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Executive Summary: Defining Liberal Arts Education - page 6 / 14

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Operational Definition - 6

philosophers, historians, and educators have brought to bear on the question “what is a liberal arts education?” History and philosophy will serve as our theorybut empirical research will be used to test and sort through these theories.

Furthermore, while we share Winter, McClelland, and Stewart’s commitment to empiricism, one of our aims is to expand the range and quality of the methodological tools that we will apply to this question. We will use both quantitative and qualitative research; our quantitative tools will be more extensive; and we will design studies which include a much wider range of institutions than Winter, McClelland, and Stewart could. Indeed, our challenge will be to bring together methods and ideas that often now are separated in education research by disciplinary and epistemological boundaries,11 in order to develop and test a definition that captures the richness of many of the philosophical claims for the liberal arts. In essence, we will be taking a pragmatic methodological approach in our research. William James12 described this approach best, stating, “No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.”

There will be those who dismiss our empirical approach to understanding liberal arts education because of its scientific bearing. From this perspective, science in general, and positivism in particular, will not allow us to understand the rich and subjective changes in our students that liberal arts education should create. Given the comments on the “liberal education as religion” that we cited at the beginning of this essay, Robert Wuthnow’s arguments in favor of the utility of a scientific study of religion are a fitting response to this view13:

Science teaches us the value of empirical rigor and the need for systematic investigation. The scientific method involves thinking of ways in which our cherished assumptions about the world may prove to be wrong. It involves the strategic use of rationality, not in the interest of doing away with all that is not rational (any more than the legal system is mean to replace literature and music), but to have reasons for conducting our research in one way rather than another. Science also involves the criterion of replicability, and that means candidly disclosing what we have done so others can track our mistakes.

Those aspects of science can be followed without claiming to be finding any universal laws of human behavior, and they can be employed in the study of religion without “explaining away” the topic of inquiry. The more scholars apply scientific methods to the study of human behavior, the more they have learned that human behavior is indeed contextual and contingent, and that its meanings must be examined from multiple perspectives (pg. B10)

11 Gage, N. L. (1989). The paradigm wars and their aftermath. A “historical” sketch of research on teaching since 1989. Educational Researcher, 18, 4-7. Firestone, W. A. (1987). Meaning in method: The rhetoric of quantitative and qualitative research. Educational Researcher, 16, 16-21.

12 We found this citation in Gage (1989). The quote is from James, W. (1975). Pragmatism and The meaning of truth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (pg. 32).

13 Wuthnow, R. (2003). Is there a place for ‘scientific’ studies of religion? The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 24, 2003, B10-B11.

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