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Executive Summary: Defining Liberal Arts Education - page 7 / 14

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Operational Definition - 7

Implications of adopting an empirical approach We believe that adopting an empirical approach will shape our work in the following ways

(1) Our definition of liberal arts education will have to be falsifiable.

Essentially, this means that we will have to state our ideas about the goals of liberal arts education, and mechanisms that may help us achieve those goals, in a manner so that empirical data can support or contradict them. Another way of stating this is that at every step in our research, we should be able to describe the empirical finding that would “wound,” perhaps mortally, our theory. While this is a fairly basic requirement for empirical research, it will be particularly important in researching liberal arts education because the claims for this form of education are often so broad and abstract, that, if we are not careful, our enthusiasm for a theory will allow us to “render consistent” almost any finding. We must be sure to put our cherished ideas about liberal arts education at risk.

(2) Our definition, and our theories, will develop over time as we learn from our research.

Once again, the difficulty that we face is that arguments about the aims of liberal arts education are so numerous and wide-ranging that our initial attempts to come up with a definition will inevitably fall short. Nonetheless, we will follow the words of advice from a member of our advisory board to “not let the best get in the way of the better.” This means that we will begin with a simple and necessarily imperfect definition and work from there. Our process will be recursive. We will

  • 1.

    identify goals of liberal arts education,

  • 2.

    hypothesize the means by which those goals may be attained and what outcomes

would constitute achievement of the goals,

  • 3.

    use a diverse set of empirical methodologies to test those hypotheses,

  • 4.

    consider how we should alter our definition in light of our findings, and

  • 5.

    begin the cycle of testing again.

In essence, we will “reduce the problem to little solvable bits and attack them serially.”14 At the same time, we also will work with more open-ended, exploratory approaches to develop our understanding of other goals that might be included in our definition of liberal arts education.

(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.

When we’ve gathered groups of educators from liberal arts colleges together and asked them to describe their views on the effects of liberal arts education, they often talk about how it transforms students. While these claims are certainly true (and ignoring for the moment whether all kinds of transformations further liberal arts education), they also are true for students who attend institutions that do not emphasize liberal arts education. Indeed, it is surely also the case

14 This is a quote describing the scientific method from page 25 of Tim Radford’s article, “Metaphors and Dreams,” (2003) from The Scientist, 17, 24-26.

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