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Executive Summary: Defining Liberal Arts Education - page 8 / 14





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Operational Definition - 8

that some people who do not attend any kind of institution of higher education undergo similar transforming experiences. Developing an understanding of the nature of these transforming experiences without understanding how often these experiences occur in different educational contexts will not help us fully understand the differential impact of liberal arts education.

If we wish to test the transforming impact of liberal arts education, we need to understand both the nature of these experiences and how often they occur. Quantitative research is the best approach to understanding the “how often” or “how much” questions. In order to claim any special benefits of liberal arts education, we will have to provide evidence that such transformations are either more likely or greater in magnitude for students in some educational settings (and perhaps for some kinds of students) than others. This means that both quantitative and qualitative methods will be at the heart of our work.

(4) It is important to differentiate between liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education.

The term “liberal arts college” is used to refer to a particular kind of institution in higher education. Although the term has been used for many years, most higher education researchers use this term to refer to the Carnegie Classification of Baccalaureate CollegesLiberal Arts. According to Carnegie,15 “These institutions are primarily undergraduate colleges with major emphasis on baccalaureate programs. During the period studied, they awarded at least half of their baccalaureate degrees in liberal arts fields.” 16

Although the Carnegie classification system is a very useful system, we believe that, for our research at least, there are two potential problems with using it to designate a type of education. First, an institution’s Carnegie designation may not map well onto an institution’s educational goals and practices. For example, Harvey Mudd and St. John’s in Annapolis are both designated as Baccalaureate CollegesLiberal Arts by the Carnegie system. Yet, these are very different kinds of institutions with many different curricular goals and structures. Indeed, a quick examination of the range of institutions in Carnegie’s Baccalaureate CollegesLiberal Arts category reveals considerable variation in student selectivity, the number of different majors that are offered, expectations for on-campus living or service, the degree of breadth in the curriculum, etc. It is not clear yet whether these variations are associated with important distinctions in how and what students learn.

Second, it is also true that many institutions that are not in Carnegie’s Baccalaureate CollegesLiberal Arts category may have goals and curricular structures that are similar to those of many “traditional” liberal arts colleges within Carnegie’s Liberal Arts category. Two interesting examples are Gonzaga University (Masters Colleges and Universities I) and Columbia College (undergraduate college within Columbia University). Thus, the Carnegie classification system is not sufficiently precise for our work. Although there may turn out to be a strong relationship between an institution’s Carnegie designation and its educational practices, this remains to be empirically demonstrated.

Finally, it is worth noting that there is an implicit theory of the liberal arts embedded in the classification system that may not be one that we wish to follow. That theory is that there are “liberal arts” disciplines, and that students who complete a major in one of these disciplines have

15 16 http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/Classification/index.htm Liberal arts fields include English language and literature/letters; foreign languages and literatures; biological sciences/life sciences; mathematics; philosophy and religion; physical sciences; psychology; social sciences and history; visual and performing arts; area, ethnic, and cultural studies; liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities; and multi/interdisciplinary studies (as listed in the Classification of Instructional Programs).

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