How does one define a liberal arts education?

books-300x196The term “liberal arts” comes up a lot when discussing the various approaches to education found at American colleges and universities, but what exactly is a liberal arts education? Michael S. Roth’s new book, “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” tries to define it.

Roth argues that two distinct liberal arts traditions can be observed in the history of American tertiary education:

The first is a philosophical tradition emphasizing preparation for inquiry; its aim is freeing the mind to investigate the truth about things physical, intellectual and spiritual. The second is a rhetorical tradition emphasizing initiation into a common culture through the study of canonical works; its aim is learning to participate in the culture, to appreciate its monuments and to create new monuments inspired by the old. Roth characterizes the philosophical thread as “skeptical” and the rhetorical thread as “reverential.”

In most cases, universities or colleges define a liberal arts education as some combination of these two strands, emphasizing one or the other, in an effort at “serving the needs of the ‘whole person’”.

Roth’s discussion of a liberal arts education does not end here though. He goes on to critique the two-fold American liberal arts education and the idea that it must “higher education must generate useful knowledge that can benefit society, or can increase the student’s financial and social status, or can advance business and economic interests”, showing how influential Americans have helped to form the country’s educational system. Individuals discussed include Thomas Jefferson, who “admired knowledge for its own sake but insisted that it also be useful to human progress”; Ralph Waldo Emerson, who believed that “education demanded cultivation of the self, resistance to the crowd and striving to transform society”; Booker T. Washington, who saw education as a means of “economic inclusion that might eventually lead to higher pursuits” for minorities such as the African-American community; W.E.B. Du Bois, who went further and asserted that education provided one with the ability to “help others attain their own freedom”; Jane Addams, who pursued education as a means to “cultivate empathy and cooperation”; and William James, who saw education in literature as a way to develop the imagination and “help overcome blindness to others’ points of view”.

Ultimately, Roth believes that education should go beyond the confines of university corridors towards the growth of the whole individual for the entirety of life. “Now more than ever, we need both reflective and pragmatic liberal education if we are to shape accelerating change rather than be shaped by it.”

The original article discussing Roth’s book can be found on The Washington Post. Another take on the same article can be found on The Daily Beast.

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