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Executive Summary: Defining Liberal Arts Education - page 5 / 14





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Operational Definition - 5

While the case for liberal education in terms of these goals has never lacked rhetorical eloquence, it has not received substantial empirical support from the growing body of research on the effects of higher education. There are several reasons why. For one thing, the “guardians” of the liberal education tradition are not accustomed to thinking this kind of support is necessary. From the classical tradition, they have apparently inherited both an emphasis on the power of rhetoric and form and a distrust of the empirical method. If the justification of liberal education were not self-evident, therefore, it could surely be established by personal testimony and eloquent rhetorical appeals…rather than by systematic collection and evaluation of empirical evidence. Thus in the words and phrases already cited, the tone and styles of the celebrant override the proof of the scientist. No wonder Bird (1975, p.109)8 concludes, “The liberal arts are a religion, the established religion of the ruling class. The exalted language, the universalistic setting, the ultimate value, the inability to define, the appeal to personal witness…these are all familiar modes of religious discourse.” (pp. 13-14)

Bird’s conclusions are harsh, but they may contain an element of truth when it comes to raising questions about the claims made for liberal arts education. In an exuberant address to a graduating class at Pomona College, John Seery9 stated:

Ladies and gentleman, I am proud to say, the spirit of liberal arts is alive and well at Pomona College! It lives on. Believe it or not, there are skeptics even among us, doubting Thomases, who question the merits of liberal arts, who want proof…And so, I want you to evangelize, I want you to spread the word. If you can’t find passion and conviction about what went on here, you will never awaken to the rest of life. So hereby, starting today with you, I pronounce the next century to be the Pomona Century. You’ve got to make it happen. If you must, make Pomona College and liberal arts education into a religion. Let only the eager, thoughtful, and reverent leave here. This is a community of faith. (pp. 151- 152)

While there is certainly a place for religion and faith, this need not be the realm in which the value of liberal arts education is based. Without diminishing the enormous effort that has been poured into staking out claims for liberal arts education and the deep commitment of its proponents, we believe that the absence of an empirical component to this effort has directly contributed to the enormous range of goals that are attributed to liberal arts education. Stated simply, without empirical testing, there is no way to sort through the many claims about what liberal arts education can accomplish.

Winter, McClelland, and Stewart devoted the remainder of their book to describing their careful empirical study of three different institutionsa prestigious liberal arts college, a four-year state teacher’s college, and a two-year community college.10 Like Winter, McClelland, and Stewart, we will adopt an empirical approach in our work to understand the effects of liberal arts education. We will intend to follow, to an even greater extent, Winter, McClelland, and Stewart’s efforts to connect their empirical research to the thoughtful work that many

8 9 10 Bird, C. (1975). The case against college. New York: McKay. Seery, J. E. (2002). America goes to College. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. Winter, McClelland, and Stewart. (pg. 53).

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