Why Liberal Arts and Sciences?: An Introduction

This brief introduction addresses something with which I have been engaged over many years- first as a student, then as professor, administrator, policy-maker and now advocate within the European Union. I know that the spectrum of attitudes about the liberal arts and sciences ranges from skepticism to curiosity to almost fanatic loyalty. I hope in laying out some of the characteristics that mostly closely describe the liberal arts and sciences in a programmatic way, we can come to identify both its strengths and perhaps some of its limitations in providing a productive undergraduate education for our 21st century students.

The term “liberal arts” is certainly not new to Europe. For centuries, beginning with its origins in the Greco-Roman tradition and its evolution through the medieval period and the Renaissance, it defined higher education through its organization around the seven liberal arts of the Trivium and the Quadrivium. Classical scholars meant to distinguish clearly the difference between “education” and “training”. That distinction remains an essential feature of the Liberal Arts and Sciences as we see them employed today. It is the habits of mind and modes of learning from the classical period that have lent themselves to the modern aims of a liberal arts education. The importance of critical thinking, life-long learning and assuming responsibility for one’s thoughts and their articulation remain among the pillars of the liberal arts.

It is the Bologna Process that has given recent impetus to liberal arts and sciences learning within the European community. Crucial to that impetus is the recommendation to divide the degree cycles into three units, Bachelor, Masters and Ph.D. Aimed primarily at increasing student mobility, institutions that have taken this division seriously have found it necessary to think carefully about exactly what constitutes an undergraduate or Bachelor degree, what are its objectives, what should students be expected to learn, how might they learn it best and how can it be accurately assessed. It is here that the liberal arts and sciences programs have inserted themselves as a meaningful alternative to more traditional undergraduate learning. 

In addition to Bologna, however, the rapidly changing landscape of the challenges of the 21st century also provide an entry point for LAS. The future demands a close examination of the nature of the education of those whose task it will be to address and resolve those issues. Climate change, genetic engineering, the consequences of globalization, the threat of pandemics, the allocation of diminishing natural resources are challenges that share a common severity. Yet their potential resolutions lend themselves precisely to the way liberal arts students are taught to address problems. While we may be confident that these questions will ultimately be settled, these are long-term challenges for which much of the knowledge necessary for their resolution has yet to be produced. A student who is not equipped to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, or who does not understand how the content of her or his major relates to other disciplines, who cannot approach problems critically or who is ill-equipped for collaboration, who cannot accurately and persuasively articulate a point of view or be willing to listen to the perspectives of others, will be ill-suited to contribute to problem-solving in meaningful ways. This is what is meant in LAS terms as giving priority to so-called soft skills, those cognitive competences that make up a student’s “education” as opposed to an adequate disciplinary training.

It is important to understand that there is no fixed template for establishing and implementing a program in the liberal arts and sciences. It defies rigid definitions because LAS is an ongoing process of education, a characteristic that often provokes its critics who would prefer a concrete definition. As implementation of the liberal arts and sciences is closely identified with the American university some of its critics contend that the American system responds to particular circumstances that may not apply in other parts of the world where history, culture and tradition have shaped different approaches to higher learning. Yet we do a disservice to LAS if we try to define it with a specific, non-transferable format for learning rather than to examine the variety of ways that its characteristics are or can be integrated into a vast variety of educational settings. There is no cultural bias that excludes good teaching, rigorous research , and efforts to assist students to realize their full intellectual and personal potential where there is a will to do so. That is exactly the case of the liberal arts and sciences-oriented programs that have emerged in Europe over the past 20 years and that are rapidly evolving toward a specifically European model – student-centered, interdisciplinary, issue and problem focused.

So, just what are the primary characteristics associated with liberal arts and sciences programs? Let me mention those that are commonly agreed upon both within the European and the American contexts:

  • Breadth and depth: Students are expected to develop a high level of intellectual and academic ability across the humanities, social sciences and physical sciences and understand how these fields inform each other. This is the basis for the emphasis on interdisciplinarity in the European context. At the same time they must acquire and be able to apply deep disciplinary knowledge in one or more areas of academic interest.

  • Learning outcomes should include a demonstrated commitment to developing cognitive skills including problem-solving, independent critical thought, the ability to work individually and collaboratively, the development oral and written communication skills.

  • An emphasis on fostering civic consciousness: Through curricular and co-curricular activities, students learn to engage the wider community through the application of their learning skills.

  • Student-centered learning that aims to engage students in the overall educational process.

The implementation of these strategies demands a particular kind of learning environment that is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of an LAS education. Curricular development, pedagogical strategies, student life inside and outside the classroom all evolve with the commitment to students as active participants in their education. LAS students are given choices to follow within the curriculum; they expect productive feedback from those who evaluate their work and they are given opportunities to provide feedback regarding curricular development and pedagogical strategies; they are given a voice in the classroom through guided discussion and presentations; they progress through their courses by means of frequent exercises in oral and written communication. In short, students are afforded the status of stakeholders in the process. The are able to claim a degree of ownership while assuming much of the responsibility for what and how they learn. While it is true that small class sizes and low student/faculty ratios are ideal for creating such an environment, there are any number of means to structure large classes in such a way as to implement these interactive strategies.

Two issues that challenge proponents of LAS include its ability to quantify its claims for producing positive outcomes in cognitive growth, and the apparent cost of student-centered learning. With regard to the first, clearly it is much easier to measure content knowledge than it is to assess gains in areas such as critical thinking, problem-solving or a capacity for life-long learning. Recent studies in the United States, however, have demonstrated that students within a liberal arts and sciences environment versus those at research universities, exposed to high levels of instructional clarity and organization and able to participate actively in their learning realize significant advantages in terms of cognitive skill mastery. With regard to cost small doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive especially when we consider the implications of the data now collected on retention, average length of time to complete studies, acceptance to Masters programs and, increasingly, direct access to the labor market, all of which favor liberal arts and sciences programs.

In sum, Bachelor level Liberal Arts and Science programs offer a viable approach toward learning that provides students with the skills and competences required for advanced study, for productive professional careers and for meaningful lives. They require a certain framework within which to implement core characteristics but that framework is flexible and relies as much on process as structure. Finally, it demands well-prepared, active teaching in order to realize the full measure of its objectives. Given the progress and successes achieved so far, it seems worthwhile to begin to identify where and how some of the elements of liberal arts and sciences we have described can be applied to Bachelor- level curricula more widely.

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