The liberal arts are good for educated citizens, but are not enough to prepare them for the world.
By Robert A. Scott, President, Adelphi University
We in higher education keep hearing laments about the dangerous trend toward the “professionalization” of undergraduate education. Scholars and government officials call upon colleges to return to the purity of earlier days, when the liberal arts held sway.
As the graduate of a liberal arts program and president of a “liberal arts” university that prides itself on the infusion of the liberal arts throughout all courses of study, I have a sense of satisfaction with these urgent pleas.
I agree that the humanities are necessary, useful, and beautiful. But I must confess to a certain nagging feeling that the liberal arts, while necessary for the preparation of educated citizens, are not sufficient for a complete baccalaureate education. Advocates of pure liberal arts often ignore three factors that I consider essential:
• Study in the liberal arts can be just as profession-oriented as study in a professional field.
History, for example, is often described as one of the pure liberal arts that every educated person should study. It is said that studying history, philosophy, and literature is what the liberal arts are all about. Unfortunately, at many colleges, the courses offered to freshmen and sophomores as “liberal arts” are the same courses used as stepping stones toward the major, which is after all a form of a professional preparation.
Those who advocate the pure liberal arts should take a look at the elective courses offered in history, philosophy and other subjects to make certain that students are being introduced to the subject as a liberating experience and not only as preparation for graduate school.
• The skills and attributes associated with the liberal arts are almost all related to long-term intellectual and professional development.
Students, however, also need assistance in the transition to the first job or advanced study after graduation. Guidance about this transition will help ensure that students take a constructive next step and do not close off options for future career advancement. Liberal arts advocates often give too little attention to this need.
• The pure liberal arts are usually classroom-oriented and do not give adequate acknowledgement to out-of-class activities.
These other activities can include cooperative education, internships, involvement in extracurricular activities on and off campus, campus employment, and any other means for students to exercise their talents and apply their learning. A college is more than a group of classrooms, and students don’t simply lease seats in a history class. All the facilities should be marshaled for the development of sound educational programming for the liberal arts and beyond.
The liberal arts are good and necessary for all who aspire to become educated citizens. But these subjects alone are not sufficient to prepare citizens for a changing world.
© Robert A. Scott, 2007. An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Record, January 24, 1988.
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