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Executive Summary: Defining Liberal Arts Education - page 9 / 14





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Operational Definition - 9

received a “liberal arts education.” Our empirical research may eventually show that this is a reasonable idea, but it is not an assumption with which we wish to begin our work.

Carnegie’s institutional classification system is a very useful system for sorting schools based on student majors and degrees, and as we proceed with our research it may turn out to do a good job of identifying fundamental differences in the type of education that is pursued at different institutions. However, we will start by examining institutional practices, cultures, and settings, and work towards determining if these correspond with current institutional designations.

(5) We have to limit the claims for liberal arts education.

From an empirical standpoint, it is impractical to attempt to define, study, and create an operational definition that in some way subsumes all of the very best practices and goals in higher education. The task is simply too daunting. Instead, we shall begin by “taking small bites,” and examining a small number of goals for liberal arts education.

As we stated earlier, there are an enormous number of claims for the effects of liberal arts education. One unfortunate consequence of this fact is that the term no longer gives us the power to distinguish between those programs our faculty and our institutions should adopt and those we should avoid. As long as “liberal arts education” is synonymous with “good,” then anything that is of some benefit for our students will be seen as promoting liberal arts education.

Our sense is that one factor that drives the definition of liberal arts education to such expansive proportions is that many educators “trade on the label” of liberal arts education, and assert the benefit of a particular program by including it as a component of liberal arts education. In the short run, this may help the argument for why a program should be included at a particular institution. In the long run, as the label “liberal arts education” is fixed to an ever larger set of programs, the meaning of the term becomes so broad that it no longer points to anything specific and meaningful. 17

We hope our efforts to create a more narrow working definition of liberal arts education take us in a different direction. We suggest that there may be some academic programs, extra-curricular activities, living-unit structures, etc., that have a benefit for our students, but that are not part of liberal arts education. For example, a course that trains a student to learn how to repair computers may be good for a student, and good for society, but it doesn’t mean that it is part of liberal arts education. Taking this argument another step, an assertion that liberal arts education should not have a vocational focus is not a claim that vocational training is harmful. Indeed, it seems reasonable to assume that helping students acquire important job skills is beneficial for students. That does not mean, however, that it necessarily should be part of liberal arts education.

Another benefit of thinking about the limits of liberal arts education is that we may sharpen public discussion on its value. It is much easier to think about, discuss, and ultimately promote the value of something that has sharp and distinguishing qualities. On the other hand, if we take an expansive definition of liberal arts education, so that it includes all of the positive goals and ideals of higher education, we continue the practice of using “liberal arts education” as an academically prestigious “brand” that every institution wants to have, and can in fact have, without altering current educational practices.

17 Bruce Kimball used the phrase “trade on the label” on page 12 of his essay “Toward pragmatic liberal education.” In R. Orrill (Ed.), The condition of American liberal education. New York: College Entrance. (pp. 3-122).

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