A LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION
Everyone has seen American movie scenes of a happy cohort of college students sitting cross-legged under a tree, notebooks on their laps, while a young professor wearing jeans lectures with great animation. This image is the emblem of the free-thinking liberal arts education. Apart from this canonical scene, however, what is a liberal arts education and what are the benefits of having one?
DEFINING LIBERAL ARTS
A liberal arts education is a broad-based education that emphasizes the attainment of knowledge across multiple fields and disciplines. A liberal arts college or university focuses on undergraduate education, small class sizes, and interaction between students and professors. The liberal arts school stands apart from vocational or professional schools where students specialize from the start of their studies.
The goal of a liberal arts education is to cultivate well-rounded students who have an informed understanding of the world. Liberal arts schools seek to teach students how to think critically, make connections across disciplines, and explore ideas. Students are taught both how to think broadly and also how to think deeply. This approach to education promotes adaptability, creativity, and flexibility in thought.
Most liberal arts colleges and universities place course requirements within their curriculum to ensure students gain this broad education. A school may have a “core curriculum” or “distribution requirements” that require students to take a certain number of courses within each of many disciplines. Students must study a variety of subjects, including languages, literature, social science, science, and multicultural topics.
In a liberal arts education, students are usually required to specialize – often called “major” or “concentrate” – in a subject during their last two years of their four year study. Learning how to think, research, and study a subject in depth is just as important as gaining breadth of understanding. Students will, therefore, take a prescribed number of courses within his/her specialization and many will specialize in two areas or have a major and a minor (mini specialization). Students, however, usually continue to take courses outside of their major field throughout all four years.
THE BENEFITS OF A LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION
The benefits of a liberal arts education are numerous. A student entering college at 17- or 18-years old likely does not know what s/he wants to “do” in life. A liberal arts approach allows students to explore and discover varied interests and talents, follow passions and curiosities, and change his/her mind. Even when a student chooses a specialization s/he is not committing to a single career path. College offers a time and space for intellectual play as well as gaining expertise.
These benefits are important lessons students take with them through life after college. While many students go on to a career or a profession that they stick with for a lifetime, many more will change careers several times. A broad academic background makes these career shifts possible, inventive, and often exciting. As well, in whatever field a person enters in this day and age, s/he is expected to think creatively, demonstrate well-honed analytical skills, and adapt quickly to the changing needs of his/her field.
A liberal arts education encourages students to explore their interests and shape exciting futures.