs

  • 9)

    Participating in and enjoying cultural experience The contents of this table, now nearly 25 years old, only scratch the surface. After briefly

summarizing many of these goals in the first chapter of their book, Winter, McClelland, and Stewart concluded:

6 Winter, D. G., D. C. McClelland, et al. (1981). A new case for the liberal arts. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. Winter, McClelland, and Stewart. (pp. 12-13). 7

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