Defining the Liberal Arts

Excerpted and edited
from a presentation by Dr. Anne Bost, senior research fellow

Many of us claim, with good reason, that a liberal arts education is the defining experience for our students becoming productive citizens. But how good are we at defining the liberal arts?

Yes, we mean liberal arts—not that other, increasingly popular expression “liberal education,” which stands for so many things to so many people that it no longer poins to anything at all.

When we say “liberal arts,” we mean—well, there’s the problem.

Sometimes we mean a collection of disciplines.

Sometimes we mean a way of thinking, but getting to an agreement on what way of thinking that would be is beyond our ability.

Sometimes when we say “liberal arts” we mean any really good education. But good for what, at what, in what goes unanswered in the enthusiasm of our assertion.

Sometimes when we say “liberal arts” we mean a transforming experience on the way from youth to adulthood. But all of us know people in their late teen years who have been transformed in good and growing ways by a love affair, an illness, a chance to travel, a spiritual insight, a major achievement, or an unforeseen defeat. Sometimes when we try to define “liberal arts” in these ways we are taking the credit for mere serendipity.

There must be a better way.

At the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, we are developing a definition of “liberal arts” that has its roots in the history and philosophy of American liberal arts colleges, that we can test empirically, and that we will revise based on our empirical results. Our working definition has three necessary elements:

1. A tradition that values most of all the development of a set of intellectual arts, rather than professional or vocational skills;

2. A curriculum that in its overall effect gives coherence and integrity to each student’s learning;

3. An emphasis on student-student and student-faculty interactions in and out of the classroom.

We think that the key phrase in our first element, the development of a set of intellectual arts, is the true end of a liberal arts education. We think that our second and third elements are the ideal means to that end, though not the only means…