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Published:

April 19, 2006
 
Tagged: President Emeritus

What are the Liberal Arts, anyway?

Speeches and Correspondence


 

By President Robert A. Scott


Garden City, NY, April 19, 2006

The most prestigious colleges are called “liberal arts” institutions. Many universities call themselves “liberal arts” institutions at the core. Many futurists agree that a liberal arts education is the best preparation for work, citizenship, and family life. They agree that training is about answers — how to — and that liberal education is about questions and imagination. In ancient times, the liberal arts were known as the trivium and quadrivium, the seven useful arts, including rhetoric, logic, and quantitative reasoning.

So, what is a “liberal” education? Is it a political leaning? Or is it an approach to life’s questions and professional challenges that continuously leads to new questions and understanding? I think of the liberal arts (and sciences) as liberating – – freeing us from the provincial origins of time, place, and a single culture. The goal of liberal education is to teach the ordinary student to become a cultured person and to appreciate other cultures; to develop in students the capacity to assess assumptions and understand the value-laden choices that await them as citizens, consumers, decision-makers, and arbiters of ethical alternatives; to inspire students to contemplate the meaning of life and the role of religion, politics, and economics; to help students develop in their capacity to build a civilization compatible with the aspirations of human beings and the limitations of the natural environment; to apply theory to practical problems.

Liberal education helps students gain the confidence to formulate ideas, take initiative, and solve problems; develop skills in language, learning, and leadership; and increase their abilities for reasoning in different modes. It helps students to appreciate the pursuits of pure science and the difference between science and technology. It helps them fulfill their responsibilities as a citizen in a nation of immigrants. More than any other form, the liberal arts help us understand nature, the world we meet; culture, the world we make; and ethics, the systems of thought by which we mediate between the two.

With liberal learning as I have defined it, students can improve in clear and graceful expression in written, oral, and visual communication; organizational ability; tolerance and flexibility; creativity; sensitivity to the concerns of others; and aesthetic values. Liberal study in this way prepares students to weigh competing arguments and distinguish between and among fact, faith, and fear as ways of knowing; it frees them and us from ignorance and apathy. Liberal education fosters imagination, which Albert Einstein said is even more important than knowledge— although I would add that knowledge of history, or context, is essential to imagination. Alfred North Whitehead said, “Imagination is not to be divorced from facts: It is a way of illuminating the facts.”A focus on imagination or “wonder” underscores the importance of the student and not just the canon.

Liberal learning is the best preparation for what author Daniel Pink calls the “Conceptual Age” — the time beyond the Information Age. To succeed in this age, he says, we “will have to develop…our right-brain creative aptitudes to supplement…our left-brain logical skills.Pink identifies six aptitudes needed: aesthetic design, story or narrative, symphony or synthesis, empathy, play, and meaning or purpose.These aptitudes, I submit, are perfectly aligned with the liberal arts.

To fulfill its potential, a liberal education must also involve experience, in internships, voluntarism, and study abroad. Only then can the useful elements of the liberal arts be realized to their fullest before graduation, by using what is learned in one setting to define and solve problems in another.

This emphasis on liberal education should not suggest a lessening of importance on professional education. Indeed, Adelphi began preparing teachers at the beginning — by building professional preparation on a firm foundation of liberal study. That same philosophy continued with the addition of nursing, social work, psychology, and business, and the expansion of graduate education.

The connections between liberal learning and professional preparation are revealed by the four key elements defining a profession: “an accepted body of knowledge, a system for certifying that individuals have mastered that body of knowledge before they are allowed to practice, commitment to the public good, and an enforceable code of ethics.”These elements are formed through liberal learning, as here defined, and the knowledge, skills, abilities, and values we gain from it.

Liberal education is fostered in institutions that serve as curator of the past, creator of the new, and critic of the status quo. Therefore, it is both liberating and conservative. It is about freedom but not of necessity about politics. It is the most useful foundation for continued growth as an individual.


 

Footnotes

Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, p. 441.

Bennis, Warren G. and James O’Toole. “How Business Schools Lost Their Way.” “Harvard Business Review,” May 2005; p. 102.

Cornish, Edward. Finding Success in the “Conceptual Age,” a review of A Whole New Mind, by Daniel H. Pink. TheFuturist, September-October 2005, p. 47.

Cornish, op.cit.

Bennis and O’Toole, op.cit.

 
Tagged: President Emeritus